Farewell, Prince of Darkness – Sir Christopher Lee, RIP
News just breaking today that we lost a total icon of cinema, a velvet-voiced actor who strode across many decades of film, essaying some of the most memorable characters in the medium: we’ve lost the great Sir Christopher Lee. Yes, he was aged 93, and that is a good innings, but Lee was one of those people you just thought would go on forever. I was once on a BBC programme that was discussing Dracula; at one point the presenter made a very condescending remark about the old Hammer films and a “hammy” Chris Lee – as you can imagine I didn’t take kindly to that and told her that he was hugely respected by other actors for his professionalism and his craft. I think her attitude stemmed more from that old, snobbish attitude some have to genre work, assuming all of it and the actors and creators who make them are “low art”. I argued that Lee’s Dracula, for example, remains one of the defining interpretations of the oft-filmed Count exactly because Hammer had been savvy enough to cast someone who didn’t just embody a physicality suited to the role, but someone who could act superbly well, so well that his is still one of the images we think of when we consider the count. In one of those films he almost never speaks, the entire character portrayed through facial expressions and athletic, confident body language (and some memorably cat-like hisses), you can’t do that unless you have some serious acting craft in your blood.
(above, the delightfully lurid “X-certificate” poster for Hammer’s Dracula movie, with Lee’s athletic, sensual, seductive count; below superb artwork from John Bolton on the comic Dracula, Prince of Darkness, Bolton going to great pains to capture Lee’s likeness)
If an actor is very fortunate they may, when they finally exit the stage, leave behind a body of work and one iconic role that almost everyone will remember them for. Chris Lee leaves an entire slate of such characters. Lord Summerisle with his Wicker Man, Scaramanga, the Man With the Golden Gun, a character almost deadly enough to equal James Bond. Saruman, the powerful wizard gone over to the dark side, a role he clearly relished as he famously re-read Lord of the Rings on an annual basis long before Peter Jackson’s wonderful LOTR films came calling for his services. He even essayed his fabulously smooth villian roles for the Star Wars universe (and as Dooku he fought with a curved lightsabre hilt, like a sabre, because, well, because he’s Chris Lee and he can do cool things like that. Lee reportedly did most of the swordplay himself, the stunt double only used for a few moves and scenes). And Dracula, of course, a role which he would sometimes feel haunted him too much, and yet in truth it never hurt his long and diverse career as we can see from the sheer volume of films and characters. And, despite Hammer, especially in the sequels, not really writing the Count properly, Lee absolutely owned that character, every gesture, ever small twitch of the lips.
And there can’t have been many actors since the great Karloff or Chaney Jnr in the 30s who portrayed so many major horror icons: Frankenstein’s Monster and the Mummy being added to his Dracula role, and on the other side of the hero-villain index, playing Sherlock Holmes, and for the small screen brought to life characters from other great novels, including Gormenghast and Ivanhoe, and voicing the Jabberwocky in Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (and indeed he became something of a touchstone for Burton’s films) and voice overs for the animated Discworld and appearing in the live action Colour of Magic. And how can we not love a man who entitled his autobiography “Tall, Dark and Gruesome” and who was, right into his 90s, rocking it by lending his wonderful voice to heavy metal albums, even at the age of 92? He famously said he had no plans to ever retire from acting and true to his word there is apparently a final film in the can still to be released at the time of writing and he had just signed up for another film production, an actor right to the very end. Rest in peace, Chris, you’ve been such a tremendous, iconic presence in the lives of so many fans for so long, you won’t be forgotten. An actor and a gentleman.
(lovely portrait of Christopher Lee by Tom Heyburn on Deviant Art)