Today we farewell the prominent actor and legend of the horror genre, Christopher Lee, who has passed away at the age of 93. During the annals of his career, Lee was known for his inimitable portrayal of villains, and is primarily remembered for his role as Dracula in the 1958 sequel of “Count Dracula”. His also known for a myriad of other productions in a series of Hammer Horror Films, most of them being of notable success, which garnered him a multitude of accolades. Being a virtuoso of horror films, he was often compared to Vincent Price, who also reigned as one of the most celebrated actors of that specific domain in cinema, and as coincidence has it, both stars share the same Birthday of May 27th.
Christopher Frank Carandini Lee made his star studded debut in this world on May 27th, 1922 in Belgravia, Westminster, London to parents, Lieutenant Colonel Geoffrey Trollope Lee and Contessa Estelle Marie. From the start, Lee was born into a family of distinction that can be traced as far back to his great grandfather. His father was a part of the 60th Kings Royal Rifle Corps and had fought in the Boer War and in World War I, and his mother was an exquisite beauty from the Edwardian Era, who attracted the attention of painters Sir John Lavery, Oswald Birley and Olive Snell, so much that they had produced some of their finest and ethereal work in painting Estelle.
For most of his younger years Christopher lived with his mother. His parents divorced when he was four years old, and once it was all finalized his mother retreated to Switzerland with Lee and his sister, where he enrolled in Miss. Fisher’s Academy in Territet. While studying at the Academy, he developed a passion for drama, and soon after he made his entry into acting when he was cast in the role as Rumpelstiltskin. His lessons at Fisher’s Academy didn’t last forever, as eventually they returned home to London so Lee could obtain his education at Wagner’s Private School in Queens Gate. It was around this time that his mother married Harcourt George St-Croix Rose, a prolific banker and an uncle of Ian Fleming, who was the author of the James Bond novels. Once they married, the family moved to Fulham, and lived next door to the actor Eric Maturin. Christopher shared an amicable relationship with Maturin, and since he was interested in pursuing a career in the movies, he acquired a lot of knowledge about acting from Eric, and during one of his visits one night, he was introduced to Prince Yusopov and Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, the assassins of Grigori Rasputin, another character that Lee would have the opportunity to portray years later.
At the age of nine, he was sent to Summer Fields School, a preparatory school in Oxford. His dedication to his pastime increased, and he always participated in the school plays, though he often wasn’t recognized and the laurels went to future actor, Patrick Macnee. That didn’t stop Christopher. He was still determined to gain appreciation, so he applied for a scholarship to Eton, and when he reached the interview stage, he was surprised that his consultation was with M.R. James, the author of the “Ghost Story”. Due to his poor maths skills, his application was rejected, meaning that he would either have to pay higher fees to attend Eton, but when his step father was not prepared to help with the finances, he enrolled at Wellington College, where he was immediately accepted, and would go on to win several scholarships in the classics, studying Ancient Greece and Latin. However, as much as his work was praised at Wellington, he wasn’t given a warm reception by fellow students, and he was often bullied and frequently beaten at school, and to make matters worse, apart from a small part in the school play, he was taking a long hiatus from acting, and focused on the school sports, in which he never succeeded at. At the age of seventeen, with only one year left, his step father became bankrupt, and after the Summer term of 1939, Lee’s years at Wellington terminated.
With Harcourt’s impecunious situation after facing bankruptcy, his mother separated from him, and because of their diminutive funds, Christopher had to find employment, so he applied for a position at the Church Of England Pensions Board, where his sister was working, but because most employers were planning to go on vacation for the Summer Holidays, there were no recruiting of new staff being offered, which meant that he would have to follow his sister to the French Riviera, where she was holidaying with friends. On the way there, he stopped off at France for a while and stayed with Harcourt’s friend, the journalist, Webb Miller, and during his stay with Miller, he accompanied him to the execution of Eugen Weidmann, the last person to undergo public execution in France. On his return to London, he secured work as an office clerk for the United States Lines, where he took care of the mail and ran errands.
When England was on the brink of World War II, he volunteered to fight for the finnish forces during the Winter War in 1939, but he along with several other volunteers were kept away from fighting duties. Instead they were issued Winter gear and were commissioned to do guard duty, which was a safe distance from the front lines. This only lasted for a fortnight, and at the completion, he returned home to London to continue working for the United States Lines, that he had started to relish since spending time away. He left that position in early 1940, and underwent the same duties in his new employment at Beecham’s before transferring to a switchboard operator until Beecham’s relocated to another state, forcing Lee to join the Home Guard, as a local defence volunteer for the war. In the Winter of 1941, his father was diagnosed with double Pneumonia, and died on March 12th, 1941. Following the death of his father, he joined the Army and volunteered for the Royal Air Force before his homecoming in 1946.
At the completion of the war in 1946, he was offered his job back at Beecham’s, but turned them down, as he desperately wanted to focus on a career in acting. After his mother implored him to join the Carandini performers in Australia, which included his great-grandmother Marie Carandini, who had been a successful opera singer, he met Nicolò’s friend Filippo Del Giudice, a lawyer-turned-film producer. Lee became intrigued with the idea, and visited Two Cities Films, where they sent him to see Josef Somlo, who transferred him to Rank’s David Henley and Olive Dodds, where he was immediately signed to a seven year contract.
Christopher Lee made his film debut in 1947, when he was cast in the role as Charles in Terence Young’s gothic romance “Corridor Of Mirrors”. For the first ten years, he was mainly cast in supporting roles or characters that only had one spoken line, one of these was an uncredited part in Laurence Olivier’s film version of “Hamlet” 1948. His first breakthrough role wouldn’t come until 1952, when Douglas Fairbanks Jr. started making films for British National Studios. Even then most of the parts were only small, but it proved to be a great training ground for Lee, as he got to work with some of the most eminent stars and directors like Buster Keaton and John Huston, where he landed a role in Huston’s Oscar Nominated film “Moulin Rouge”.
In 1957, Christopher commenced his work with Hammer Horror Films, and his first role came that same year when he scored the part of Frankenstein’s monster in “The Curse Of Frankenstein”, which also starred Peter Cushing, who would go on to become Lee’s frequent co-star and close friend. The film opened to wide encomium and Lee was praised for his commendable efforts, which led to him being selected to appear opposite Boris Karloff in the 1958 film “Corridors Of Blood”, and his most renowned film that transformed into a star, “Dracula”, also in 1958. The production was a triumph, and Lee was now known for his indelible portrayal of Dracula, that he was called to play a similar role in an Italian French horror picture titled “Uncle Was a Vampire”.
During his tenor at Hammer Productions, he made a plethora of Dracula films. Some of these productions were of moderate success and sometimes panned by critics, including Lee himself, who complained that in the sequels where he had no talking role, he stated that he refused to speak the poor dialogue he was given, but other claims insist that the script didn’t contain lines for the character.
He also appeared in an array of other films with Hammer, such as, “The Mummy” and “Rasputin And The Mad Monk”, a remake of the 1932 film, “Rasputin And The Empress”, which starred the Barrymore triumvirate, John, Ethel and Lionel, with Lee taking on the plum role of Rasputin, which was originally played by Lionel Barrymore in 1932. He was cast in a few Sherlock Holmes pictures, and when he played Sherlock’s brother in “The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes”, he considered this particular version to be the reason why he stopped being typecast, though at this stage in his career, he was used to playing heavy and solid dramatic roles.
In 1962, he eagerly campaigned for a role in “The Longest Day”, but sadly he was repudiated because he did not bear the appearance of a military man. With Christopher Lee’s major impact on the studio, he was responsible for bringing “Occult” author, Dennis Wheatly to Hammer, and two of Wheatly’s novels were turned into films. Both of these vehicles starred Lee, and the first one “The Devil Rides Out” has been enthroned as one of Hammer’s crowning achievements. The second film didn’t quite reach that status, and it 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 Hammer Productions.
Apart from Hammer Productions, he also appeared in other films made by other companies, where he usually portrayed his usual role as a villain. In 1972, he also tried the medium as a producer, but he didn’t enjoy the process, so he never considered producing another movie. He moved to the United States in 1977, and was cast in an abundance of American productions, his first being “Airport,77”.
Besides from motion pictures, he appeared in many television roles. Between 2001 and 2003, he played Saruman in the “Lord Of The Rings Film Trilogy”. This marked a beginning of a major career revival that continued in a few episodes of “Star Wars” and a music career which proved to be sterling.
Christopher Lee never stopped acting, and he was still making films right to the end. A month before his passing, he signed up to star with an ensemble cast in the Danish film “The 11th”.
Christopher Lee passed away on June 7th, 2015 at the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital at 8:30am from respiratory problems and heart failure, in which he was admitted into hospital a few days before his death, and not long after celebrating his 93rd Birthday.
With a career spanning almost seventy years, Christopher Lee will be remembered as an icon of the horror genre, who took the world by storm, appearing in many illustrious productions during the decades, which earned him critical acclaim and a plethora of accolades. Although he is gone, he will never be forgotten, and his memory will live on through his copacetic deluge of films and appearances.
Rest In Peace Christopher Lee: May 27th, 1922 – June 7th, 2015.
Written by Crystal Kalyana.