Today, Christopher Lee is recognized as an actor of exceptional range and talent, and despite his rare appearances recently in horror and fantasy films, it is indicative of the man’s immense popularity that his fans have remained loyal to him. But having said that, it would still be impossible to ignore the impact the film fantasy world has had on his career. An impact that has had people calling him the ‘man of a thousand faces’, and the ‘crown prince of terror’.
It was 1956 when Lee, who had for some years been struggling along as a bit-part actor, made his first venture into horror movies. He heard that Hammer wanted someone to play the part of the monster in their new film Curse of Frankenstein. Lee was determined to get the role, as he explains: “I went along and actually convinced them that I would make a suitable creature. It didn’t worry me that they might make me totally unrecognizable, because I wasn’t getting anywhere looking like myself.”
Lee did manage to convince the men at Hammer, but still insists that he got the part mainly because of his size. However, the result was the biggest grossing film in the history of the British cinema in relation to cost. It was the first major step in Lee’s career, and it was to lead to even bigger strides.
A career as a leading master of the macabre must have seemed completely inconceivable for Lee when one considers his background. Born on May 27, 1922 in London, he was educated at Wellington College where he distinguished himself in the classics. At the outbreak of war, he trained as a fighter pilot with the Royal Air Force, based in South Africa and Rhodesia before being transferred to the Intelligence Service and Special Operations. On leaving the forces, he decided to follow his long-time ambition to become an actor. His reason for this is as simple and as direct as the man himself. He says: “I suppose it was just the urge to create people that weren’t me, and because it was the thing I felt I could do better than anything else.”
But despite his obvious enthusiasm and confidence, at first things didn’t work out the way he hoped. Like every budding superstar, he went from studio to studio, director to director, unfortunately without much encouragement. One executive even went as far as to tell him: “You’ll never be a film actor, your height is against you. Why do agents waste my time sending me people like you?”
If Lee had been over-sensitive, he’d have dropped any notions of becoming an actor there and then. But he was determined to be one hand no adverse criticism from ‘executives’ was going to dampen his spirits.
His first break came when a cousin, Count Nicolò Carandini, Italy’s post-war ambassador to Britain, introduced him to Filipo del Giudice of Two Cities Films. Within three weeks of the interview, Christopher was given a one line part in Corridors of Mirrors. From then on, the roles couldn’t help but get bigger and better. Hamlet, Scott of the Antarctic, They Were Not Divided, Captain Horatio Hornblower R.N., The Crimson Pirate, Moulin Rouge, Port Afrique, Battle of the V.1 and A Tale of Two Cities—Lee had parts in them all. But still the really big break eluded him.
Then, incredibly it came—but as a rambling, mindless monster he was launched to movie stardom. That was, as we have already mentioned, the creation from Curse of Frankenstein. Since then, Lee has never looked back. That film incidentally, not only established Lee by name in not by face, but was his first part with the then unknown actor, Peter Cushing. From that day, the two men have become firm friends and starred in a number of horror classics together.
The success Lee scored as the ‘monster’ couldn’t compare with that achieved with his second major role for Hammer. Because Frankenstein has been so well received, the company decided that it would be good box-office to do a film about the greatest Gothic legend ever, Dracula.
Finally, the void left since the death of Bela Lugosi was filled as Christopher Lee took the part and portrayed the Lord of the Undead with more power and majesty than ever before. This version was certainly as close as anyone has ever come to Bram Stoker’s original concept, and the film established Lee as a cult figure, so that even today no one can command the same respect and admiration when portraying Dracula, as he has done.
Since then, Lee’s career has become movie history. He was in demand and his roles were now coming thick and fast—mostly in the horror genre. But on-one could say that this was a case of typecasting. After all, there is a world of difference from playing the creation of Frankenstein and the title role of a mad Russian monk in Rasputin, or a cruel, inscrutable Chinese in The Face of Fu Manchu. Bu for the moment he was straddled with the reputation of being a ‘horror’ actor, although he can take great credit in the fact that every role he tackled was with a total belief and respect in the character being portrayed. It is not easy as Lee explains: “Releasing the being trapped within the outer shell and making him acceptable in his context calls for true acting. And the mental and emotional strain involved is quite considerable. One must immerse oneself completely in the character and forget one’s own personality entirely. The portrayal from start to finish must be straight, honest and sincere. A trace of tongue-in-cheek deserves the audience’s laughter.” Lee also adheres to the philosophy that evil is a lonely thing. “I have always tried to invest even the lowliest creature with nobility—they are so deeply pathetic.”
After the enormous success of Dracula, it was to be expected that the public would lap up any offering about the nocturnal Transylvanian, particularly if it could boast Christopher Lee as the star. Lee himself readily accepted further Dracula roles, but as time went by he became more and more disillusioned with the part as it veered away from Stoker’s original concept, and finally Lee called a halt and will only play the part again if, as he says: “I can bring something extra to it, although I do have reservations about playing the role in modern settings. But the ultimate ambition is to do a film of Stoker’s book, as Stoker really wrote it.”
A lot of cynics forecasted Lee’s downfall after he expressed those opinions about a part which had after all brought him great financial success as well as making him an international star. But Lee was determined to ‘break away’ and what better way of starting afresh then disassociating himself with his most famous role? Lee need not have had any fears. Suddenly people began to see the actor behind the role, and far from being out of work, his movie commitments began to pile up.
Among some of his more recent were as Counte De Rochefort in The Three Musketeers, and also in the follow-up which was called, not too surprisingly, The Four Musketeers. But probably one of his best roles to date was a part much sought-after and that was as James Bond’s arch-villain in The Man With The Golden Gun and his portrayal as the evil Scaramanga nicely balanced that of the smooth Bond, played by Roger Moore.
His interests include music, he has a collection of over 110 operas; books, he has a library of over 1,200 books, his favorite subjects being historical biography; and golf, a sport at which he is very good, and can boast a handicap of 2. He lives quietly in his apartment in Belgravia with his Danish wife Birgit and daughter Christina. He is also an expert swordsman, which has helped him in his film career, and you can never forget his fine singing voice.
Recently he has been appearing a lot more on television in a number of quiz programs, and even in an episode in the ‘Space 1999’ series. Perhaps someone might ask him to do a play sometime, but for the moment it seems that films are still Lee’s main work, which his latest being Hammer’s To the Devil—A Daughter.
No doubt new productions starring Christopher Lee will continue to appear, but let’s hope that, as much as we enjoy his other work, the classic faithful Dracula will somehow see the light of day. For all of us fantasy fans, it would be a fitting climax to a career in horror films that has known no equal.