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CHRISTOPHER LEE TRIBUTE





CHRISTOPHER LEE: The Last King

By Dr. Abner Mality and The Great Sun Jester

"Making films has never just been a job to me, it is my life. I have some interests outside of acting – I sing and I've written books, for instance – but acting is what keeps me going, it's what I do, it gives life purpose..."

On the 7th of June, 2015, a man died and with him died an era.

Sir Christopher Frank Carandini Lee passed away at the age of 93 after a rich and long life. By now, the tributes to him are many and perhaps my own words are unnecessary in the grand scheme of things. But I must write them anyway. I've been preparing for this article for quite some time. Even though Christopher Lee was a mortal man like any of us, his vitality was such that death still came as a surprise.

I could write a multi-volume set of books based on Lee's incredible life, but there is no need to go over it in such detail. I'll cover some of the astounding facts of his career and go over some of his iconic (and not so iconic) performances, certainly. But this article is more about what he meant to me personally and the great age of the horror icon that has now come to a close.

Lee was the last of these. The names are well-known and I invoke them constantly: Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, the Chaneys both Sr. and Jr. A pantheon of greatness for those of us who enjoy horror that still involves atmosphere and acting. A pantheon that will never exist again in an age of "mo cap", "green screens", teenage victims and faceless slashers. That's what I mourn as much as the death of Christopher Lee.

I can't recall exactly when I first saw him or what role it was. It may very well have been his first stab at Count Dracula in "The Horror of Dracula". As a kid, I lived by horror movies and never passed up a chance to watch them. This was in the days of the 70's when local channels were packed with classic horror movies. My first really strong memory of him (and also his great friend and co-star Peter Cushing) was the terrifying death struggle between Cushing's Dr. Van Helsing and Lee's Count Dracula in that film. No better clash between the mortal adversaries was ever put on film. To a kid not yet 10 years old, the sight of seeing Dracula disintegrated into a rotten but still mobile corpse in the light of the sun was life-changing. Yes, I do think that was my first actual encounter with Mr. Christopher Lee.

I was probably too young at that point to associate actor's names with their roles, but it didn't take me long. Pretty soon I was looking for the scary tall guy with the booming deep voice in other roles and I found them....Frankenstein's Monster, the Mummy, the sinister characters of "The Oblong Box", "The Creeping Flesh" and "Dr. Terror's House of Horrors".  The name of Christopher Lee virtually guaranteed frightening entertainment.

It is a sorry thing that few, if any, kids of the modern day will experience horror icons like I did. Lee, Karloff, Price and the rest were ACTORS that us "monster kids" looked for. Not just "characters" like Jason or Freddy Kruger. They felt like a surrogate family, people that you knew. One by one they have passed away, with no one to take their place. Lee's partner in horror Cushing passed away in 1985. The great Vincent Price followed him nine years later. Since 1994, it's been Christopher Lee bravely holding the banner by himself. And what an amazing job he did! Many would say his best parts came AFTER 1990.

So really I am not just in mourning for Christopher Lee. I am mourning the existence of the HORROR ICON. That age of film lasted almost 100 years. It started in the age of the silents with the great Lon Chaney Sr and took off into overdrive in the 1930's with the arrival of Karloff, Lugosi, and Lionel Atwill. It was reinvigorated in the 1950's when Vincent Price arrived on the scene. And late in the decade, the first great roles for Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing.

They began to leave us in the late 50's with the passing of Bela Lugosi. Then Karloff in 1968, Lon Jr. in the early 70's and most heart-breakingly for Mr. Lee, Cushing's departure in 1985. By that time, the horror movie as we knew it had already disappeared in a fog of monotone slashers and gut-munching zombies. But Lee reminded us of those great days. His roles changed dramatically after the mid-70's and became more diverse. But his supreme villainy and connection to the greatness of the past remained. Director Tim Burton never forgot Christopher Lee and managed to find roles for the aging actor in films like "Sleepy Hollow"  and "Dark Shadows".

Lee had a magnificent rebirth in the early 2000's when he portrayed two of his most famous villains...the traitorous wizard Saruman in Peter Jackson's monumental "Lord of the Rings" trilogy and the Sith Lord Count Dooku in two entriess in the "Star Wars" franchise. Along with his journey into heavy metal and his acclaimed performance in "Jinnah", Christopher Lee had a career renaissance in his late 80's and early 90's which brought him acclaim to a whole new generation.

He never stopped acting. He had his first film appearance in "Corridor of Mirrors" in 1948. His last acting job came in 2015 for the film "Angels in Notting Hill", which will be released posthumously.  That is 68 continuous years of acting roles without a break. And we are speaking here mostly of his film work. There were also many TV appearances,  voice work on cartoons and video games and his musical ventures.

And we haven't even touched on his exceptional military service, his charitable work, his extraordinary connections to European royalty...

How can I do justice to Christopher Lee?

I will try a brief run down of his life and highlights of his entertainment career. Looking at the monumental list, I am always discovering something new. I'll give it my best shot, I can do no less for the last of the titans, the final king of horror.

He was born on May 27, 1922 in Westminster, London. His family was an auspicious one. His father Geoffrey Trollope Lee was a Colonel in the King's Royal Rifle Corps and his mother was the Countess Estelle Marie, whose family name was Carrandini. The Carrandinis were European royalty for more than a thousand years and could trace their lineage back to the great King Charlemagne who helped to lift Europe out of the Dark Ages. In 2010, Christopher Lee would actually portray Charlemagne on his symphonic metal album "Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross". He had one older sister, Xandra.

Lee's mother and father separated when Christopher was at an early age. His mother took him to Switzerland for a time until returning to London. It was then that he began a long academic career that ncluded acting. Lee was a very adept student, with a particular facility for languages...he could fluently speak Italian, French, German and Spanish and dabbled also in Russian, Greek and Swedish. In later years, he did actual film roles completely in German and Italian. His only downfall was math, which he was mediocre at. In addition to doing well in acting and music,  he was also a good athlete, excelling at fencing and racquetball.

The coming of the Second World War threw a major wrench into Lee's life, as it did with almost every British citizen. Lee's military career would make for an exciting and outstanding film in itself. After an uneventful turn serving with the Finns during their "Winter War" in 1939, Lee returned to London and joined the RAF. He was assigned to fly the state of the art de Havilland Tiger Moth fighter planes in Africa but misfortune put an end to his flying career when excruciating headaches and blurry vision forced him to withdraw from the Air Force. He had problems with his optic nerves and doctors advised him never to fly again.


Lee was desparate for something to do after this blow and finally applied to the RAF Intelligence division. With his willingness to travel and his facility with languages, he was a natural for that kind of work and no doubt his acting background may have helped him as well. He saw major action in almost every important battle in Africa, including Tobruk and Benghazi. At one point, he was almost killed by a Nazi air raid on the base he was stationed at. By the time 1943 rolled around, he was part of the great campaign to retake Sicily from the Axis Forces. It was a tumultuous time....he came down with malaria on 6 separate occasions and recovered from each one. He also helped prevent a mutiny by restless Allied troops.

During the push against the Nazis, Lee had helped to liberate the concentration camps. The horrors there had a profound effect on him and he never spoke at length about what he saw there, except to say that it made the activities of the fictitious villains he later played pale in comparison. When the war ended, Lee did work for the Central Registry of War Criminals and Security Suspects, helping to track down fleeing Nazis. This activity he also never discussed in detail.

At the suggestion of his cousin Nicolo Carrandini, who was the Italian ambassador to England after the war, Lee decided to pursue an acting career.

I'm sure you've all heard about the "six degrees of Kevin Bacon"...how virtually any actor can be connected to Kevin Bacon in six steps. Six degrees is a joke. Christopher Lee's acting career was so long and prolific that he can be connected to any other actor in a mere 2.59 steps! I don't know where they came up with the .59 part, but I believe it!

Lee's first film role came in 1948 with a one line part in the mystery "Corridor of Mirrors". From there, he never looked back. His first ten years were spent mostly in small roles, often without dialogue. He was a chariot driver in the Biblical epic "Quo Vadis", a ship captain in "Horatio Hornblower" opposite Gregory Peck and a guardsman in Laurence Olivier's version of "Hamlet". "Hamlet" was notable because it was the first movie where he appeared alongside the actor who he was linked to for the rest of his life...Peter Cushing.

In 1957, Lee starred with Cushing again, in a movie where both had substantially larger parts. This was "The Curse of Frankenstein", the film tht started the Gothic horror revival from Hammer Studios. Lee portrayed the horribly scarred monster while Cushing was the erudite and cold-hearted Baron Frankenstein. Lee broke into Cushing's dressing room complaining that  his part was useless, to which Cushing replied that he should be glad he had it. That was the beginning of their lifelong friendship.

Of course, Lee's greatest role in horror was Count Dracula, made in 1958. This was the role that finally broke him into full-fledged stardom. His Dracula was physically imposing, with an undeniable sexual component that made him attractive to women. The role was to define his career...he would never entirely escape its shadow. Lee's relationship with Dracula was one of both love and hate. In the immediate sequels to the first film "Horror of Dracula", the Count was reduced to a bestial character...almost werewolf-like, without dialogue. Lee considered that a waste of his acting talent. He refused to appear in "The Brides of Dracula", forcing Hammer to cast another actor as a different vampire. He returned to the role in "Dracula, Prince of Darkness", where the Count had no dialogue. It was strictly Lee's physical presence that made Dracula so memorable in these films.



Lee appeared in a total of seven Dracula movies for Hammer. In the 70's, the character did have more dialogue and more of a chance to emote in films like "Satanic Rites of Dracula" and "Dracula AD 1972". With each film, Lee had to be coaxed back into the part. But by the mid-70's, the age of Hammer horror ended. It is also worth mentioning that he played Dracula once outside of the Hammer realm...1970's "Count Dracula", directed by the exploitation master Jesus Franco. While this last movie is generally considered poor, it was markedly more faithful to the original Bram Stoker novel than any of the Hammer films.

During the horror renaissance of the 60's and early 70's, Lee was in high demand and was one of the most prolific actors in the world. Many of the roles were horror-related but not all. When Lee didn't play an outright monster, he was usually cast as a villain. A notable exception was the 1964 Hammer film "The Gorgon", where he got to play an eccentric "good guy", Prof. Meister, who helps to destroy the female monster of the title. In that film, Peter Cushing played a cold hearted villain. Usually it was Cushing in the heroic role and Lee as the villain.

Lee's tremendous physical presence made his role as "The Mummy" one of his most memorable. Like many actors who have portrayed the bandaged monster, he detested the part, mostly because of the extensive makeup needed. But one scene from this movie has always burned itself into my brain. The Mummy has invaded the home of one of the men who desecrated the tomb of his princess and is strangling him to death. Naturally, the victim is played by Peter Cushing. Just as he is ready to finish him off, the beautiful wife appears and screams at him to stop the attack. The Mummy looks up at her and from the intensity of his eyes, it is immediately apparent the woman must be the image of his princess. Doubt and sadness then transform the rampaging monster into a being to be pitied. This is a remarkable scene of physical acting from Lee.

In another Hammer production, Lee played the sinister Russian monk "Rasputin", making him into an almost Dracula-like unkillable monster. What is notable about this role is that when he was a child, Lee actually met the man credited with killing the real Rasputin, Prince Yusupov.

Another famous literary villain that Lee portrayed was the diabolical Dr. Fu Manchu, in four separate films. These are little talked about in these days of hysterical political correctness. He  was Sir Henry Baskerville in the Hammer adaptation of "The Hound of the Baskervilles", where Peter Cushing played Sherlock Holmes. Years later, Lee would play Holmes himself as well as Holmes' "smarter" brother Mycroft.

One of Lee's most important and best loved roles was the Duc de Richleau in the frightening occult drama "The Devil Rides Out". A financial failure at the time of its release, the movie has now obtained the reputation of being one of Hammer's best. Lee played the heroic occultist who pitted himself against a cult of powerful devil worshippers. Author Dennis Wheatley was thrilled with Lee's portrayal of his hero, who in many ways resembled Marvel Comics' Dr. Strange.

Lee enjoyed that part himself, but his long-time favorite role was as Lord Summerisle in the subtle terror classic "The Wicker Man". Much like "The Devil Rides Out", the movie was a failure in its initial release but has became a huge cult favorite. The film was more adult and unnerving than the usual Hammer fare. Lee portrayed the master of a small English isle where paganism has returned in full force. He leads his faithful followers in joyful song as the huge "Wicker Man" of the title is burned, containing a Christian police officer lured there as a sacrifice. As is usually the case, the movie was desecrated years later by a ridiculous remake starring Nicholas Cage.

The 70's was a time of transition for Lee as he made a deliberate attempt to escape the horror roles in which he had been typecast. This involved moving to the United States. Although he certainly never escaped the shadow of Hammer, he did make a break from horror. He had success as the diabolical Cardinal Richilieu in the popular "Three Musketeers" movies released in the middle of the decade.


1974 gave Lee the chance to play an iconic villain...the suave super-assassin Scaramanga in the James Bond effort "The Man With The Golden Gun". Lee was one of the better adversaries Bond ever had, matching him in looks and taste...but unfortunately not in speed of handling a gun. One of the many ironies of Lee's career is that his mother married a relative of Bond creator Ian Fleming following her separation from Lee's father. That meant that Lee was actually a step-cousin of Fleming, whom he knew well. In fact, Fleming thought that Lee was a good choice to play Bond at one time.

Lee introduced himself to a whole new audience when he appeared as a guest host on an edition of "Saturday Night Live" in 1977. He parodied his image as a villain and horror icon with gusto, appearing one point as a vampire hunter who vanquishes an undead Richard Nixon. That one American TV appearance raised awareness of Lee's roles tenfold. Which is a good place to mention that, in addition to working steadily in film, he also made dozens of TV appearances of all kinds, including a memorable role on "Space:1999". His TV roles are too much to analyze in an article of this length.

The early 80's saw Lee tackle a couple of unique roles. In "Return of Captain Invincible", he finally got to demonstrate his magnificent singing voice in a bizarre superhero comedy created by the writers of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show". While not a success, it definitely showed not only his singing ability, but his facility for absurd comedy. In 1983, he starred in "House of the Long Shadows", which may be regarded as the very last of the "classic" horror films. More of a mystery than pure horror, the movie teamed Lee up with the other surviving horror icons of that time...Vincent Price, John Carradine and of course, Peter Cushing. The pleasure of seeing these four together makes the film well worth watching, even though Carradine and Cushing were in poor shape at the time.

The rest of the 80's and early 90's saw Christopher Lee steadily employed in a wide variety of roles. Unfortunately most of them were sub-par...the likes of "Howling II: Your Sister Is A Werewolf", "Police Academy: Mission to Moscow" and "The Stupids" were not exactly career highlights. Strangely enough, just as it looked like the aging star's career was winding down, it was actually getting ready to ramp up in the most extraordinary fashion.

In 1998, two notable events happened. First, director Tim Burton cast Lee in a small role in his big budget Hollywood film "Sleepy Hollow", which was really a kind of homage to the Hammer Studios kind of Gothic horror. That movie put him back in the public eye in a major way. The same year, Lee took on the role that he considered his best out of his vast filmography. He played Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of modern Pakistan in "Jinnah". The movie was ignored by many because it gave a frank and somewhat surreal look at a great Muslim hero, but Lee thought its was his best performance and he felt re-energized by it.

2001 saw Christopher Lee enter a new century and millenium. It started with a bang when director Peter Jackson cast him as the traitorous wizard Saruman in his hugely ambitious adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. Lee was a huge fan of "LOTR" and had always wanted to play the role of Gandalf...he re-read the books every year and considered himself a Tolkien scholar. In another irony of his career, Lee was the only person in the whole production that actually met Tolkien in person.

Lee played Saruman with gusto and suddenly he was more popular than at any time in his career. Jackson left much of his role on the cutting room floor, including his death scene, but it was restored in the DVD versions of the film. Lee returned as Saruman 10 years later when Jackson did "The Hobbit" trilogy.

2002 saw him in another hugely popular villainois role....playing the Sith Lord Count Dooku aka Darth Tyrannus in "Star Wars II: Attack of the Clones".  He would reprise the role in 2005's "Revenge of the Sith", where he would get to do a light saber duel with none other than Yoda. All this was done in his late 80's! Lee now had a part in the most famous movie series of all time as well as a hugely successful adaptation of a literary classic. But for him, it was not enough.

In 2005, Lee began his association with heavy metal music. He did a vocal duet with singer Fabio Lione of the Italian power metal band Rhapsody of Fire on their album "Symphony of Enchanted Lands II" album. It proved to be a huge success and he continued to work with Rhapsody of Fire. He also worked with Manowar, redoing the narration on the song "Dark Avenger" on the re-recorded version of their album "Battle Hymns". Lee had dabbled in a wide variety of music....he did a version of Sinatra's "My Way" and also Johnny Cash's "Ghost Riders In the Sky"...but was becoming a genuine heavy metal hero in his 90's!

He did two solo metal albums, both based on the history of Charlemagne, the European emperor he was related to: "Charlemagne: By the Cross and the Sword" in 2010 and "Charlemagne: The Omens of Death" in 2013. He received a "Spirit of Metal" award from Metal Hammer magazine and also became the oldest performer ever to land in the Billboard charts.

During this period, he kept up a torrid performing pace. In addition to the Star Wars and Lord of the Rings parts, he was also Willy Wonka's father in "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory", the voice of the Jabberwocky in "Alice In Wonderland" and had a role in Simon Pegg's "Burke and Hare". He also provided voice overs for many video games, including ones based on "Lord of the Rings" and "Star Wars". He was named the most marketable star in the world for the year 2005.

He also received many honors from the film industry and the British Empire itself. In 2001 he was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire. Prince Charles officially knighted him in 2009, allowing him to be Sir Christopher Lee. Not to be outdone, France made him a Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters in 2011.

He never stopped acting or doing things that he loved. Certainly his 54 year marriage to Danish model Gitte Kroncke played a huge part in his longevity...they were wed in 1961 and were still a couple in 2015. Lee had just signed to play a part in a movie called "The 11th" prior to his 93rd birthday. But shortly afterwards, he developed respiratory problems and on June 7th, 2015, the actor's great heart finally gave out and he passed away. His wife Gitte had the press hold off announcing his death to give her a few days to contact all of Lee's family.

Hard to believe I will never hear that deep, sonorous voice again. If any actor seemed indestructible, it was Christopher Lee. How many achievements can one man have in a life time? In the interest of brevity, I've left a lot of further tidbits out of this article, as exhaustive as it is.

The age of the horror icon is now over. It was a great age and Christopher Lee brought it to a huge, resounding close. We will not see the like of this larger than life man again.


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Some thoughts from THE GREAT SUN JESTER

My life once depended on the local paper's tv guide. Some newspapers still publish them as an addendum to their Saturday edition, but with the popularization of digital television guides and local newspapers in financial free fall, many have cut these onetime mainstays from their publishing costs. I remember them as twelve pages of television schedules for the following week accompanied by a crossword puzzle and usually a couple of pages for real estate or car dealership advertising. I remember how the printer's ink often blackened my fingers.
 
 I remember searching for Hammer movies more than anything else. Before they issued entire studio catalogs on DVD and the Internet dawned as a hub for buying hard to find movies, fans depended on local television stations to air these often forgotten movies. Forget video stores. Once you rented Horror of Dracula, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, or The Curse of Frankenstein, you hit a wall with finding other Hammer titles. Another ten years would pass before their critical and popular resurgence began in earnest. Until then, I looked to Indianapolis stations like WXIN-59 and WTTV-4 or WGN 9 in Chicago to show something new in the late hours or weekend afternoons they struggled to fill with programming. I remember watching The Devil Rides Out for the first time through a blurry haze on WXIN thanks to their weak signal. I didn’t care.
 
 I watched because of Christopher Lee. Lugosi never held my attention and his pained Valentino impersonation provoked more smirks than shivers. Frank Langella and Louis Jordan didn’t inhabit the part; they acted. Gary Oldman came closest to Lee, but even this great English actor lacked the stature and inhuman menace that Lee brought to Dracula. The gorgeous Technicolor of those early Dracula movies transformed this otherwise urbane and, by all accounts, reasonable man into towering evil incarnate on the screen. Terrence Fisher, the unsung director behind many of Hammer’s finest films, made brilliant use of Lee’s imposing stature and his presence dwarfed everyone on the screen except for the great Peter Cushing. I can only imagine how massive Lee’s portrayal must have appeared on the big screen.
 
 Old things pass away and my days of scouring the local newspaper’s television guide have ended. If I have some money I’m willing to spend, Lee’s movies are a click away. Some line my shelves. When I heard news of Lee’s passing, I remembered reading about Lugosi’s request for burial in his Dracula cape. I am sure Lee made no such request. Transformation comes again – time has turned him from a frail, ashen figure into a gallery of images collected on discs, cassette tapes, digital images, and text. He cannot die again. If The Howling II: Your Sister Is A Werewolf didn’t kill him, nothing could.