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By Mike Barnes, Duane Byrge
Christopher Lee, the mystical British actor whose haunting, intimidating performances as Count Dracula, the Frankenstein monster and Fu Manchu made him an icon of horror films and the cinematic embodiment of villainy, has died. He was 93.
Lee, who as bad guy Scaramanga battled Roger Moore’s James Bond in The Man With the Golden Gun (1974) and re-ignited his career in his late 70s with what would be recurring roles in the Lord of the Rings, Hobbit and Star Wars franchises, has died. He was 93.
According to media reports, Lee died on Sunday morning, June 7 at Westminster Hospital in London after being admitted for respiratory problems and heart failure. The Guardian reported that his wife, former Danish model and painter Gitte Kroencke, decided to release the news days later in order to inform family members first. The couple had been married since 1961
Incredibly, the London native had more than 275 credits on IMDb, making him perhaps the most prolific feature-film actor in history. He did many of his own stunts, likely appeared in more on-screen sword fights than anyone else and was the only member of the Lord of the Rings cast to have actually met author J.R.R. Tolkien, who was born in 1892.
With his gaunt 6-foot-5 frame and deep, strong voice, Lee was best at playing characters — slave traders, crazed kings, vampires, demented professors — who were evil, murderous, dour and unrepentantly ruthless.
Starting with The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Horror of Dracula (1958), Lee, like a mad scientist, helped Hammer Films bring the genre of horror back to life. He played the bloodsucking and brooding Prince of Darkness 10 times but disliked being known as a “horror legend.”
Lee was menacing in the title role of The Mummy (1959) and, that same year, starred as the new owner of Baskerville Hall in the remake of The Hound of the Baskervilles, starring his best friend, Peter Cushing, as Sherlock Holmes. The suave and courtly Cushing was his castmate in Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula as well.
He appeared three times as Holmes on screen, most recently in the 1991 telefilm Incident at Victoria Falls, and starred as the detective’s brother Mycroft in Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970).
Lee also was Rasputin and Lucifer, and his characters executed King Charles I of England and Louis the XVI of France. He relished the evil roles: “As Boris Karloff [his Corridors of Blood co-star] told me, you have to make your mark in something other actors cannot, or will not, do. And if it’s a success, you’ll not be forgotten.”
His 1977 autobiography was titled Tall, Dark and Gruesome.
Lee played Rochefort of Three Musketeers fame three times and was Sax Rohmer’s Asian evil genius with that distinctive mustache in five films of the 1960s, starting with The Face of Fu Manchu (1965).
Ian Fleming, the creator of Bond, was his cousin and frequent golf companion. The author wanted Lee to play the title villain in the 007 film Dr. No (1962), but the job went to Joseph Wiseman. For Bond fans, it was worth the wait after seeing his turn as the wealthy assassin who employs only bullets made of gold in The Man With the Golden Gun.
Lee’s considerable body of film work also included Captain Horatio Hornblower (1951), The Wicker Man (1973), To the Devil a Daughter (1976), The Passage (1979), House of the Long Shadows (1983), Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990), The Golden Compass (2007), The Resident (2011), Hugo (2011) and four films with director/fan Tim Burton: Sleepy Hollow (1999), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007) and Dark Shadows (2012).
Lee, who was knighted in 2009, appeared as Saruman in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and in the director’s two Hobbit films, including The Battle of Five Armies (2014). And he was Count Dooku in the Star Wars installments Attack of the Clones (2002), Revenge of the Sith (2005) and The Clone Wars (2008).
“This last decade has been the most extraordinary decade of my life,” he said in a 2012 interview.
Christopher Frank Carandini Lee was born on May 27, 1922 (American horror legend Vincent Price was born on the same date 11 years earlier), and attended exclusive prep schools. He went to Eton College and Wellington College and studied Greek and Latin.
During World War II, Lee served in the Royal Air Force and Special Forces and spent one year in a hellacious winter campaign in Finland. He was said to be a spy but never wanted to talk about it, honoring an oath of secrecy.
“When the Second World War finished I was 23 and already I had seen enough horror to last me a lifetime,” he told the Telegraph in 2011. “I’d seen dreadful, dreadful things, without saying a word. So seeing horror depicted on film doesn’t affect me much.”
Lee was decorated for distinguished service, and after his discharge, he took the advice of his uncle, the Italian ambassador in London, and tried his hand in the film business, landing a contract with the Rank Organisation.
The Curse of Frankenstein — a box-office hit and the first film to feature Mary Shelley’s disfigured creature in color — was a big break for him. Lee likely landed the gig because he was so tall.
Wilder told him he needed to come to America to further his career, and he took that advice and made Airport ’77, in which his character died under water and he almost drowned.
He said the film that made him the most proud was Jinnah (1998), in which he played the founder of Pakistan.
Despite his serious demeanor, Lee liked to showcase his offbeat, self-deprecating wit. He hosted Saturday Night Live in 1978, and his show (with musical guest Meat Loaf) reached 35 million viewers, one of its most-watched installments.
“As you may know, I first came to public attention as a result of my appearances in certain rather eerie and even macabre films,” he said during the SNL opening. “You may be surprised to know that I haven’t made one in several years.
“This is because I have a great deal of respect for this kind of film, and I don’t think that very good ones are being produced anymore. Week after week, I find myself receiving scripts like The Creature From the Black Studies Program … and Frankenstein Snubs The Wolf Man … and of course, Dr. Terror’s House of Pancakes.”
Later, he played a Russian commandant for laughs in Police Academy: Mission to Moscow (1994).
An expert fencer and honorary member of three stuntmen unions, Lee also knew how to handle a golf club. He was the first actor to be accepted into The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers. How good was he? He thought he had enough cred to offer advice to Tiger Woods on how to play The Masters.
Music was important to him. He appeared in operas, sang “Name Your Poison” in The Return of Captain Invincible (1983) opposite Alan Arkin and was among the pack of “convicts” on the cover of Paul McCartney & Wings’ 1973 album Band on the Run.
In 2010, Lee recorded a symphonic heavy metal concept album, Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross (he said he was related to the emperor on his mother’s side). Three years later, he released a follow-up that had Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath on guitar.
“People never thought I would be a heavy metal performer. Well, I am,” he said in the 2012 interview.
Sure, he never was nominated for an Oscar, but he has a Metal Hammer Golden God Award.
Survivors include his wife, former Danish model and painter Gitte Kroencke, whom he married in 1961, and their daughter Christina.
Lee, who had a library of 12,000 books on the occult, admitted to being fascinated by the nature of evil during a 2003 interview with the Guardian.
“ ‘Good’ people … being persistently noble can become rather uninteresting,” he said. “There is a dark side in all of us. And for us ‘bad’ people, the bad side dominates. I think there is a great sadness in villains, and I have tried to put that across. We cannot stop ourselves doing what we are doing.”