“It’s a paradox of success that when it comes one often begins to wish it had taken some other form. I was more than happy to borrow the shoes of Chaney and Lugosi and Karloff and Rathbone and Veidt… At the same time, I didn’t want the shoes to wear me.”
– Christopher Lee (excerpted from his autobiography Tall, Dark and Gruesome)
“…I did feel sometimes that the industry went too far in its preference for midgets. To me anybody under six foot is a midget. The reader is more than likely a midget. I am surrounded by midgets. Their midgetry is enviable.” – Christopher Lee (ibid)
Perhaps I could be forgiven for believing Christopher Lee to be invincible, considering his storied history and prolific work ethic. When I heard of his passing last week at the age of 93, his death seemed almost untimely. So much has already been said about his World War II exploits and myriad talents outside of acting that I see no reason to repeat them here. There are plenty of places where you can read about and marvel at his impressive resume. Instead, I prefer to reflect on what he meant to me.
The first time Lee entered my consciousness was as kid during the late ‘70s, staying up past my bedtime to watch his appearance on Saturday Night Live. What resonated most was his comedy sketch with Gilda Radner, as Death sat down with a little girl to explain why he had to take life. Later in the show, he introduced the performer Meatloaf with the gravity typically reserved for introducing heads of state. At that point, I knew Lee was a man who commanded respect, and his name was forever embossed on my brain. I gradually discovered his impressive filmography over the years. His commanding presence could render a bad film watchable, and elevate a mediocre film to loftier heights. Even if he detested the material, as in the latter Hammer Dracula outings, he always remained the consummate professional.
Lee considered it a blessing and a curse that he would be forever associated with his work for Hammer Films, especially for his ruthless, sensual, animalistic interpretation of Dracula. His Dracula was Karloff, Lugosi and Price rolled into one; at once eloquent and debonair, possessing an old-world charm, but ready to strike like a feral beast. Although he was frequently typecast as the villain, he was more than the sum of his monster roles. Once in a while, Lee was permitted to break out of the mold, and stretch his acting chops in underrated roles such as Sir Henry Baskerville, or the enigmatic Grigori Rasputin. It’s ironic that Lee was cast as the assassin Scaramanga in The Man with the Golden Gun, when he was once considered to play James Bond (a role he was arguably born to play). Lee was re-purposed in the ‘90s and ‘00s in roles that bordered on self-parody, although he was certainly in on the joke. Joe Dante employed him for Gremlins 2 as Dr. Catheter, enabling him to take a comic turn on his more sinister roles. Tim Burton cast Lee as characters that celebrated his roles of yesteryear, as in Sleepy Hollow and even Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Who else, but Lee could utter the world “caramel” with such menace?) George Lucas and Peter Jackson later cast him in straightforward villainous roles, representing a return to form. Regardless of the many transgressions of the Star Wars prequels, Lee was a welcome presence as the shadowy Count Dooku, and only he was capable of conveying Saruman with such malevolence.
The term “living legend” is often casually thrown about for any actor who reaches a sufficient age, but in Christopher Lee’s case, he earned it. He was a man truly larger than life. In reference to the second quote above, I suspect anyone, regardless of physical height, would have appeared small in stature compared to the great Sir Lee. As a lifelong film fan and genre enthusiast, I feel as if I lost a great friend and guide into a different era of filmmaking when professionalism and craftsmanship mattered. The world of cinema has lost an irreplaceable treasure, a gentleman’s gentleman. We’re fortunate, however, that Lee has left behind a formidable legacy of film roles, which could easily take a lifetime to fully explore.