Christopher Lee passed away on June 7, 2015 after hospitalization for respiratory problems and heart failure. The news of his passing was not made world-wide until June 11, only after his wife of 54 years was able to reach all family and friends with the news first.
Sir Christopher Lee once kindly said to an interviewer, “Please don’t describe me as a horror legend. I moved on from that.”
There aren’t many names as synonymous with horror as Lee. Karloff, Lugosi, Cushing, Chaney (Sr. and Jr.) come to mind quickly enough. Loree and Carradine must be considered, as well. But Lee was challenged with the unenviable task of not only making a name for himself in the film industry, but doing so by playing characters that had already been made world-famous by bigger named counterparts. Lee revived Karloff’s classic characters, Frankenstein’s monster and the Mummy, as well as a certain vampire made famous by Lugosi, while making them completely his own for England’s Hammer Studios. Lee went on to carve a legendary niche in the genre.
Lee’s films have made more money than any actor’s in history, with nearly $4.5 billion grossed. The man was an author, a heavy metal musician, a proudly decorated military man, a loyal husband and loving father, and a knight. He was also a heartfelt humanitarian, an advocate for UNICEF, PETA, and Cinema for Peace—an initiative that promotes humanity through film. Considering there are online memes that show off the laundry list of a resume that makes Christopher Lee the man even more iconic than Christopher Lee the film star, it seems awfully unfair to only highlight a specific aspect of the good man’s amazing ninety-three years on this mortal plane. While not the most important part of his resume, Sir Lee’s role in the history of horror films will forever shine brightest for millions of fans around the world.
Christopher Frank Carandini Lee was born in the Belgravia district of Westminster, London on May 27, 1922 to a Lieutenant Colonel of the 60th King’s Royal Rifle Corps and a mother described as an “Edwardian beauty” who had been depicted in both painting and sculpture as an adult. Before he turned ten, Lee had become kin to James Bond author Ian Fleming through marriage, was neighbors with silent film star Eric Maturin, and had met Prince Yusupov and Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, better known as the assassins of Grigori Rasputin. If that wasn’t enough, he also applied for a scholarship at Eton College, a prestigious all-boys boarding school, where his interview was conducted in the presence of iconic author M.R. James.
An illustrious military career stretched over 18 years, with Lee retiring in 1946 having earned the rank of flight lieutenant in the Royal Air Force. One of Lee’s most publicly applauded duties while in the RAF was when he was tasked with helping track down Nazi war criminals. Lee also was attached to the Special Operations Executive, a highly confidential branch of the Special Forces.
“We don’t always get the kind of work we want, but we always have a choice of whether to do it with good grace or not.”
Lee returned to London in 1946 and soon became interested in acting thanks to encouragement by his cousin. Originally deemed “much too tall to be an actor,” Lee (who stood 6’5”) toiled as an apprentice for nearly a decade. He only uttered a single line during his almost ten-year apprenticeship and years later lightheartedly noted that “when the time came, I was ready…oddly enough to play a character who said nothing,” as The Creature in The Curse of Frankenstein.
“Lon Chaney and Boris Karloff didn’t like the word ‘horror.’ They, like I, went for the French description: ‘the theatre of the fantastique.’”
In 1957, life changed for Lee, the film business, and horror fans alike when Hammer Studios cast him instantly as Frankenstein’s Monster for their interpretation of the Mary Shelley tale. Over the next three years, Lee immersed himself in the fake blood and spooks of the genre as he co-starred in Corridors of Blood with Boris Karloff before donning the legendary cape as Dracula in 1958. Lee went on to portray the eternal godfather of the night nine more times, most of them under the Hammer Studios umbrella. While Lee didn’t have the most cherished memories of playing Dracula after the original film, he made it clear he was always grateful to Hammer Studios for the opportunity they gave him. He became the eyes behind the cape for a whole new generation.
1959’s The Mummy saw Lee go silent again, this time as the menacing mummy who gives Karloff a legitimate run for his money as the best bandaged baddie in the horror canon. Many consider this version of the tale superior to the 1932 version. For those of you scoring at home, this concluded Lee’s incredible triple play of portraying three of the most famous horror characters of all time without so much as a paragraph of dialogue between them. Lee didn’t just play the parts, he was these monsters. Eyes full of rage and misunderstanding as the Creature, those same eyes bloodshot and wild, practically feral, as Dracula and finally brooding with an ancient hatred as the Mummy, Lee put a ferocity and passion into the roles that simply would never be duplicated.
For all of his memorable work as the ultimate creature of the night, it is Lee’s portrayal of Duc de Richleau in the 1968 classic The Devil Rides Out that may very well be the second best role of his horror career (my vote for his best overall performance will be mentioned shortly). The film is a beauty, both visually and conceptually, and Lee is about as far from the Count as creatively possible here. Lee is the good guy here, as a debonair expert of the occult who matches wits with the evil magician Mocata (Charles Gray). The role is much more than hissing and glaring into the camera and allowed Lee to really show off his acting chops, much to the delight of the cinema world.
In 1971, Lee played both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in the Amicus classic I, Monster. The film is widely considered one of the more entertaining film adaptations of the Robert Louise Stevenson short story and it gave Lee the chance to have some fun as both the curious Dr. Marlowe (aka Jekyll) and the off-kilter Mr. Blake (Hyde).
1973 introduced us to a character who simply is Christopher Lee’s. Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man showcased Lee as Lord Summerisle, arguably the most frightening religious fanatic in horror film history. Lee had mentioned more than once that this film was his favorite of the lot. By this point in Lee’s career, he was practically writing his own ticket throughout the celluloid landscape and he was eager to shake the stereotypes of his Dracula roles. Director Robin Hardy offered Lee his golden ticket when the duo got together to make a horror film focused on “old religion,” a social commentary that particularly intrigued Lee. The film is chilling, with many memorable moments, but none more unsettling than when Lord Summerisle becomes completely unhinged and the audience realizes that there really is something going on in this quaint little village.
Lee continued to play villains even outside of the genre, ranging from Francisco Scaramanga in 1974’s James Bond film The Man with the Golden Gun to Saruman in The Lord of the Rings trilogy and Count Dooku in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones and Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. That deep voice, those haunting eyes, and his towering frame were simply too good for casting directors to pass up.
Over the next forty years, Lee dabbled in the fantastique numerous times, most notably in the underrated Gremlins 2: A New Batch and pitching in to a number of Tim Burton projects. His return to the reinvigorated Hammer Studios in 2011’s The Resident was a wonderful nod to the legend by the revamped film studio.
“People sometimes come up to me, and they say, ‘I’ve seen all your films, Mr Lee,’ and I say, ‘Oh no you haven’t.’”
Christopher Lee starred in a whopping 278 films, if IMDB is to be trusted, in a career that spanned sixty-nine years. To put that into perspective, this total puts Lee above all others on the horror Mount Rushmore, easily eclipsing legends Boris Karloff (206 films), Vincent Price (198), Peter Cushing (132) and Bela Lugosi (115). Beginning as the abomination known as Frankenstein’s Monster in 1957’s The Curse of Frankenstein, Lee went on to become the new face of horror alongside close, personal friend Peter Cushing, who often played Lee’s adversary in the classic Hammer Horror Film canon. A tall, handsome and articulate Englishman, Lee oozed as much charisma and professionalism as he did blood capsules in his hey-day. A world-class gentleman through and through, do yourself a favor and check out these six classic films to see Lee and all of his kaleidoscopic talent.
6: Horror Hotel
I first saw this film only a few years ago and it is one of the only films that gives me the genuine creeps. Maybe it’s the storyline (a college student heads to a small village reputedly saturated in witchcraft lore and quickly learns that some things are better left un-researched), perhaps it is the fact that this is probably the foggiest film ever shot (fog is always creepy) but a lot of it goes to Lee’s performance as a college professor with a dark secret. This one can be found on most $5 Horror DVD collections and is well worth the sale price alone!
5: The Devil Rides Out
Grossly underrated for many reasons, this is a must-see for anyone who considers themselves a fan of cinema. The acting is spot on, especially by our good man Sir Lee, and it still holds up as one of the best Satanic-themed films ever created.
4: Horror Express
Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and Telly Savalas. If that doesn’t make you jump out of your seat and pick up this film (another regular on the bargain bin DVD collections), seeing Cushing and Lee actually playing acquaintances instead of rivals is a nice treat. This film has some legitimately scary moments.
3: Curse of Frankenstein
The horror film that started it all for Lee, it’s a take on the classic tale that we’ve seen time and time again, but not enough can be said for having classically trained actors in a horror film. Cushing and Lee begin their lifelong friendship with a bang.
2: The Wicker Man
Does religion scare you? Nah, why should it? Oh wait. There’s a giant wicker statue that is reportedly being used to sacrifice humans to the gods? Well, damn! Lee absolutely obliterates the role of Lord Summerisle and becomes the most terrifying religious fanatic in film history.
Too easy a choice not be number one, but it’s also too good a film not to be atop the list. Lee made Dracula his own, something much more primal than Lugosi’s and also much more sensual. A rousing achievement in horror.
“One day, I hope somebody will sum up my career thus: ‘He was different.’ That would satisfy me.”
As this look back on an incredible career comes to a close, I’d like to take some time to turn this into a subjective reflection. This became a very personal retrospective for me. This wasn’t just a famous face we lost. For me, this was a piece of my childhood and a man whom I respected deeply in the industry. Long since etched in my own personal Mount Rushmore of Horror, Lee personifies the saying, “They don’t make them like they used to.” He was a consummate professional and as hard-working as they came. He lived for the thrill of the performance and held himself to the highest standards, seemingly both on-screen and off.
Cinema has an incredible power to allow oneself to escape reality and I cherish memories of watching the Hammer classics as a child during severe thunderstorms and on gloomy Saturday afternoons, with the likes of Cushing and Lee duking it out on the screen. They made a Midwestern kid forget about the tornado warnings that scared him to death or the emotional stress of a shaky parental marriage. They were fantastic, they were crazy. They were magical.
And there weren’t many others more magical than Sir Christopher Lee. The man who hunted Nazis in real life and went neck-and-neck with Van Helsing onscreen was the personification of class and cool, the embodiment of everything special about an era in cinema long gone.
Christopher Lee was knighted, fittingly, right around Halloween 2009 for his contributions to drama and charity work. A prestigious honor like that just goes to show how indelible Lee’s career has been. His wish to be remembered as “different” seems too thin a compliment to give a man who gave so much to his craft and his passions. He was many things in life, and different was certainly one of them, but more importantly Lee transcended genres and stereotypes and he did it with a grace that will forever go unmatched. He was the last of a magnificent lineage to pass on and he, like all the rest, will never be forgotten. Rest well, Sir Lee. You will be sincerely missed.
 Lee had said he was “emotionally blackmailed” by Hammer Horror to continue with Dracula sequels when President Jimmy Carreras would call Lee and say, “Think of all the people you know so well, that you will put out of work!” if he didn’t accept the fanged role. Lee also had made it very well-known how frustrated he was at the waif-like depth of the Count, stating that he often refused to read the lines given to him because they were too ridiculous.