Playing villains, he made a giant of himself

Christopher Lee at the Aubagne International Film Festival in September 1996. Credit: Charmich/Wikimedia Commons, license
Christopher Lee at the Aubagne International Film Festival in September 1996. Credit: Charmich/Wikimedia Commons, license

The Wire
June 15, 2015

When the first installment of The Lord of the Rings trilogy was released in 2001, it introduced a whole new generation to the ageless charms of Christopher Lee. Far removed from the often campy Dracula that an earlier set of filmgoers loved him for, he played the ‘white wizard’ Saruman with an electrifying dignity, brushing the character with a majestic flavour of evil. It’s hard to imagine many other actors being able to do that without outright vilification.

Sir Christopher Lee passed away on June 7 in a hospital in London due to respiratory problems and heart failure. He is survived by his wife Birgit Krøncke and their daughter, Christina. He was 93 – fully 69 of which he had spent as an actor, starting with small roles in action films to finally playing the bloodsucking Count in the cultic Hammer Horror films, Lord Summerisle in The Wicker Man, memorably, Francisco Scaramanga in The Man with the Golden Gun, Count Dooku in Star Wars Episode II and III, and, of course, Saruman in the movies based on JRR Tolkien’s Middle Earth epic.

Lee was also a popular fixture in horror films in the 1950s to the 1970s, often appearing as characters whose places in the literary canon were as revolutionary beings, great influencers of the zeitgeist. In fact, the list all of his roles will be powered with what appear to be minor ones – in keeping with how Hollywood for long treated science-fiction and fantasy films – with a few major forays here and there that received mainstream acclaim.

From 1950 to 1977, Lee appeared in a host of monster films, playing Dracula eight times for Hammer (1958-1973) and in the regrettable Fu Manchu productions. Although all of the Hammer films fared well commercially, Lee went on record to state that he was emotionally blackmailed into starring in them – principally because the producers ran out of money and would ask Lee to think of all the people he’d put out of work if he backed out.

His Dracula was smooth – in one film, he only hissed – but he had come to hate the lack of challenge. In this time it was as if the pithy roles Lee was being offered insulated him from the acclaim he was starting to receive from the rest of the world. In fact, a film he did in 1970 – The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes – pushed him to refuse being typecast in the future as an ‘evil heavy’, as Christopher “The Count” Lee, and eventually to leave England altogether for America in 1977.

Thus it was only in the 1970s and the 1980s that he started playing characters that would define his legacy the way he wanted. In 1973, Lee starred as the defiant Lord Summerisle in Robin Hardy’s cult classic The Wicker Man, playing a deranged nobleman who has convinced those on his estate of Summerisle that a willing human needs to be sacrificed for every season the local harvest fails. In 1974, he got to play the memorable villain Francisco Scaramanga in The Man with the Golden Gun, where he very nearly stole the show from Roger Moore’s James Bond.

Ian Fleming – whose step-cousin Lee was – conceived of Scaramanga as a crime-hardened Cuban rowdy. But what Lee ended up playing was a villain with great charm and finesse.

Lee took pride in his versatility. In an interview, he once said, “If you’re going to be a real actor, you must possess great versatility, otherwise you’re not going to last very long” – so much so that, to illustrate, he hosted an episode of Saturday Night Live in 1978 with the greats John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray. Lee later said that before he went onstage that night, he’d been more terrified than before any of his films until then.

A man of many parts, Lee spoke German, French and Italian fluently, could sing (he was a great heavy metal fan and releasing an award-winning metal album called Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross in 2010) and fence, and boasted of an impressive variety of wartime experiences before he took to acting as a career.

In the early 1940s, after brief stints in the Finnish army and the British Home Guard, Lee volunteered for the Royal Air Force. Before he was seconded to the Army after the Allied Invasion of Italy in 1943, he was nearly killed twice, came down with six bouts of malaria in one year and received two promotions. In late-1944, he was promoted to flight-lieutenant and sent to Air Force HQ, where he participated in forward planning and liaison. In the last few months before he was discharged and the war was winding down, Lee was attached to the SAS and was part of a team tasked with hunting down and interrogating Nazi war criminals – a job that took him to various concentration camps around Europe.

However, he never spoke about his services in the Special Forces. Sample this now-famous exchange, as details,

When pressed by an eager interviewer on his SAS past, he leaned forward and whispered: “Can you keep a secret?”

“Yes!” the interviewer replied, breathless with excitement.

“So can I” replied a smiling Lee, sitting back in his chair.

His career started to flag around the 1990s – not because of the quality of his acting but in terms of the frequency with which he did great films. A notable release in this period was Jinnah, with Lee playing the titular character of the founder of Pakistan. He considers the film his “most important”, “in terms of its subject and the great responsibility” he had as an actor.

Lee’s career was revived spectacularly in 2001 with the release of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, in which he played Saruman. There’s an oft-overlooked aspect to this character in the movies: the only other ‘important’ villain in them was Sauron, and he did not possess a physical body, did not command a physical presence. Yes, there were the orcs and the ghastly lieutenants (like the Mouth of Sauron), but as far as a visual focal point of intimidation in the movies was necessary, Lee’s Saruman provided it. Until his death in the first scene of The Return of the King, he was the greatest threat and remained the face of the enemy.

The Return of the King was also a tribute of sorts to Lee’s continued support and endorsement of the fantasy genre through the decades. Even if the Marvel multiverse and the Harry Potter series today tower over other films in terms of earnings, and production houses have become more favourable in terms of sponsoring sci-fi and fantasy films, a part of the support for them can be traced to the success of Peter Jackson’s films: The Return of the King was in fact the first fantasy film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, in 2004.

During and after starring in the Middle Earth epics, Lee donned the role of the antagonist Count Dooku in two Star Wars films, Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002) and Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005). Also in 2005, he played Willy Wonka’s father in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. He later said in an interview to Total Films, “Johnny Depp, as far as I’m concerned, is Number One of his generation; there’s no one who can touch him.”

Lee was a product of the ‘old school’, a generation given to resilience and forthrightness, possessing a commitment toward once-commonplace ideas like waiting one’s turn. It’s hard to say if that’s what led to more than six decades of Hollywood success or if it was the other way round – but it doesn’t matter. Lee remained an actor until the day he died (a month ago, he’d signed up for a Danish film). He was proud of the wide variety of people he got the opportunity to play, to work with giants ranging from Laurence Olivier to George Lucas to Tim Burton. And through all the years he, with quiet dignity, made a giant of himself.