This tall, imposing and deep-voiced actor’s achievement lay not only in the over 300 onscreen appearances in a more-than-six-decade-long acting career, with a role almost every year, but that these usually included the characters deemed the epitome of evil, from Fu Manchu to the Wizard Saruman. But it was as Count Dracula that Sir Christopher Lee is most remembered.
Playing the vampire in seven of the nine Hammer films — from “Dracula” (1958) to “The Satanic Rites of Dracula” (1973) — as well as five others (three of them comedies), Lee, who looked naturally sinister with his piercing eyes, saturnine looks, and wolfish grimace, did, however, resist getting typecast.
“It doesn’t bother me to be remembered as Dracula… What does bother me is when people say, ‘Ah yes, there goes Dracula,’ or ‘There goes the horror king’. It simply isn’t true. I’m quite annoyed when people don’t acknowledge that I’ve done anything else,” he once said.
And Lee, whose 95th birth anniversary is on Saturday (May 27), did plenty more.
While also appearing as the Mummy, Frankenstein’s monster, a James Bond villain, and other assorted evil roles down to Count Dooku of the Star Wars prequels, he could also be seen battling evil, supernatural or otherwise, as well in challenging portrayals of real-life characters like Russian monk Rasputin and Pakistan’s founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah.
The son of a British soldier father and aristocratic mother of Italian descent, Lee (1922-2015) became an actor after World War II, in which he had served in the Royal Air Force. After a medical problem ruled out flying, he worked in intelligence, participating in the North African and Italian campaigns (fighting in the Monte Cassino battles with the Gurkhas of the 8th Indian Infantry Division). He was subsequently tasked with tracking down Nazi war criminals before leaving the RAF. At a loss at what to do, he plumped for films.
However, making a mark here was difficult due to his “foreign” looks and his height (6 feet five inches), with only supporting or background roles, before his first break as the monster in Hammer Films’ “The Curse of Frankenstein” (1957).
Lee noted he got the part “chiefly because of my size and height which had effectively kept me out of many pictures I might have appeared in during the preceding 10 years. Most British stars flatly refused to have me anywhere near them in a film, because I was easily the tallest man around.”
Next followed “Dracula” (1958), the first of his appearances as the blood-sucking Transylvanian count, a role he would reprise for nearly the next two decades, though his final role in a Hammer film was “The Satanic Rites…”.
Lee said he did it many times for them due to “emotional blackmail” and finally stopped because “the presentation of the character had deteriorated to such an extent, particularly bringing him into the contemporary day and age, that it really no longer had any meaning”.
But the same time, he also played Duc le Richelieu, an elderly Frenchman well-versed in fighting occult evil, in “The Devil Rides Out” (1967), based on his friend and best-selling author Dennis Wheatley’s 1934 novel about a band of friends determined to save one of their number from a Satanic cult.
And he also had a key connection with the Sherlock Holmes world — playing the Great Detective thrice as far apart as 1962 and 1992, his gifted brother Mycroft, as well as one of the key clients, Sir Henry Baskerville.
But somehow portraying evil was more of a penchant. Lee, who was a step-cousin and a golfing partner of Ian Fleming, was the author’s choice to play the villain in the first James Bond film “Dr No” (1962) but the role had already been filled. He, however, went on to do so in the ninth film, “The Man with the Golden Gun” (1974).
Of Scaramanga the assassin, Lee said: “In Fleming’s novel he’s just a West Indian thug, but in the film he’s charming, elegant, amusing, lethal… I played him like the dark side of Bond.”
Lee, who also played an Indian royal in the TV adaptation of M.M. Kaye’s “The Far Pavillions” (1984), and the Quaid-e-Azam in Akbar Ahmed’s “Jinnah” would, however, be better known to the present generation as Saruman in “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” trilogies — in which he was the only cast member who had known J.R.R. Tolkien personally, as well as Count Dooku of Star Wars.
A trained singer, he also recorded musical pieces spanning opera to heavy metal.
Lee, who once noted that “every actor has to make terrible films from time to time, but the trick is never to be terrible in them”, said he would be satisfied if his career would only summed up as “He was different”.
And this he did achieve.
(Vikas Datta can be contacted at email@example.com )
By Vikas Datta