Sir Christopher Lee, the prolific actor whose work spanned decades and franchises, with roles in the Lord of the Rings, Hobbit, Star Wars and James Bond movies, and whose stately persona was cemented in a string of classic horror films, has died. The actor passed on Sunday at the age of 93 in London, but news of his death was not announced until Thursday.
By his biography’s own estimate, Lee’s film and TV credits numbered more than 250. He played the vampire Dracula in eight movies for the famed Hammer studio. He played the fallen wizard Saruman in four of Peter Jackson’s six Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films. (Five, if you count his appearance in the extended cut of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.) He played the corrupted Jedi Count Dooku in the last two Star Wars prequel movies, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. He was also the voice of Dooku in the 2008 animated movie, Star Wars: The Clone Wars.
Lee, a golfing buddy and cousin of 007 author Ian Fleming, played the Bond villain Francisco Scaramanga opposite Roger Moore in The Man with the Golden Gun; he is regarded as one of the best Bond bad guys of all-time. Ever wary of being typecast, Lee worked everywhere and with everyone. He graced the album cover of Paul McCartney & Wings’ iconic Band on the Run. He hosted a classic 1977 episode of Saturday Night Live. He recorded heavy-metal music — and in his 90s, no less. Lee did so many projects, worked on so many sets, he said he couldn’t recall everything. “And certainly some of them you want to forget,” Lee said.
The truth was that to fans who’d grown up watching Lee’s horror films, a group that included future filmmakers such as Jackson, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, Lee was never less than memorable. Born May 27, 1922, in London to a prominent family, the towering Lee, who stood 6-foot-4 or 6-foot-5, depending on which reporter was measuring, came of age as his country was at siege. He served five years in the British military during World War II, and didn’t give an acting career a go until he was in his mid-20s. Lee kicked around the British-film industry with bit part after bit part.
“For the first 10 years I was considered too tall for the average English leading man,” Lee once said. In 1957, his height proved to be his ticket to play Frankenstein’s monster in The Curse of Frankenstein. The production was significant in several ways: It was Lee’s first notable role; it was Lee’s first major collaboration with Peter Cushing, his frequent costar; and, it was Hammer’s first major horror movie, as well as the genre’s first outing in vivid, blood-red color.Horror of Dracula was released in 1958.
The movie marked the first time Lee wore the vampire count’s robe, and it made him a star. Lee spent most of the next two decades appearing in Hammer’s gothic tales. Despite his wealth of horror credits, Lee bristled at the horror-star label.“I don’t like the label because it’s used to my disadvantage,” Lee said. “People say, ‘He can’t be funny, he does horror movies.’” Lee’s early forays outside of Hammer’s castles included 1962’s Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace, his first of multiple turns as the famed detective, 1973’s The Wicker Man, the mystery-horror chiller later remade with Nicolas Cage, the comic, Richard Lester-directed The Three Musketeers and its sequel The Four Musketeers, and the 1974 Bond film.
In 1976, Lee was Hammer’s Dracula one more last time in Dracula and Son. After, he moved from Britain to the United States. “I couldn’t see anything happening here except a continuation of what had gone before,” Lee told London’s Telegraph. “A couple of friends, [the actor] Dick Widmark and [writer-director] Billy Wilder, told me I had to get away from London otherwise I would always be typecast. ”Early on in Hollywood, Lee appeared in everything from disaster epics (Airport '77) to primetime TV (a Charlie’s Angels episode, a Captain America TV-movie) to films directed by longtime fans (Spielberg’s 1941).
In the early 2000s, he ascended to elder-statesman status and an even-wider audience via the Jackson and Lucas franchises."I was looking for a villain…more elegant and sinister than scary,” Lucas said of casting Lee. “He’s a more sophisticated villain.” In Attack of the Clones, Lee’s Dooku engaged Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi in a lightsaber fight. According to the Guinness World Records Website, the movie was one of a record 17 in which Lee did battle with a sword or sword-like weapon. Lee used his famous voice to record several albums, including the 2010 heavy-metal collection, Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross. He released the 2012 followup, Charlemagne: The Omens of Death, at age 91.
In 2009, Lee was knighted by Prince Charles. The ceremony would’ve been a capper on Lee’s career except for the fact that Lee kept right on making movies. He even returned to Hammer for the revived company’s 2011 thriller, The Resident, starring Hilary Swank. Said Lee in 2009, “What’s really important for me is, as an old man, I’m known by my own generation and the next generation knows me too.”
Watch a clip of Lee in ‘The Lord of the Rings’ below: