Christopher Lee, “best known for a variety of films from Dracula to The Wicker Man through to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, passed away on Sunday morning at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital in London,” reports Benjamin Lee. “The decision to release the news days after was based on his wife’s desire to inform family members first.” Lee and former Danish model and painter Gitte Kroencke “had been married for over 50 years.”
Also in the Guardian, Peter Bradshaw:
Christopher Lee’s initial appearance in Dracula, in 1958, was a shock. Before that moment, the fabled vampire was more associated with Max Schreck’s demonic Nosferatu from the classic German silent picture—a pale creature closer to Gollum from today’s Tolkien movies. The vampire was something stunted, bestial, insidious.
But when Lee’s Count Dracula first walked down to the stairs to greet his visitors in the first Hammer movie version it was a revelation. He was tall (six foot five), handsome and well-built, with an easy athleticism and a frank, direct manner. His deep, melodious voice completed the effect: commanding. There was nothing unwholesome-looking about this vampire, not at first: he looked more like a British or at any rate Central European version of Gary Cooper. So it was even more powerful and shocking when this patrician figure disclosed his Satanic qualities: and that face became pale and contorted, when the lips peeled back to reveal the fangs, the eyes turned red and the lips dripped with blood—and his whole being oozed with forbidden sexuality. Christopher Lee was Dracula; he had taken over the character as clearly as Sean Connery took over James Bond.
Speaking of whom. “Ian Fleming, the creator of Bond, was his cousin and frequent golf companion.” Mike Barnes and Duane Byrge in the Hollywood Reporter: “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 .”
The Telegraph‘s Tim Robey looks back on ten of Lee’s best roles, and of course, the two for which younger viewers will remember him best can’t be left off the list: Saruman the White in the Lord of the Rings trilogy and: “Just as we’d been introduced to Lee as one bearded, up-to-no-good wizard in Peter Jackson’s universe, he popped up in George Lucas’s, too, playing the corrupted Jedi Master, like a dark mirror image of Obi-Wan, who battles with Yoda in Attack of the Clones, only to fall foul of Annakin’s score-settling wrath in Revenge of the Sith. Amid the chintzy CG-overkill of these prequels and their callow lead casting, he supplied an old-school conviction and stentorian gravitas that were godsends.”
Updates: Also in the Telegraph, Robbie Collin: “For as long as he was an actor (which was a very long time indeed; his first film role was a one-line part in Terence Young’s baroquely strange romance Corridor of Mirrors, in 1948), his characters have often exuded—not immortality, exactly, but a kind of ennobled deathlessness. You always sensed they’d been around for longer than was perhaps entirely natural, and would more than likely outlast you…. Lee imbued each role with the depth of feeling you expect actors of his reputation and calibre to save for their big Shakespearean comeback at Stratford.”
And Nigel Farndale‘s 2011 interview with Lee: “When people come up to him and say they have seen him in all his films, he likes to say: ‘No you haven’t.’ Even he hasn’t seen all his films.”
Lee on The Wicker Man, as quoted in the BBC‘s obituary: “It’s the best performance I believe I’ve ever given because the part was specifically written for me by the very distinguished Anthony Schaffer.” Then, “in an interview in 2004, he cited a little known art-house film, Jinnah , as his most important work. ‘The most important film I made, in terms of its subject and the great responsibility I had as an actor, was a film I did about the founder of Pakistan, called Jinnah,’ said Sir Christopher. ‘It had the best reviews I’ve ever had in my entire career—as a film and as a performance. But ultimately it was never shown at the cinemas,’ he said, claiming the subject matter made studios ‘a bit cautious.'”
At Twitch, Shelagh Rowan-Legg reminds us that Lee “was also a frequent collaborator with Tim Burton, appearing in Sleepy Hollow, Corpse Bride and Alice in Wonderland. He was knighted in 2009 for services to drama and charity. He even recorded a series of heavy metals albums in the past 20 years. His last complete film was Angels in Notting Hill, which has yet to be released.”
Adds Ard Vijn: “There are so many legends about him, whether it was his time in the Special Forces during World War II, his film career or his stories. In the extras on the Lord of the Rings DVDs, fellow cast members tell the most magnificent anecdotes about him. He had a vast general knowledge and spoke many languages fluently. Only twelve years ago, he was asked in an interview what he considered to have been the highlight of his career, and allegedly his answer was: ‘What are you talking about? I’m in both Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, obviously THIS is the highlight of my career!'”
“One of the greatest pleasures of my professional life, hell, maybe of my life, period, was an hour-long interview I conducted with Lee in late 1994,” recalls Glenn Kenny. “The most moving and surprising portion of the conversation was when Lee was recalling his friend Peter Cushing, who had just passed away in the summer of that year. Lee missed his friend terribly but also delighted in telling me the way the two would keep each other entertained in the down time during the shoots of the many films they worked in together. Apparently they were both keen Looney Tunes fans, and used to conduct entire conversations in the voices of their favorite characters. To demonstrate, Lee actually laid his Foghorn Leghorn impersonation on me.”
Alex Hamilton in the Guardian: “He lent a severe and commanding presence to James I of Aragon in The Disputation (1986), the Comte de Rochefort in The Three Musketeers (1973), Ramses II in Moses (1995), the cardinal in L’Avaro (1990), a high priest in She (1965), the Grand Master of the Knights Templar in Ivanhoe (1958) and the Duc in The Devil Rides Out (1968). He shared his aptness for sinister material with two friends who lived near his London home in a Chelsea square: the writer of occult thrillers Dennis Wheatley and the actor Boris Karloff. The latter once cheered him up when Lee was overloaded with horror roles, remarking, ‘Types are continually in work.'”
Charles Bramesco at the Dissolve: Lee’s undeniable talent illustrated an important and oft-overlooked point: genuine skill, feeling, and intelligence make genre-bound trash cinema into tomorrow’s underground canon. He coaxed Gothic grandeur out of low-budget B-movies, blurring the line between high and low art by the sheer force of his gravitas as an actor.” And he suggests we “look back on the bite that started it all”:
“Like his frequent co-star Peter Cushing, he was in many ways a paradox—a thoroughly modern actor, yet also a throwback to an earlier age when actors loomed genuinely large.” For Jonathan Rigby, writing for Sight & Sound, a career highlight “was Billy Wilder’s elegiac masterwork The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, in which Lee was an elegantly waspish Mycroft Holmes, a role that helped redefine casting directors’ views of him, eventually bringing an end to what he ruefully termed his ‘Graveyard Period.'”
And for the Atlantic‘s David Sims, “Lee was the definition of presence; no matter how creaky the material, he lent it instant legitimacy simply by showing up.”
In the New York Times, Anita Gates, noting that Lee “grew up in the fashionable Belgravia neighborhood” in London, “the son of Lt. Col. Geoffrey Trollope Lee and Contessa Estelle Marie Carandini, a member of an old Italian family,” adds that he “often said that he identified with Count Dracula, because they were both embarrassments to an aristocratic family.”
Updates, 6/13: John Coulthart has posted “a short piece by Lee himself about his relationship to the role that made him famous. This is taken from The Dracula Scrapbook, a collection of Dracula and vampire-related cuttings assembled by Peter Haining for New English Library in 1976.”
At the Chiseler, David Cairns makes a few sharp observations about some of Lee’s most memorable performances and then adds: “As he observed himself, he had plenty of practice dying (impaled, drowned, shot, stoned, struck by lightning…). He even played Death (plus both Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes and Henry Baskerville). Plus he was 93. So I’m hoping he achieved his passing as smoothly, graciously and without apparent effort as he did nearly everything else. And I hope it’s not an open casket funeral because that would give rise to unrealistic expectations.”
“No one in the history of film has ever captured the irresistible erotic allure of corruption and decadence the way Christopher Lee did,” writes Salon‘s Andrew O’Hehir. “Over the course of his long and prolific career… Lee became one of the greatest screen icons of all time by playing infinite variations on the same theme. The thing is, it’s one hell of a theme: the villainous aristocrat who sees into the true nature of things, and is willing to let you into the secret. For a modest price: Your soul, your life, your sense of reality and all that you supposedly hold dear.”
“In most of [his] movies, Lee was up to no good, but with that long, lean frame and crisp English-schoolboy diction, he made menace seem positively magisterial,” writes Variety‘s Scott Foundas. “Then, in 2011, he was the kindly bookshop owner in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo—a movie about the timeless power of cinema, where Lee’s iconography loomed larger than his relatively small role.”
“Why was he so touchy about what is, by any measure, a remarkable legacy?” wonders Vulture‘s David Edelstein. Lee was often “told by casting directors he was ‘too tall and foreign-looking’ to play proper Englishmen. So he played Nazis, Arabs, Spanish pirates, Asian torturers, and, in 1957, the monster to Cushing’s Baron Frankenstein in Hammer Films’ Curse of Frankenstein, the film that kicked off the British horror boom that lasted until the mid-’70s. So Lee… would spend nearly seven decades embodying the ‘alien other.'”
“[A]udiences were drawn to him, and sometimes found themselves rooting for his characters to triumph over the heroes,” writes Peter Sobczynski at RogerEbert.com. “As someone who grew up watching his films (and who was once lucky enough to meet him when he came to serve on the jury at the Chicago International Film Festival one year), I can assure you that while he may not have been a movie star in the classic sense, he was one of the great screen presences of all time.”
For Rolling Stone, Jon Weiderhorn looks back on Lee’s late career in metal; at Little White Lies, David Jenkins, Adam Woodward and Sophie Monks Kaufman each write up a favorite Lee performance; and Aljean Harmetz‘s posted clips at Thompson on Hollywood.
Update, 6/14: “I first met Lee in 1991, when he provided the narration for a Channel 4 documentary I was working on entitled Fear in the Dark,” recalls Mark Kermode in the Observer:
But it was while making a documentary about the cult British classic The Wicker Man that I saw Lee at his most passionate. “I don’t think that anyone up to the time we showed it had ever seen a film quite like it,” he told me in 2001 of the film he considered to be his finest work…. The Wicker Man was a masterpiece but it struggled to find a home in the landscape of 70s cinema, with which it was bizarrely out of step. Unloved by its production company British Lion (“they told me they thought it was one of the 10 worst films they had ever seen,” said Lee), it was cut down and released as a B-picture on a double bill with Nic Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. Years later, thanks largely to Lee’s tireless flag-waving, the film was reassessed and partially restored, having been hailed by Cinefantastique as “the Citizen Kane of horror movies.” All of which gave Lee great cause for rejoicing—although he continued to believe that a superior, more complete cut of the film languished in a vault somewhere, awaiting rediscovery.
Update, 6/15: “Joseph Failla, my movie-going pal from the late 1960s on, and a sometime DVD reviewer for Premiere back in the early aughts, wrote me with some reminiscences and observations on the late Christopher Lee,” and Glenn Kenny‘s posted them.
Update, 6/18: From Wes Craven‘s tribute, published in the Hollywood Reporter: “The length and variety of his career speaks to a man with a wealth of curiosity, as do his offscreen activities. It’s a rare man who releases his first album at 76 and then follows it up with several more. His biography calls to mind a John Buchan novel with his upper-class derring-do. Many of us hope we’ll live life to the fullest—Lee actually did.”
Update, 6/19: Leonard Maltin talks with Joe Dante and then with John Landis about Lee. Dante: “I would have to say that the first Dracula picture was a pretty remarkable performance. As much as he sort of disowned the whole thing, the whole series as a group, I think that one really does stand out over the others…. What I think he didn’t get enough chance to do was comedy, because he was able to take a very humorless character and because of the absurdity of the situation played the humor of it. In person he was actually an extremely funny man.”
Landis: “He had quite a war, which was a secret. He was highly decorated and was on a lot of very scary missions. Once he let something slip and I thought, ‘Oh, he’s going to talk about the war.’ He said, ‘No, John, I can’t.’ And I said, ‘Oh, come on…’ He leaned over—you can imagine that voice—and said, ‘Can you keep a secret?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ And he said, ‘So can I.’ I only had him in two of my movies, but I knew him for years, and he was a class act all the way around.”
Update, 6/20: A tribute from Nelson Carvajal, “Acting Away Like Mad” (7’49”).
Update, 6/29: “I first met Lee in December 1974, when he visited San Francisco to promote The Man With the Golden Gun,” recalls John Stanley in the San Francisco Chronicle. “Lee was always a gentleman, soft-spoken and articulate, always searching for new kinds of film to escape being typecast, and yet admitting, in his deep, melodic voice, ‘I’m not averse to playing in other horror films if I feel they’re in the proper vein. I’m dying to do Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but only as it was originally written by Bram Stoker.'”
Update, 7/8: “There are some who would still paint Zeena Schreck as the devil’s daughter,” writes Tony Sokol. “Infamous since infancy, hers was the first public satanic baptism in history; a media spectacle orchestrated by her father Anton LaVey, founder of the Church of Satan. At one point, Zeena headed three of the most notorious magical societies in modern times. However, in 1990 Zeena renounced her father’s church and has since converted to Tibetan Buddhism. Despite her departure from satanism, she had occasion to form a friendship with the stately British vampire-actor in 1995. The interdisciplinary avant-garde artist spoke exclusively with the Chiseler about the legendary actor.”