That's right, this month the legendary Sir Christopher Lee, is my icon of the month.
Lee was born in 1922 in Belgravia, Westminster, London, as the son of Lieutenant-Colonel Geoffrey Trollope Lee, of the 60th King's Royal Rifle Corps, and his wife, Contessa Estelle Marie. Lee's mother was a famous Edwardian beauty who was painted by Sir John Lavery as well as by Oswald Birley and Olive Snell, and sculpted by Clare F. Sheridan. Lee's maternal great-grandfather was an Italian political refugee, whose wife, Lee's great-grandmother, was English-born opera singer Marie Carandini.
His parents separated when he was very young, and his mother took him and his sister to Switzerland. After enrolling in Miss Fisher's Academy in Wengen, he played his first villainous role as Rumpelstiltskin. The family returned to London, where Lee attended Wagner's private school. His mother then married Harcourt "Ingle" Rose, a banker and step-cousin of Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond novels. Lee spent some time at Summer Fields School, a preparatory school in Oxford (notable for sending many alumni to Eton). Lee applied unsuccessfully for a scholarship to Eton, although the interview was to prove portentous because of the presence of the noted ghost story author M.R. James. Lee later claimed in his autobiography that James had cut a very impressive figure. Sixty years later Lee played the part of M.R. James for the BBC.
"James was at that time nick-named 'Black Mouse', derived in part from his faintly sinister black cape and mortar board, and part from his habit of mewing unexpectedly at recalcitrant pupils. I cannot in all honesty say that at the time I was wholly displeased in failing to secure a scholarship; in many ways it was a relief. But I do know this: few men have created such a profound impression upon me, and I partially attribute my lifelong interest in the occult to my subsequent discovery of the horror stories penned by that most intriguing and intimidating of men."
Instead, Lee attended Wellington College, Berkshire, where he won scholarships in classics.
After attending Wellington College from age 14 to 17, Lee worked as an office clerk in a couple of London shipping companies until he enlisted in the Royal Air Force. Initially, Lee volunteered to fight for the Finnish forces during the Winter War in 1939. He and other British volunteers were kept away from actual fighting, but he was issued winter gear and was posted on guard duty a safe distance from the front lines. He went on to serve in the Royal Air Force and intelligence services during World War II, including serving as an intelligence officer with the Long Range Desert Group in Northern Africa. He trained in South Africa as a pilot, but eyesight problems forced him to drop out. He eventually ended up stationed in North Africa as a Cipher Officer for No. 260 Squadron RAF and was with it through the campaigns in Sicily and Italy. He has mentioned serving in Special Operations Executive but has always declined to go into details.
"I was attached to the SAS from time to time but we are forbidden – former, present, or future – to discuss any specific operations. Let's just say I was in Special Forces and leave it at that. People can read in to that what they like."
After the war, Lee, who can speak fluent French and German, among other languages, was seconded to the Central Registry of War Criminals and Security Suspects. Here, he was tasked with helping to track down Nazi war criminals. Of his time with the organisation, Lee has said: "We were given dossiers of what they'd done and told to find them, interrogate them as much as we could and hand them over to the appropriate authority ... We saw these concentration camps. Some had been cleaned up. Some had not." Lee then retired from the RAF to take up acting after the end of the war with the rank of Flight Lieutenant.
In 1947, Lee gained a seven-year contract with the Rank Organisation after discussing his interest in acting with his mother's second cousin Nicolò Carandini, the Italian Ambassador. Carandini told Lee that performance was in his blood, as his great-grandmother Marie Carandini had been a successful opera singer, a fact of which Lee was unaware. He made his film debut in Terence Young's Gothic romance "Corridor of Mirrors" in 1947. He was a student at the Rank "charm school".
Also in 1947, Lee made an uncredited appearance in Laurence Olivier's film version of "Hamlet" as a spear carrier (marking his first film with frequent co-star and close friend Peter Cushing, who played Osric). In 1951 he appeared in "Captain Horatio Hornblower R.N." as a Spanish Captain. He was cast when the director asked him if he could speak Spanish and fence, which he could. He recalls that his breakthrough came in 1952 when Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. began making films at the British National Studios. He said in 2006, "I was cast in various roles in 16 of them and even appeared with Buster Keaton and it proved an excellent training ground." Also in 1952 he appeared in John Huston's Oscar-nominated Moulin Rouge. Throughout the next decade, he made nearly 30 films, playing mostly stock action characters.
Lee's first film for Hammer was "The Curse Of Frankenstein" (1957), in which he played 'Frankenstein's monster', with Cushing as the 'Baron'. When he arrived at a casting session for the film, "they asked me if I wanted the part, I said yes and that was that." A little later, Lee co-starred with Boris Karloff in the film "Corridors Of Blood" (1958), but Lee's own appearance as 'Frankenstein's monster' led to his first appearance as the Transylvanian vampire in the 1958 film "Dracula" (known as Horror of Dracula in the United States). In 1959, Lee played in another film called "My Uncle Is A Vampire".
Lee returned to the role of 'Dracula' in Hammer's "Dracula: Prince Of Darkness" in 1965. Lee's performance is notable in that he has no lines, merely hissing his way through the film. Again, stories vary as to the reason for this: Lee states he refused to speak the poor dialogue he was given, but screenwriter Jimmy Sangster claims that the script did not contain any lines for the character. This film set the standard for most of the Dracula sequels in the sense that half the film's running time was spent on telling the story of Dracula's resurrection and the character's appearances were brief. Lee has gone on record to state that he was virtually "blackmailed" by Hammer into starring in the subsequent films; unable or unwilling to pay him his going rate, they would resort to reminding him of how many people he would put out of work if he did not take part.
His roles in the films "Dracula Has Risen From The Grave" (1968), "Taste The Blood Of Dracula" (1969), and "Scars Of Dracula" (1970) all gave the 'Count' very little to do, but were all commercially successful. Although Lee may not have liked what Hammer was doing with the character, worldwide audiences embraced the films, which are now considered classics of the genre. Lee starred in two further 'Dracula' films for Hammer in the early 1970s, both of which attempted to bring the character into the modern-day era. These were not commercially successful.
Lee's other work for Hammer included "The Mummy" (1959). Lee portrayed 'Rasputin' in "Rasputin, The Mad Monk" (Lee apparently met Rasputin's assassin Felix Yussupov when he was a child) and 'Sir Henry Baskerville' (to Cushing's 'Sherlock Holmes') in "The Hound Of The Baskervilles" (1959). Lee later played Holmes himself in 1962's "Sherlock Holmes And The Deadly Necklace", and returned to 'Holmes' films with Billy Wilder's British-made "The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes" (1970), in which he plays Sherlock's smarter brother, 'Mycroft'. Lee played a leading role in the German film "The Puzzle Of The Red Orchid" (1962), speaking German, which he had learned during his education in Switzerland. He auditioned for a part in the 1962 film "The Longest Day", but was turned down because he did not "look like a military man". Some film books incorrectly credit him with a role in the film, something he has to correct to the present day.
He was responsible for bringing the acclaimed occult author Dennis Wheatley to Hammer. The company made two films from Wheatley's novels, both starring Lee. The first, "The Devil Rides Out" (1967), is generally considered to be one of Hammer's crowning achievements. According to Lee, Wheatley was so pleased with it that he offered the actor the film rights to his remaining black magic novels free of charge. However, the second film, "To The Devil A Daughter" (1976), was fraught with production difficulties and was disowned by its author. Although financially successful, it was Hammer's last horror film and marked the end of Lee's long association with the studio that brought him fame.
Like Cushing, Lee also appeared in horror films for other companies during the 20-year period from 1957 to 1977. Other films in which Lee performed include the series of "Fu Manchu" films made between 1965 and 1969, in which he starred as the villain in heavy oriental make-up; "I, Monster" (1971), in which he played 'Jekyll and Hyde'; "The Creeping Flesh" (1972); and his personal favourite, "The Wicker Man" (1973), in which he played 'Lord Summerisle'. Lee was attracted to the latter role by screenwriter Anthony Shaffer and apparently gave his services for free, as the budget was so small.
Lee appeared as the on-screen narrator in Jess Franco's "Eugenie" (1970) as a favour to producer Harry Alan Towers, unaware that it was softcore pornography, as the sex scenes were shot separately.
"I had no idea that was what it was when I agreed to the role. I was told it was about the Marquis de Sade. I flew out to Spain for one day's work playing the part of a narrator. I had to wear a crimson dinner jacket. There were lots of people behind me. They all had their clothes on. There didn't seem to be anything peculiar or strange. A friend said: 'Do you know you are in a film in Old Compton Street?' In those days that was where the mackintosh brigade watched their films. 'Very funny,' I said. So I crept along there heavily disguised in dark glasses and scarf, and found the cinema and there was my name. I was furious! There was a huge row. When I had left Spain that day everyone behind me had taken their clothes off!"
In addition to doing films in the United Kingdom, Lee did films in mainland Europe: he appeared in two German films, "Count Dracula", where he again played the vampire 'Count', and "The Torture Chamber Of Dr. Sadism". Other films in Europe he made include "Castle Of The Living Dead" and "Horror Express".
In 1972, Lee was a producer of the horror film "Nothing But The Night", in which he also starred. It was the first and last film he ever produced as he did not enjoy the process. Since the mid-1970s, Lee has eschewed horror roles almost entirely. Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond spy novels and Lee's step-cousin, had offered him the role of the titular antagonist in the first Eon-produced Bond film Dr. No. Lee enthusiastically accepted, but the producers had already chosen Joseph Wiseman for the part. In 1974, Lee finally got to play a James Bond villain when he was cast as the deadly assassin Francisco Scaramanga in "The Man With The Golden Gun"
Because of his filming schedule in Bangkok, film director Ken Russell was unable to sign Lee to play the 'Specialist' in "Tommy" (1975). That role was eventually given to Jack Nicholson. In an AMC documentary on "Halloween", John Carpenter states that he offered the role of 'Samuel Loomis' to Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee before Donald Pleasence took the role. Years later, Lee met Carpenter and told him that the biggest regret of his career was not taking the role of 'Dr. Loomis'.
Lee appeared on the cover of the 1973 Wings album "Band On The Run", along with others including chat show host Michael Parkinson, film actor James Coburn, world boxing champion John Conteh and broadcaster Clement Freud. In 1977, Lee left England for America, concerned at being typecast in horror films, as had happened to his close friends Peter Cushing and Vincent Price. He said in an interview in 2011:
"Peter and Vincent made some wonderful serious movies but are only known for horror. That was why I went to America. I couldn't see anything happening here except a continuation of what had gone before. A couple of friends, Dick Widmark and Billy Wilder, told me I had to get away from London otherwise I would always be typecast."
His first American film was the disaster film "Airport '77". In 1978, Lee surprised many people with his willingness to go along with a joke by appearing as guest host on NBC's Saturday Night Live. He turned down the role of 'Dr. Barry Rumack' in the 1980 disaster spoof "Airplane!".
In 1982, Lee appeared in "The Return Of Captain Invincible". In this film, Lee plays a fascist who plans to rid America (and afterwards, the world) of all non-whites. Lee sings on two tracks in the film ("Name Your Poison" and "Mister Midnight"), written by Richard O'Brien (who had written "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" seven years previously) and Richard Hartley. In 1985, he appeared alongside Reb Brown and Sybil Danning in "Howling II: Stirba – Werewolf Bitch". Lee made his latest appearances to date as 'Sherlock Holmes' in 1991's "Incident At Victoria Falls" and 1992's "Sherlock Holmes And The Leading Lady".
In addition to more than a dozen feature films together for Hammer Films, Amicus Productions and other companies, Lee and Peter Cushing both appeared in "Hamlet" (1948) and "Moulin Rouge" (1952) albeit in separate scenes; and in separate instalments of the "Star Wars" films, Cushing as 'Grand Moff Tarkin' in the original film, Lee years later as 'Count Dooku'. The last project which united them in person was a documentary, "Flesh And Blood: The Hammer Heritage Of Horror" (1994), which they jointly narrated. It was the last time they saw each other as Cushing died two months later. While they frequently played off each other as mortal enemies onscreen - Lee's 'Count Dracula' to Cushing's 'Professor Van Helsing' - they were very close friends in real life.
In 1994, Lee played the character of the 'Russian commandant' in "Police Academy: Mission To Moscow". In 1998, Lee starred in the role of 'Muhammad Ali Jinnah', founder of modern Pakistan, in the film "Jinnah". While talking about his favourite role in film at a press conference at the Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival, he declared that his role in Jinnah was by far his best performance. Lee was at one point considered for the role of comic book villain/hero 'Magneto' in the screen adaptation of the popular comic book series "X-Men", but he lost the role to Ian McKellen.
He has had many television roles, including that of 'Flay' in the BBC television miniseries, based on Mervyn Peake's novels, "Gormenghast" (2000), and 'Stefan Wyszyński' in the CBS film "John Paul The Second" (2005). He played 'Lucas de Beaumanoir, the Grand Master of the Knights Templar', in the BBC/A&E co-production of "Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe" (1997). He played a role in the made-for-TV series 'La Révolution française' (1989) in part 2, "Les Années Terribles", as the executioner, 'Sanson', who beheaded Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, Robespierre and others. In 1967 he starred in an episode of "The Avengers" entitled "Never, Never Say Die."
Lee played 'Saruman' in the "The Lord Of The Rings" film trilogy. In the commentary, he states he had a decades-long dream to play' Gandalf' but that he was now too old and his physical limitations prevented his being considered. The role of 'Saruman', by contrast, required no horseback riding and much less fighting. Lee had met J.R.R. Tolkien once (making him the only person in "The Lord Of The Rings" film trilogy to have done so) and makes a habit of reading the novels at least once a year. In addition, he performed for the album "The Lord Of The Rings: Songs And Poems By J.R.R. Tolkien" in 2003. Lee's appearance in the final film in the trilogy, "The Lord Of The Rings: Return Of The King", was cut from the theatrical release, but the scene was reinstated in the extended edition.
"The Lord Of The Ring" marked the beginning of a major career revival that continued in "Star Wars Episode II: Attack Of The Clones" (2002) and "Star Wars Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith" (2005), in which he played the villainous 'Count Dooku'. His autobiography states that he did much of the swordplay himself, though a double was required for the more vigorous footwork.
Lee is one of the favourite actors of Tim Burton and has become a regular in many of Burton's films, having now worked for the director five times since 1999. He had a small role as the Burgomaster in the film "Sleepy Hollow". In 2005, Lee then went on to voice the character of Pastor Galswells in "Corpse Bride" co-directed by Burton and Mike Johnson and play a small role in the Burton's reimagining of the Roald Dahl tale "Charlie And The Chocolate Factory" as Willy Wonka's strict dentist father 'Dr. Wilbur Wonka'.
In 2007, Lee collaborated with Burton on "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street", playing the spirit of Sweeney Todd's victims called the 'Gentleman Ghost' alongside Anthony Head, with both singing "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd", its reprises and the Epilogue. These songs were recorded, but eventually cut since Burton felt that the songs were too theatrical for the film. Lee's appearance was completely cut from the film, but Head still has an uncredited one-line cameo. In 2008, he was offered the role of 'King Balor' in Guillermo del Toro's "Hellboy II: The Golden Army" but had to turn it down due to prior commitments.
In late November 2009, Lee narrated the Science Fiction Festival in Trieste, Italy. Also in 2009, Lee starred in Stephen Poliakoff's British period drama "Glorious 39" with Julie Christie, Bill Nighy, Romola Garai and David Tennant, Academy Award-nominated director Danis Tanović's war film "Triage" with Colin Farrell and Paz Vega, and Duncan Ward's comedy "Boogie Woogie" alongside Amanda Seyfried, Gillian Anderson, Stellan Skarsgård and Joanna Lumley. In 2010, Lee marked his fourth collaboration with Tim Burton by voicing the 'Jabberwocky' in Burton's adaptation of Lewis Carroll's classic book "Alice In Wonderland" alongside Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter and Anne Hathaway. While he only had two lines, Burton said that he felt Lee to be a good match for the iconic character because he is "an iconic guy".
In the same year Lee won the "Spirit of Hammer" award in the Metal Hammer Golden Gods 2010. The award was presented by Tony Iommi. He also received the Steiger Award (Germany) and, in February 2011, Lee was awarded the BAFTA Fellowship.
In 2011, he appeared in a Hammer film for the first time in thirty-five years, the last being 1976's "To The Devil A Daughter". The film was called "The Resident", he appeared alongside Hilary Swank and Jeffrey Dean Morgan. Whilst filming scenes for the film in New Mexico in early 2009, Lee injured his back when he tripped over power cables on set. He had to undergo surgery and as a result was unable to play the role of 'Sir Lachlan Morrison' in "The Wicker Tree", the sequel to "The Wicker Man". Very disappointed, director Robin Hardy recast the role but Lee was determined to appear in the film, so Hardy wrote a small scene specially for him. Lee appears as the unnamed "Old Gentleman" who acts as Lachlan's mentor in a flashback. Hardy has stated that fans of "The Wicker Man" will recognise this character as 'Lord Summerisle', but Lee himself has contradicted this, stating that they are two unrelated characters. Also in 2011, Lee appeared in the critically acclaimed "Hugo", directed by Martin Scorsese.
On 11 January 2011, Lee announced on his website that he would be reprising the role of 'Saruman' for the prequel film "The Hobbit". Lee had originally said he would have liked to have shown 'Saruman's corruption by 'Sauron', but would not be comfortable flying to New Zealand at his age. Lee went on to say that if a film were made, he would love to voice 'Smaug', as it would mean he could record his part in England and not have to travel. A July 2011 behind-the-scenes featurette showed Jackson at the Pinewood Studios in London and Lee in make-up and costume as Saruman, so it would seem that production has been adjusted to accommodate Lee's travel concerns and allow him to participate in the film. Lee has stated that he worked on his role for the films over the course of four days and that he is portraying 'Saruman' as a kind and noble wizard, before his subsequent fall into darkness, which audiences have seen in "The Lord Of The Rings" film trilogy. In 2012, Lee marked his fifth collaboration with Tim Burton by appearing in his film adaptation of the gothic soap opera "Dark Shadows".
In 1997, he was appointed a 'Commander Of The Venerable Order Of Saint John'. On 16th June 2001, as part of that year's Queen's Birthday Honours, Lee was appointed a 'Commander Of The Order Of The British Empire' "for services to Drama". He was made a 'Knight Bachelor' "For services to Drama and to Charity" on 13 June as part of the Queen's Birthday Honours in 2009. He was knighted by Prince Charles. Lee was named 2005's 'most marketable star in the world' in a USA Today newspaper poll, after three of the films he appeared in grossed US$640 million. In 2011, Lee was awarded the BAFTA Academy Fellowship by Tim Burton.
In 2011, accompanied by his wife Birgit and on the 164th anniversary of the birth of Bram Stoker, Lee was honoured with a tribute by University College Dublin, and described his honorary life membership of the UCD Law Society as "in some ways as special as the Oscars". He was awarded the Bram Stoker Gold Medal by the Trinity College Philosophical Society, of which Stoker was President, and a copy of "Collected Ghost Stories of MR James" by Trinity College's School of English. The government of France made him a Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters in 2011.
Lee has featured in many published books, mainly about Horror and Hammer Horror. He also wrote an autobiography entitled "Lord of Misrule: The Autobiography of Christopher Lee". He has also released 3 Heavy Metal albums ("Revelation" (2006), "Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross" (2010), "Charlemagne: The Omens Of Death" (2013) and a Christmas E.P. titled "A Heavy Metal Christmas"
At age 90 Lee is still acting and holds a Guinness World Record for 270+ acting roles.
(On his friendship with Peter Cushing) "I don't want to sound gloomy, but, at some point of your lives, every one of you will notice that you have in your life one person, one friend whom you love and care for very much. That person is so close to you that you are able to share some things only with him. For example, you can call that friend, and from the very first maniacal laugh or some other joke you will know who is at the other end of that line. We used to do that with him so often. And then when that person is gone, there will be nothing like that in your life ever again". - Sir Christopher Lee