Sir Christopher Lee, the iconic British actor whose career spanned nearly seven decades of genre films, has died. Lee died this past Sunday, June 7, at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital in London, the Guardian confirmed and reported today. The actor’s wife of 50 years, Birgit Kroencke, withheld the new of his passing until family members could be notified. He was 93.
To a current generation of filmmakers, Lee was the stentorian-voiced villain Saurman in director Peter Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit trilogies of films as well as the Sith Lord Count Dooku in the Star Wars prequels Episode II: Attack Of The Clones and Episode III: Rise Of The Sith. But his career stretched much further back, all the way to a breakthrough role in Hammer Studio’s 1957 film The Curse Of Frankenstein. At six foot, five inches tall, Lee made for an imposing Frankenstein’s Creature, but the role did not allow him much opportunity to use his memorable voice. His next big role, as the titular vampire in Terence Fisher’s Dracula would allow him to fully demonstrate his charismatic screen presence. It was also the first of a number times that Lee would play the villain.
Another screen villain that became linked with Lee was that of pulp novelist Sax Rohmer’s fiendish Dr. Fu Manchu, a character whome Lee portrayed five times, starting with 1965’s The Face Of Fu Manchu. He has also played two members of the Holmes family – the more famous Sherlock in 1962’s Sherlock Holmes And The Deadly Necklace and Sherlock’s brother Mycroft in Billy Wilder’s 1970 film The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes. Another well remembered Lee role, and one he was particularly fond and proud of, was that of the hedonistic pagan cult leader in 1973’s The Wicker Man.
Like many a British actor, Lee appeared in a James Bond film, specifically 1974‘s The Man With The Golden Gun playing the titular villain Scaramanga. Unlike other actors who have appeared in the franchise, Lee was a distant relative to James Bond creator Ian Fleming by his mother’s second marriage. He was also the only member of the Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit casts who had actually met J R R Tolkien, the author of the books upon which the films were based.
Other villainous roles include that of Rasputian, The Mad Monk (1966), the assassin Rochefort in 1974’s The Three Musketeers, a Nazi officer in Steven Spielberg’s infamous misfire 1941 (1979). He could also essay more genteel characters in films such as Jinnah (1998) and the western Hannie Caulder (1971). Director Tim Burton was a fan of the actor, and when he could had lee appear in a number of his films including Sleepy Hollow, Corpse Bride, Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, Alice In Wonderland and Dark Shadows.
Lee was born Christopher Frank Carandini Lee on May 27, 1922, in London, England to Geoffrey Lee, was a professional soldier, and the Contessa Estelle Marie Carandini di Sarzano. After a stint in the Royal Air Force and Special Forces from 1941 to 1946 he joined the Rank Organizations acting school. Within a year he was appearing in a small role in his first film, Corridor Of Mirrors (1948).
I had the pleasure of seeing Lee speak in person. It was April 2002 and Lord Of The Rings director Peter Jackson, co-screenwriter Fran Walsh, composer Howard Shore and Lee were doing an appearance at a Barnes and Noble in New York City. Through the question and answer session, Lee went back and forth between expressing a sense of humor and providing thoughtful answers to questions about the numerous roles he had become known for over the years. He was definitely the star of the evening and as I look back on it now, I realize how lucky I was to have been there. Genre fans and the acting profession in general lost a great one here, but his work will not be forgotten soon.