Beyond Dracula, Dooku, and Saruman: Celebrating the Long Life and Vast Career of Sir Christopher Lee

While it was inevitable, it seemed impossible.

The death of Sir Christopher Lee this week is resonating with fans around the world -- and while I've dreaded this news for years, I feel fortunate about how I received it:

My amazing screenwriter friend, Daniel Waters (Heathers, Batman Returns, Vampire Academy) -- truly a cinéaste's cinéaste, he -- sent me a thoughtful note, offering condolences, and noting that Mr. Lee was "not immortal after all": useful and motivating advice for anyone!

Obviously, Christopher Lee was a legend, and he remains one. I've never concealed my considerable appreciation for the man. No performer's career have I followed so avidly, and very, very few, I feel, deserve to be followed so avidly. In a movie culture of ever bigger, louder, and emptier booms, and a celebrity culture of relentless panty flashes and nip slips, Mr. Lee always reminds us of elegance, of discipline, of presence. With Christopher Lee in a production, there was never any need for lame camera-shaking and ADD cutting -- he held you. (According to Australian artist and director Philippe Mora, whom I consider a friend, Mr. Lee was also a self-focusing actor: he facilitated the cinematographer's work by aligning himself with the lens!)

I enjoyed a lengthy interview with Christopher Lee several years ago, before the first Lord of the Rings live-action movie opened, launching the greatest chapter of Mr. Lee's career -- at least if measured by global popularity. (Thank you, John Smith.) Not a bad gig for an octogenarian! He proved a terrific subject, attentive and energetic, as full of tales as you'd expect. And I love Saruman the White and Count (*ahem*) Dooku (let's call him Darth Tyranus, shall we?) as much as anyone. I also happen to own several copies of Dracula A.D. 1972 -- and be advised, I am apt to share. However, a career as incredibly vast as Mr. Lee's also invites appreciation for his many efforts of which the general populace may not be aware. With respect and appreciation to Sir Christopher Lee, his family, his friends, his enormous show-biz circle, and fans everywhere, allow me to present this friendly little handful:


Based on the classic fantasy novel by Peter Beagle (see my interviews with the esteemed author here and here) -- who got on well with Mr. Lee as the actor provided his own fluent dubbing for the German version -- this wonderful Rankin-Bass animated production (the same team who brought us The Hobbit and The Return of the King), features top voice talent from Mia Farrow, Jeff Bridges, Alan Arkin, and of course Christopher Lee: as the delightfully grim King Haggard.


This terrific albeit zany superhero romp -- notably bearing themes decades before they'd become popular in the current oversaturated crop -- also features Alan Arkin (as the eponymous, struggling-alcoholic savior), and is directed with great panache by Philippe Mora: a friend of Mr. Lee's, who also directed him in The Howling II (pick your own subtitle). Philippe also turned me on to Mr. Lee in 1960's youth-rebellion flick Beat Girl. Here witness the legend, as Mr. Midnight (Lee) tempts Captain Invincible (Arkin) to "Name Your Poison" via a song by Richard O'Brien and Richard Hartley -- of Rocky Horror fame! Years before his recent heavy-metal resurgence, ever-elegant Mr. Lee was not afraid to cut loose and rock out!

(Warning: This cannot be unseen, nor can it be unheard. And I loooooooove it.)


While unmistakably Tolkien, written throughout the professor's career, finally meticulously assembled by son Christopher Tolkien and published in 2007, this tome may not win over pedestrian hobbit aficionados, but the threads of Norse myth and Tolkien's own mythos, woven through this work, prove astounding -- and achingly poetic. How fortunate for us that Christopher Lee lends his mighty and moving tones to the audiobook version -- coolest bedtime stories ever -- wherein the lifelong lover of Tolkien finally becomes his most fitting voice.


Along with his turn as Pakistan's founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Mr. Lee frequently cited, including to me, The Wicker Man as the finest film of his career (see my interview with director Robin Hardy) -- and it's not hard to see why: by turns haunting and hilarious, and then devastating in its implications, the film is an absolute one-of-a-kind, horror -- or suspense, more accurately -- for smart people. (Join us! Ha!) I never say "OMG!" -- but Christopher Lee as Lord Summerisle? OMG!!!


From his childhood in London, his noble efforts in World War II, paying his dues as a "spear carrier," his breakthrough in Hammer's Frankenstein and Dracula films, and working with peers Ursula Andress, Roger Moore, Peter Cushing (and Vincent Price and John Carradine), and innumerable others -- to behind-the-scenes glimpses, his L.A. years, and even his descent from the line of Charlemagne and his forebears who began Australia's first opera company, this remarkably illuminating autobiography is an absolute must for anyone interested in show-biz (to put it mildly), or, y'know, life. I thank the used book dealer on Hollywood Boulevard, who provided me with my first copy: the paperback edition of Tall, Dark, and Gruesome. The book is currently kinda expensive (but worth it).

Thank you, Sir Christopher Lee: a legend whose works shall live on!

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