Friday, June 19, 2015

Christopher Lee: In Memoriam

Remembering a Psychotronic Legend

By Ed Garea

Christopher Lee, one of the giants of psychotronic films, has passed. A man who breathed new life into the Prince of the Undead and went on to lend his distinguished looks to a slew of films, both of the A and B variety, died June 7 in London. He was 93.

An official for the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea in London confirmed his death, attributed to respiratory problems and heart failure, according to the Associated Press.

Although he made acting his life’s work after the war ended in 1945, it took 11 years until he made his breakthrough in 1956 playing the Creature in Hammer Studio’s The Curse of Frankenstein. The next year he starred in Hammer’s remake of Dracula. Released in 1958 as Horror of Dracula, the movie made him a worldwide star, and he never looked back.

He was born Christopher Frank Carandini Lee in London on May 27, 1922, the son of Lt. Col. Geoffrey Trollope Lee, a professional soldier, and Contessa Estelle Marie Carandini di Sarzano, a member of an old Italian family.

He grew up along with older sister Xandra in the fashionable Belgravia neighborhood. His parents separated when he was four and divorced when he was six. His mother later married (and later divorced) banker Harcourt George St.-Croix Rose, and uncle of James Bond creator Ian Fleming. The family settled in Fulham, where his stepfather maintained their extravagant lifestyle until his bankruptcy in 1939.

After attending Wellington College from age 14 to 17, Lee worked as a clerk for United States Lines and later Beecham’s. When Beecham’s moved out of London, Lee joined the Home Guard until he enlisted in the Royal Air Force in 1941. A failure of his optic nerve grounded the would-be pilot and he volunteered with RAF Intelligence and the Special Forces during World War II, serving in Rhodesia, South Africa, North Africa, and Italy. After the war’s end, Lee, who spoke fluent French and German, worked at ferreting out high-ranking Nazis in occupied Germany before retiring from the RAF in 1946 with the rank of flight lieutenant.

After the war’s end, Beecham’s offered him a job with a large raise, but Lee didn’t want to be tied down to a desk. A cousin suggested that he try acting, and introduced him to people at the Rank movie studio in London. He was signed to a seven-year contract and joined the Rank Organization in 1947, training in their “charm school.” Because of his height (6’5”), his appearances were limited. In his film debut, Corridor of Mirrors (1948), Lee, playing nightclub customer Charles, remained seated throughout his appearance, lest he tower over his fellow actors. Later in that year he was seen in an unbilled role as a spear-carrier in Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet.

His career through the mid-‘50s saw him cast in small roles in films as diverse as Scott of the Antarctic with John Mills (1948), to 1951’s Captain Hornblower, R.N., with Gregory Peck (He was cast after the director asked if could speak Spanish and fence, both of which he was able to do) to 1952’s The Crimson Pirate with Burt Lancaster. He supplemented these tiny roles with appearances in television shows.

In 1956, at the age of 35, Lee auditioned for and won the role of The Creature in Hammer’s color remake of Frankenstein. Released in 1957 as The Curse of Frankenstein, it was a runaway hit. For once, Lee’s height didn’t work against him, but he was disappointed when he found he had no lines. He complained to co-star Peter Cushing about this during a break in filming. Cushing gently replied, “You’re lucky. I’ve read the script.” This exchange would cement a close friendship that lasted until Cushing’s death.

Satisfied with his work, Hammer offered him the lead role in their color remake of Dracula. Though the role only paid 750 pounds, it did offer stardom, and based on the returns of his previous film, looked to be another mega-hit.

With the use of color, Hammer could no longer rely on what sustained horror films in the age of black and white – shadows. Instead, blood became the new barometer of horror as color filming meant brighter lighting. Just as the role of the vampire count made Bela Lugosi into a sex symbol, so did the role make Lee a sex symbol. Seizing on the sex appeal potential of Lee, director Terence Fisher amped up the volume on the erotic, telling actress Melissa Stribling, who played Mina Holmwood, that after the scene where Dracula seduces and bites her, to exit her bedroom imagining she had just experienced the best sex of her life. She did as he suggested and the scene was done in just one take.

For his part, even co-starring with Cushing, Lee only had 13 lines, all of them in his scenes with John Van Eyssen, who played Jonathan Harker. The rest of his time was spent glaring, jumping and hissing.

Again, the film was a huge hit, and Lee began to be typecast into horror roles. He played Kharis the Mummy in 1959’s The Mummy, the heel in a French remake of remake of The Hands of Orlac, and a murderer who sells bodies to Boris Karloff in Corridors of Blood. Even when he played Henry Baskerville in Hammer’s color remake of The Hound of the Baskervilles, he still found himself in a horror-tinged film. He also played Chinese master villain Fu Manchu in a series of German-produced films in the ‘60s.

As for Count Dracula, he was far from bring done with his most famous portrayal. He would play the Count 10 more times, 7 of them for Hammer in a devolving series of films during the late ‘60s to early ‘70s with such titles as Taste the Blood of DraculaDracula A.D., 1972, and The Satanic Rites of Dracula. During his appearance with Cushing on the talk show Tomorrow with Tom Snyder, Lee reflected on the paltry salary he received on the Dracula films while they reaped multi-millions for the studio. Cushing remarked that the series kept becoming sillier and sillier, finding he, as Van Helsing, was chasing the Count in worse and worse movies. “What next,” he remarked, “Dracula in the Dark, Search the House for Dracula? Thankfully they ran out of ideas.”

Lee’s roles in the Dracula films gave him no lines to speak. Again he hissed his way through. Stories vary as to the reason: Lee claims that he refused to speak the lousy dialogue he was given while screenwriter Jimmy Sangster claims there were no lines for him in the script. It has also been suggested that the reason may have been that, according to union rules, the more lines and scenes an actor has, the more he or she is to be paid. That may be one reason why his appearances in the sequels were brief.

In an interview with Total Film ( Lee stated that he was virtually blackmailed by Hammer into starring in the subsequent films: I did have a big problem after the first two. I said to my agent, 'I don’t want to do this part again.' Because all they do is write a story and try and fit the character in somewhere, which is very clear when you see the films. They gave me nothing to do! I pleaded with Hammer to let me use some of the lines that Bram Stoker had written. Occasionally, I sneaked one in. Eventually I told them that I wasn’t going to play Dracula any more. All hell broke loose. I got frantic telephone calls from [Hammer honcho] Jimmy Carreras saying, 'I’m begging you! I’m on my knees. You’ve got to do this film!' I asked why and he said, 'I’ve already sold it to the American distributor with you playing the part.' Then he said something I’ve never forgotten because it was sheer blackmail: 'Think of the people you’re putting out of work.' That’s the only reason I did the last few Draculas. I didn’t want to be the reason for a hundred people not working.”

Lee did gain revenge of a sort when he starred in director Jesse Franco’s Count Dracula in 1970. It was faithfully based on the Bram Stoker novel and Lee got to speak Stoker’s lines.

Seeking to move away from the horror genre, Lee took on other roles, notably as Mycroft Homes in Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), and a cameo as a gunsmith who builds Raquel Welch a special revolver in Hannie Cauler (1971). He also played the swashbuckling assassin Rochefort in director Richard Lester’s remake of The Three Musketeers (1973) and its sequel The Four Musketeers (1974), and notable Bond villain Scaramanga in The Man With the Golden Gun (1974). 

One of his favorite roles was that of Lord Summerisle, the hedonistic pagan chief who rules over an island where free love, public nudity, and ultimately, human sacrifice, is practiced in the 1973 cult classic, The Wicker Man. In interviews, Lee noted that, although it was his favorite role, most remembered Britt Eklund and her nude dance.

In 1973, he founded his own production company, Charlemagne Productions, Ltd., for whom he starred in the films Nothing But the Night (1973) and To the Devil a Daughter (1976). Meanwhile, he continued to move away from his horror image, even spoofing his most famous role of Count Dracula in the weak French comedy Dracula and Son (1976).

Lee moved to Hollywood in the late ‘70s, and while he remained a busy actor, the bulk of his film and television appearances were rather unremarkable. An exception was his appearance as guest host on Saturday Night Live in 1978. The highlight was his portrayal of Mr. Death in a sketch where he apologizes to a little girl, (Laraine Newman) for taking her dog. The two then get into a long conversation of why he has to do what he does. When asked about his portrayal in The Seventh Seal, he replies, “Ingmar Bergman makes movies I’ll never understand.”

In the 1990s, he decided to branch out into music, embarking on a music career including concerts and recordings. His material ranged from arias to show tunes, and in 2010, what he called “symphonic metal” with the album “Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross.” He released a follow-up album, “Charlemagne: The Omens of Death,” in 2013. Lee could be described as a frustrated musician. In his 30s, he applied to study at the Royal College of Music, but was rejected as being too old.

The dawn of a new century brought about a revival in Lee’s movie’s fortunes. He landed the role of the dangerously charismatic wizard Saruman, set on destroying the “world of men,” in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) and would repeat the role in the other two chapters of the Lord of the Rings trilogy as well as the Hobbit movies. He also played the treacherous Count Dooku in Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones (2002), and reprised the role in 2005’s Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith. He also played Dr. Wonka, the father of Johnny Depp’s Willy Wonka, in Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005). In 2012, when he turned 90, he appeared as Clarney in Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows.

Lee lived in Switzerland and California before returning to England. On June 16, 2001, he was created a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in recognition of his services to drama. On June 13, 2009, he was made a Knight Bachelor in the Queen’s Birthday Honors List for his services to drama and charity, knighted by Prince Charles, and in 2011, he was made a Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government.

In 1960, a Danish friend and his wife introduced Lee to Danish painter and ex-model Birgit “Gitte” Kronecke. They were engaged soon after and married on March 17, 1961. Their daughter, Christina Erika Carandini Lee, was born in 1963. Both survive him.


In 1962, Lee auditioned for a part in The Longest Day, but was turned down because he did not look like a military man.

Lee appeared on the cover of the Paul McCartney & Wings album “Band on the Run” (1973). Also appearing on the cover were talk show host Michael Parkinson, singer Kenny Lynch, actor James Coburn, boxer John Conteh, and pundit Clement Freud.

He was named 2005’s “most marketable star in the world in a poll conducted by USA Today on the strength of his appearances in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Hobbit series and the Star Wars films.

He and wife Birgit were listed as among the 50 best dressed over 50 by the Guardian in March 2013.

Lee was far from the occult characters he portrayed in movies. Despite rumors, he did not own a vast library of occult books. When giving a speech at the University College Dublin on November 8 2011, he said: "Somebody wrote I have 20,000 books. I'd have to live in a bath! I have maybe four or five [occult books]." Lee told them he had met "people who claimed to be Satanists. Who claimed to be involved with black magic. Who claimed that they not only knew a lot about it." He added: "I warn all of you: never, never, never. You will not only lose your mind, you'll lose your soul."

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