As a boy, my bedroom wall carried a gallery of posters: Starsky and Hutch, Spiderman, The Fonz, and Christopher Lee as Count Dracula. Of these, Lee was my favourite. Utterly obsessed with vintage horror movies, I lived for Friday night’s ‘Appointment With Fear’ – a spot on ITV which, if my luck was in, would deliver 90 minutes in the imposing company of Christopher as the Prince Of Darkness and the compelling Peter Cushing as Van Helsing.
Some actors seem born to a particular role. Sean Connery as Bond, Stephen Fry as Oscar Wilde, but nobody more so than Christopher Lee as Dracula. Compressing a gentlemanly austerity, a brooding sexuality and a savage bestiality into a performance which often carried few lines, cannot be underestimated as a skill. He embodied the part so completely, his interpretation is now the image which flashes into the mind when somebody mentions the Transylvanian Count, eclipsing even Bela Lugosi.
“Casting directors balked at a figure who would tower over the leading man.”
Perhaps this was inevitable. Lee’s own heritage was at least as exotic as that of the characters he played. Born in Belgravia in 1922, his mother was a real Contessa, his father a career soldier, and his great-grandmother was the celebrated opera singer Marie (Burgess) Carandini.
Other obituaries have made the point that he struggled initially as an actor, but I feel sure this could be said of all thespians. It’s certainly true he was hampered by his height – most casting directors balked at a figure who would tower over the leading man; and there’s some evidence he was accused of looking too ‘foreign’. Nevertheless, following military service (where he spent time as an intelligence officer) he was accepted into the Rank Organisation’s charm school for aspiring performers and began to pick up some film and TV work. Interestingly, he starred in minor roles with Cushing in Olivier’s ‘Hamlet’ and Moulin Rouge, although they didn’t meet until the early Hammer productions. And it was Hammer which gave his talents a natural home.
With the need for a romantic lead replaced by the requirement for a domineering monster, Lee took the part of the creature in Hammer’s ‘The Curse Of Frankenstein’, with Cushing as the warped doctor. A surprise hit, the studio knew it had found an audience for great British horror, and placed Christopher under contract. After a turn as The Mummy came the performance for which he will forever be remembered: ‘The Horror Of Dracula’ was released in 1958, and Lee would play the vampiric aristocrat in many sequels through the sixties and seventies.
“Browsing Lee’s filmography is quite dizzying.”
It would be dishonest to say every one of these Dracula films is a triumph, but Lee is never less than impressive. His booming voice, poise, severity and stature fill the screen, when the screenplay would diminish a lesser actor. In the simplest terms he doesn’t play Count Dracula, he becomes Count Dracula. It’s a thrill to observe, time and again.
Understandably, he sought to expand beyond that pivotal role (although he was never disparaging about it) and the seventies took him to Hollywood, a move which culminated in his turn as that most suave and deadly of Bond villains, Francisco Scaramanga – The Man With The Golden Gun.
Browsing Lee’s filmography is quite dizzying. Whether his profile was high or slightly dimmed, he worked and worked. He often said he’d appeared in more movies than any other actor. This is harder to verify than you might think, but he may well have been right. There’s no doubting at least 200 credits, and that excludes voice parts and cameos.
Of course, the new century brought Christopher rushing back to our attention. In 1977 he’d been offered the part of Grand Moff Tarkin in the first Star Wars, which he’d declined (funnily enough, the character was eventually played by Peter Cushing). But in 2002 he was cast as Count Dooku in the second of the Star Wars prequels. Again, his mastery of the villainous was a highlight in a so-so picture, and he was far from finished. In his younger days, Lee had met JRR Tolkien and was an enormous fan of his work, reporting that he read ‘Lord Of The Rings’ once a year for a decade. So it must have been a great pleasure to play Saruman in Peter Jackson’s productions.
All great performers have an uncanny knack of generating remarkable, personal histories. Christopher Lee was no exception. For instance, he was a great admirer of German and Scandinavian heavy metal, even lending his voice to a few albums. He was also a cousin by marriage of Ian Fleming, and by co-incidence, became a neighbour of Boris Karloff. Seemingly unwittingly, extraordinary men live extraordinary lives.
Not long before his death, Sir Christopher was asked how he’d like to be remembered. “As someone rather different…” was his reply.