In the News: Christopher Lee reflects on a life of on-screen villainy - The Nando Times
Christopher Lee reflects on a life of on-screen villainy
by JOHN BEIFUSS
The Nando Times - January 8, 2000
Has any actor portrayed as many fiends, evil-doers, blood-drinkers and revenants as Christopher Lee, the 77-year-old icon of British horror films?
Villains aside, has anybody ever played as many notable fictional characters and historical figures of any type as the imposing, deep-voiced and aristocratic Lee?
In more than 200 movie and television appearances since his international career began in 1948, the actor - currently on-screen in "Sleepy Hollow," director Tim Burton's homage to the Hammer Films chillers that made Lee famous - has played such terrifying figures as Count Dracula (at least nine times), Fu Manchu (five times), the Frankenstein monster, the Mummy, Rasputin and Lucifer.
"With all these characters, I always look for one particular element that runs through them all, and that is a kind of sadness," Lee said in a recent telephone interview from his home in
"In the case of the creature in 'The Curse of Frankenstein,' it didn't ask to be created - it was a pitiful being. In the case of Dracula, it's the curse of immortality - forces that control him. He cannot control himself. In the case of The Mummy, it's the sadness of being brought back to life, centuries later, and believing that he is seeing the princess he once loved, born again."
On the less gruesome side of the scale, Lee portrayed the pointillist painter Seurat in director John Huston's "Moulin Rouge"; the founder of Pakistan, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, in
1998's "Jinnah"; Alexandre Dumas's Rochefort, in "The Three Musketeers" and "The Four Musketeers"; Robert Louis Stevenson's Blind Pew, in a 1990 version of "Treasure Island";
Charles Dickens's Marquis St. Evremonde, in the 1958 remake of "A Tale of Two Cities"; pharaoh Ramesses the Great, in "Moses" in 1996; Prince Philip, in the TV movie "Charles & Diana: A Love Story"; and three key characters of the Arthur Conan Doyle canon - Sherlock Holmes (several times), Sherlock's brother, Mycroft Holmes (in director Billy Wilder's "The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes"), and Sir Henry Baskerville (in the 1959 version of "The Hound of the Baskervilles").
Early this year, Lee will travel to New Zealand to play Saruman the White, the most powerful of all wizards, in director Peter Jackson's epic adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien's classic
fantasy trilogy, "The Lord of the Rings," which is one of Lee's favorite works of literature.
"It's been quite a year for me, and I hope it continues this way," said Lee, whose autobiography, "Tall, Dark and Gruesome," was published in America for the first time this year in hardcover and trade paperback editions by Midnight Marquee Press. The witty, sometimes braggadocian and yet revealingly honest work details the actor's phobias and frustrations
as it traces his life, his career and his avid interest in opera and - yes - golf.
Lee also recently completed work in what he called "the biggest production in the history of the BBC," a four-hour adaptation of another epic fantasy, author Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast.
As if that wasn't enough, Lee sings on a version of the Elvis Presley hit "It's Now or Never" that was released last month in England by British pop artist Gary Curtis. Lee - whose pop music career includes an appearance on the cover of the Paul McCartney album "Band on the Run" - puts his opera training to use by singing portions of "O Sole Mio," the Italian composition that inspired the Elvis song.
"It makes one very grateful that, when you reach my age, you're doing as much work as you've ever done. I think it's possibly because, in one respect, I may be the last of the line," Lee
said, referring to such legendary screen villains - now gone - as Lon Chaney Sr., Lon Chaney Jr., Bela Lugosi, Basil Rathbone, Peter Lorre, his friend Vincent Price, his friend and
frequent co-star, Peter Cushing, and his London next-door neighbor in the 1960s, Boris Karloff ("When we came out of our houses simultaneously, people expected to see body-bags dumped on the pavement," Lee wrote in his autobiography).
In "Sleepy Hollow," which was released to theaters Nov. 19, Lee's appearance is a cameo in the manner of Vincent Price's brief role as a mad inventor in Burton's "Edward Scissorhands." Lee plays a stern New York burgomaster who orders Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) to investigate a series of rural beheadings. Lee describes his role as that of "a person in great authority who cannot be denied," which is an accurate summation of many of his characterizations, from Count Dracula to Rasputin to Sherlock Holmes.
"I've been lucky to meet people like Vincent Price, and now Christopher Lee," director Burton says, in the pressbook for "Sleepy Hollow." "These are the people who basically inspired me to do this, and it's amazing to work with them. Christopher is hypnotic. He just looks at you with his eyes and you are compelled."
Says Johnny Depp, in the pressbook: "Christopher is truly a force to be reckoned with. Doing a scene with him and having him peering down at you, screaming into your face, all you can think of is 'My God, that's Dracula!' "
Said Lee: "Tim Burton and Steven Spielberg (who cast Lee in the movie "1941") and Joe Dante (who cast Lee in "Gremlins 2: The New Batch") and all the rest - Martin Scorsese - they've all said to me, 'We grew up watching you.' Which actually makes me feel incredibly old," he joked.
Gary J. Svehla, co-founder of Midnight Marquee Press, agreed with Lee's assessment of his reputation as "the last of the line." The Svehlas organized a horror-fantasy convention this
past August in Arlington, Va., called "Monster Rally," that attracted about 2,000 fans, hundreds of whom traveled across the country specifically to meet Christopher Lee in his first-ever hand-shaking, autograph-signing horror convention appearance.
"He is the last surviving horror film icon, the last of a breed," Svehla said. "When Mr. Lee passes, that era is closed. Nowadays, it's more like you have the Freddys, the Jasons, whatever the current fad film is, but there is no ongoing actor with that kind of talent and dedication to the fantasy film. Mr. Lee knows the history of the horror film, he is an avid fan of fantasy literature, and he's proud to be a part of it."
Lee was a little-known character actor who had played the monster in Hammer's first international success, 1957's "Curse of Frankenstein," when he landed the lead role in Hammer's followup, "Horror of Dracula," in 1958.
The impeccably acted color film, directed by Terence Fisher, now seems relatively tame, but its emphasis on blood (dubbed "Kensington gore" by the cast, according to Lee) and the heaving bodices of the vampire's victims shocked some critics at the time.
Lee's vampire, unlike Bela Lugosi's, was a feral and sexual predator. The actor donned the custom fangs and red-tinted, full-eye contact lens in six sequels for Hammer, ending with "The Satanic Rites of Dracula" in 1973.
"The part was as much a godsend to Christopher Lee as it would become a burden to him 10 years later," writes Denis Meikle of "Horror of Dracula" in "A History of Horrors: The Rise and Fall of the House of Hammer" (Scarecrow Press). "With his eyes ablaze and his eye-teeth bared, his aristocratic nostrils flaring, and his cloak clutched tight about him like the wings of a giant bat trapped in mid-flight, Lee was to make Dracula his own as no actor had before him. . . . (he was) cinema's most vivid realization of the vampire in action."
"It was the one that made the difference," Lee writes of his Dracula debut in his autobiography. "It brought me a name, a fan club and a second-hand car, for all of which I was grateful."
He said he could identify with Dracula because of "his extraordinary stillness, punctuated by bouts of manic energy . . . his power complex . . . and by no means least the fact that he was an embarrassing member of a great and noble family."
Lee was born in London on May 27, 1922, to a father who was a decorated officer in the Royal Rifle Corps and an Italian contessa mother whose family traced its lineage to 1184. However, Lee's father left the family when the future vampire was a young boy.
Lee attended Summer Fields prep school (where he co-starred in a production of Henry V with classmate Patrick Macnee of "The Avengers") and later Wellington, a military school he describes in his book as "coarse, grotesque (and) harsh," where he was sometimes disparaged as a "semi-dago." To add to his feeling of alienation, Lee stood 6-foot-4 by the time he was 17. (He is now "the tallest major movie star, at 6 ft. 5 in. in height," according to Guinness World Records 2000.)
In 1939, Lee enlisted in the Royal Air Force, where he became an intelligence officer. His duties took him to Rhodesia, the Suez, Sicily and Italy, among other locations. After his
military service, the handsome Lee - with absolutely no real experience - decided to take a crack at acting.
Perhaps he was inspired by various auguries. As a young boy, he was introduced to the assassins of Rasputin, and in 1966 he would essay the title role of Hammer's "Rasputin - The Mad Monk." Future James Bond author Ian Fleming was a cousin, and in 1974 Lee would star as the villain Scaramanga in the Bond film "The Man with the Golden Gun." As a youth visiting France, he witnessed the country's last public guillotine execution - a presentiment of gory cinematic depredations to come. And as a young man on the golf course, Lee ran into one of his movie idols, actor Conrad Veidt, whose career as a screen villain in such classics as "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" and "Casablanca" set something of a precedent for Lee.
In any event, Lee - armed with what he calls "a desire to please" - was signed to a 10 pound-per-week, seven-year contract with the Rank Organization in 1947. One of his first jobs
was a one-word role as a spear-carrier in Laurence Olivier's 1948 film production of "Hamlet."
Many filmmakers disparaged Lee as "too tall" and "too foreign-looking" for movies. Nevertheless, during the 1940s and early '50s, Lee worked with many notable directors, including
Raoul Walsh ("Captain Horatio Hornblower"), Nicholas Ray ("Bitter Victory"), George Marshall ("Beyond Mombasa") and Orson Welles (an experimental TV production of "Moby Dick"). He dueled with Errol Flynn in the star's final swashbuckler, "The Dark Avenger." In this film, as in many of his early efforts and many more to come, the evil Lee was killed.
"Outside the cinema I had not yet learned to live, but within it I had most certainly learned to die," Lee writes in his autobiography. "I could die for you in every way known to man, and in a few ways known only to scriptwriters. I could only hope that (these deaths) would serve some purpose, and that perhaps a reputation might come in the same way as a coral formation, which is made up of a deposit of countless tiny corpses."
That reputation did come, thanks to Hammer Films, and it has continued unabated - Lee says he has never been out of work for more than a few months in his 50 years in movies.
The actor's filmography thus includes such memorable titles - if not always memorable movies - as "The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll," "Terror of the Tongs," "Corridors of Blood," "Horror Hotel," "Castle of the Living Dead," "The Gorgon," "Psycho-Circus" and "Dr. Terror's House of Horrors." One of his suspense films, 1973's "The Wicker Man," was voted one of the 100 best British films of all time in a recent survey conducted by the British Film Institute.
"I think if I was to sum up my career, I'd say I've been in more cult movies than anyone," said Lee. He also appeared in the 1961 psychological thriller "Scream of Fear," the 1952 spoof "The Crimson Pirate," with Burt Lancaster, and 1990's "The Rainbow Thief," a typically surreal work from the Polish-Chilean maverick genius director of "El Topo," Alejandro Jodorowsky.
For a few years in the 1960s, the multilingual Lee lived in Switzerland, making films in Germany, Italy, Spain and France. The continental focus didn't bring him as wide a variety of
acting offers as he had hoped.
"It's perfectly true that between 1957, when I did the first Hammer film, and 1970, I was virtually typecast in the same type of film - I was always playing the baddie," Lee said, from
London. "I realized that this was not a good idea, because I possess a degree of versatility that an actor must have, and I wanted to get an opportunity to show that."
Lee credits the great director Billy Wilder with opening the door to other roles. Wilder - the director of "Sunset Boulevard" and "Some Like It Hot," among others - cast Lee as Mycroft
Holmes in his affectionate and melancholic examination of the Sherlockian legend, "The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes" (1970).
Encouraged by this experience to actively seek a wider variety of roles, Lee relocated to Los Angeles for 10 years in the 1970s and early '80s, appearing in "Airport '77" and other non-chillers, such as the comedy "Serial," in which he played a gay biker. His most enjoyable experience while living in America was in 1978, when he was guest-host for an episode of "Saturday Night Live" with Bill Murray, John Belushi, Gilda Radner and others. However, Lee disliked the "cultural vacuum" of Hollywood, so he and his wife, former Danish model Birgit Kroencke, returned to London.
The Lees, who have a daughter, Christina, have been married since 1961. "I don't want to sound moral or anything like that, but marriage hopefully is for life," he said. "It is 'for better or for worse,' and you always experience both. Sometimes the worse is very, very bad, but we've never had an extreme where everything has gone terribly wrong. It's the disagreements in the marriage that probably help it as much as anything. Also, you've got to be friends with your wife - you've got to have patience, friendship and trust."
Lee tries to extend this sense of communication to audiences. "I always feel that when I play a part on the screen that I'm really basically talking to one individual. I have to think of it
along those lines. If that person becomes a thousand, a hundred thousand, a million, I'm still telling my story on the screen as if you were there in the room with me."
Lee also exudes a commanding sense of power on-screen, whether he's crashing through a pair of French doors in the 1959 version of "The Mummy" or compelling a young lovely to do his bidding in "Dracula - Prince of Darkness."
"Power - to me, that's the most important thing in an actor," Lee said. "The late George C. Scott had tremendous power on the screen. Clint Eastwood. Gene Hackman. Robert Duvall. Billy Bob Thornton gave an extraordinary performance in 'Sling Blade."'
As that litany indicates, Lee is something of a movie buff - in fact, unlike many British actors, he never had any interest in stage work. Asked to name his favorite movie of all time, Lee immediately cited Charles Laughton's 1955 thriller "The Night of the Hunter," and he said his second choice is Stanley Kubrick's 1957 "Paths of Glory." He added that the best
Western is "High Noon," and the best comedy - "and I will never alter my opinion" - is the 1942 version of "To Be or Not To Be" with Jack Benny.
Lee says the recent "Jinnah" - a Pakistani-British collaboration that received mostly only film festival showings, thanks to its uncommercial subject matter - may contain his best work. "For me it was probably the greatest challenge I've ever had in my career, and the greatest responsibility," he said of playing a figure who was a leader in India and Pakistan's
struggles for independence. "It's awfully important that this film be seen so it could show the world what Pakistan was meant to be."
"Jinnah" is certainly a long way from "Night of the Blood Monsters" and "Horror Express." Still, while Count Dracula may not cast a reflection in a mirror, he certainly casts a long shadow.
Asked what time it was in London during this telephone interview, Lee reported that it was almost midnight.
When the reporter responded, "Should I write, 'That's appropriate'?," Lee - in the sepulchral, Draculean tones that have chilled millions of moviegoers - responded: "You'd better not."