Sir Christopher Lee is most famous as one of the all-time great horror movie actors. In a film career that has spanned more than 65 years, he has featured in the Guinness Book of Records as the actor who has racked up the most movie appearances. Since the 1970s, he has tried to distance himself from horror, and nowadays is regarded as a distinguished actor who can bring a bit of gravitas to the most unlikely roles.
Christopher Lee was born in Belgravia, London, in May 1922. His father was a highly decorated soldier, and his mother a society beauty from an aristocratic European family that could trace its lineage back hundreds of years. His parents divorced when he was very young, and part of his education took place in Switzerland. As an older child, he was educated at Wellington School in England.
During World War Two, Lee served in the R.A.F., and as an intelligence officer in North Africa. He has also stated that he was part of the Special Operations Executive. Towards the end of the war, Lee was employed in interrogating Nazi prisoners of war (Lee speaks several languages) and saw the horrors of the concentration camps first-hand.
Upon demobilization, Lee decided to embark on a career in acting. He was warned that he was too tall, at 6’5”. He was nevertheless accepted into the Rank Organization’s ‘Charm School’, a training academy for young hopefuls which also launched the careers of Dirk Bogarde and Diana Dors. Lee’s early career was inauspicious, a series of walk-ons and spear carriers in a wide variety of movies. Towards the mid-1950s, he was finally being offered more substantial parts. But it was small film production company Hammer that gave Lee his big break.
Horror film stardom
Hammer’s “The Curse of Frankenstein” (1957), cast Lee as the creature. For once, his height was an advantage, and he gave a remarkable mime performance as the brain damaged monster. The film was a smash hit, and over the coming years Hammer reinvented the horror genre with its updating of the old Gothic formula. Lee returned in 1958 in “Dracula” as the Count, and his sexy and savage portrayal remains definitive (he eventually made six sequels for Hammer, as well as versions and spoofs for other companies). Suddenly Lee was a bankable star.
Lee has complained that Hammer only cast him as monsters in the early years of his stardom, and denied him better parts. So while he had the title role in “The Mummy” (1959), he was relegated to supporting roles in “The Hound of the Baskervilles” (1959) and “The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll” (1960). He relocated to Switzerland for tax reasons in the early 1960s, and soon found better parts in European horror, in films like “The Whip and the Body” (1963) and “Castle of the Living Dead” (1964). He was a regular in Amicus studios’ horror anthology movies, which started with “Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors” in 1965. He also played the Chinese super-villain Fu Manchu five times between 1965 and 1969.
By the mid-1960s Hammer had been forced to admit that Lee was a star, and cast him in several swashbuckling adventure movies, along with better parts in horrors like “Rasputin the Mad Monk” (1966) and “The Devil Rides Out” (1968). But Lee was becoming disillusioned with his horror typecasting, and it shows in some of his performances. Although he always played with a straight face, he privately made his contempt for the later Hammer Dracula films known, and tended to walk though cameo roles in horrors like ‘The Oblong Box’ (1969) and ‘Scream and Scream Again’ (1970).
There were still some good roles in horror films. He was at his best opposite his old friend Peter Cushing in films like “Horror Express” (1972) and “The Creeping Flesh” (1973). His most celebrated horror role apart from Dracula is probably Lord Summerisle in “The Wicker Man” (1973), which he regards as his favorite of all his films. He appeared in Hammer’s last horror film of the 1970s, “To the Devil a Daughter” (1976), and afterwards put horror behind him.
The Hollywood years
Lee had begun to branch out in the early 1970s, playing Mycroft in “The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes” (1970) for Billy Wilder, and taking the villainous role of Rochefort in the popular “Three Musketeers” (1973). One of his best known parts is probably the Bond villain Scaramanga opposite Roger Moore in “The Man With the Golden Gun” (1974). Confident that he could make a good living away from horror, Lee relocated to Hollywood in the late 1970s.
Lee was rarely out of work, making dozens of films in the 1970s and 80s. Few of them have remained popular, though. He returned to gothic horror in “House of the Long Shadows” in 1983, starring alongside old friends Cushing and Vincent Price. He later he played to his own cult persona in films like “Howling 2” (1985) and “Gremlins 2” (1990). He also appeared as guest host on “Saturday Night Live” in 1978, which he considers to be a career highlight.
An acting heavyweight
As he got older, Lee began to show the world what a great actor he was. He made a Pakistani film, “Jinnah” (1998), in which he played Pakistan’s first president. He gave a remarkable performance, and rates it as his best, although the film has not been widely seen in the west. He also took part in two well-received BBC literary adaptations, “Ivanhoe” (1997) and “Gormenghast” (2000). The latter, from Mervyn Peake’s much-loved fantasy series, pointed the way to Lee’s biggest late-career successes.
He was cast as the villainous wizard Saruman in Peter Jackson’s blockbusting “Lord of the Rings” trilogy (2001-03). He was also cast in two of the “Star Wars” prequels (2002, 2005) as the evil Jedi Count Dooku. These fantasy films earned Lee a new generation of fans and ensured that he was still offered plenty of work as he moved into his eighties.
He has showed no sign of slowing down (he passed his 90th birthday in 2012), although the roles are smaller now, and he does more voice work than he used to. He frequently makes cameo appearances in Tim Burton films, has made in a film for the revived Hammer studios, and had a small role in Martin Scorsese’s acclaimed “Hugo” (2011). Lee is also reprising the role of Saruman in “The Hobbit” films. Lee has a fine, classically trained singing voice, and has made a surprising foray into heavy metal in recent years, releasing two albums. He has announced that he has no intention of retiring.
Lee has been married to the Danish model Birgit Kroencke since 1961, and the couple have one daughter, Christina. Lee has received many honors in recent years, the most prestigious being the knighthood he was awarded in 2009.
Although Lee apparently dislikes being called a ‘horror actor,’ he has attended fan conventions, and his entertaining autobiography ‘Tall Dark and Gruesome’ spoke at length about his horror work. He has also contributed to commentaries on several Hammer horror DVDs.
Christopher Lee is the last surviving of the great horror stars, and has made a substantial contribution to fantasy cinema through his work with Peter Jackson and George Lucas. A much better actor than many of his roles have allowed him to show, Lee is regarded with a great deal of affection, and will hopefully grace many more films with his imposing presence.