Ex-horror star Christopher Lee is 90 on Sunday, but the actor shows no sign of retiring, says Suzanne Harrington
CHRISTOPHER LEE, the gold standard Dracula, turns 90 on May 27. Most people would have put their feet up by that age, but not Lee — his latest project is playing the part of a gnarled old fisherman in Tim Burton’s latest goth-spoof movie Dark Shadows. This will be his 196th film — he has appeared in 200 altogether, but the last three are still filming and in post-production. And yes, he’s in the Guinness Book Of Records for his prolific film output. He has also done lots of television, voice work, video games and music — but remains most famous for his many roles as that infamous Transylvanian.
If Vincent Price was the Roger Moore of vampire movies — a bit kitsch, a bit camp — then Christopher Lee was the genre’s Sean Connery, the undisputed king of the bloodsuckers. With his elegance, depth and style, he was the consummate gentleman vampire, a Hammer Horror legend of fangs, cape and deadly seduction.
He didn’t start off as Dracula, however — in his first Hammer role, he played Frankenstein’s monster in 1957’s The Curse of Frankenstein, with Peter Cushing playing Baron Victor Von Frankenstein. The two actors had met ten years earlier on the set of Olivier’s Hamlet, and became close friends — they went on to co-star in many films together, as a not-very-horrifying double act.
Although Lee cut his teeth — sorry — on the part of Dracula, with his first appearance as the Count in 1958, followed by another Dracula film in 1965 (in which his role was entirely silent), he says his favourite film appearance was in 1973’s classic The Wicker Man, where he played Lord Summerisle, the pagan top dog on a Hebridean island, opposite Edward Woodward’s straitlaced Christian policeman (and we all know what happened to Woodward in the end).
Lee was also a famous Bond villain — Scaramanga in 1974’s The Man With The Golden Gun — and, somewhat incongruously, Count Dooku in two of the Star Wars prequels. He was also cast in the role of Scaraman in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Tim Burton admires him so much that he has cast Lee in several of his other films as well as Dark Shadows – Sleepy Hollow, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Corpse Bride, and Lee also did the voice of the Jabberwocky in Burton’s hyper-surreal Alice In Wonderland.
Having stopped playing horror roles in the mid-Seventies, Lee believes his most important film role was his portrayal of the Pakistani leader Jinnah in 1998’s film of the same name. He has also appeared in tons of good-humoured trash — stuff like Police Academy — and cheesey nonsense like the Last Unicorn. Reading Lee’s filmography is actually quite disconcerting — it’s as though he rarely said no to a role. This may have been because early in his career, he was repeatedly turned down for roles as he was deemed too tall — he is 6’5”.
Christopher Lee was born in the smart London enclave of Belgravia in 1922, the son of a contessa and a lieutenant-colonel. His grandparents established the first opera house in Australia. After his parents split when he was young, he grew up in Switzerland with his mother, before returning to London when she married a banker related to Ian Fleming, the James Bond creator.
Lee got his first film work with Rank, having expressed an interest in acting; this was in 1946, his tall Mediterranean good looks an asset (he had Italian blood on his mother’s side). His first role, an uncredited bit part in 1947, was when he met Peter Cushing. During the next decade Lee made almost 30 films. What began as silent bit-parts became one-word roles, then one-line roles.
The Hammer work began in 1957. Classic Dracula films abounded, where Lee looked the part wonderfully, but hardly had his acting skills challenged. The Horror Of Dracula made him a star, although the red contact lenses he often wore for his vampire movies temporarily blinding him.
Lee branched out into movies featuring characters as diverse as Sherlock Holmes and Rasputin, and continued his work with Hammer in movies like The Mummy, as well as adaptations of occult writer Dennis Wheatley’s novels.
Christopher Lee had a voice good enough for opera training couldn’t afford the fees.
In 1961 Lee married a Danish model called Gitte Kroencke, with whom he has one daughter. He has no plans to retire.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved