Christopher Lee 1922–2015

The legendary Hammer horror film actor Christopher Lee has departed this mortal coil.

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I enjoyed Chris’ Hammer films as a kid. His Frankenstein monster in Curse of Frankenstein was terrific (in the true sense of the word) and he became forever associated with Count Dracula. He portrayed the famous vampire in at least nine films, the first being Horror of Dracula (Dracula in the UK).

I thought he made a fine Mycroft Holmes in Billy Wilder‘s wonderful Sherlock Holmes mini-epic, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (Chris played Sherlock himself in the Sherlock Holmes and the Leading Lady TV movie).

I met Chris while I was working on Conan the Barbarian. Our writer-director, John Milius, was executive producing his pal Steven Spielberg‘s movie 1941 at the time, so we were sharing offices with Steven. Ron Cobb and I would work on Conan during the day and then in the evening kick around ideas with Steven for his next film project, Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Christopher heard about Raiders. He was living in L. A. at the time (he had been cast in 1941) and really wanted to be cast in Steven’s next film. Chris decided one of the ways to Steven and a prominent role as a German officer was through Ron and me.

We could hear him coming before he entered our room. This was a man more in love with his voice than anyone I’d ever met. A deep, booming, cavernous baritone, his voice seemed to reverberate done the hallway to our office.

He dressed somewhat casually when he visited us — nice jeans and a starched but casual dress white long sleeved shirt, sleeves rolled up past his wrists. I think he was trying to affect a younger look (appearing to be too old was a reasonable fear; he’d been acting in TV since 1946 and movies since 1948 — a year before I was born). He always seemed cheerful, peppy and energetic, however.

At first his visits were fun, but as he pressured us more and more to suggest to Steven that he be cast in Raiders (“Did you know I’m fluent in German?”), it started to kinda drive Ron and me a little bit nuts. But that wasn’t just Chris doing that…nearly every actor or actress we encountered seemed to be on the hustle. We just preferred when it wasn’t so obvious.

Chris didn’t get the role he coveted in Raiders but he went on to a spectacular Second Act to his career. After being typecast as Dracula, he somehow (and this was no small feat) overcame his typecasting and landed plum roles as a James Bond villain (Scaramanga in The Man With the Golden Gun), was in several Tim Burton (good ol’ Tim has never lost his love for monsters and the fine actors who portrayed them) movies and, most memorably, was Saruman in Peter Jackson‘s wonderful Lord of the Rings films.

I mysteriously ended up with a life cast of Christopher Lee’s face in the mid-1970s. I think I’ll retrieve it, prop it up on my sofa and watch one of my favorite Christopher Lee films with the head of ol’ Chris tonight. I’ll crank up my sub-woofer so that his voice is extra resonant. Cheers, my friend!

5 Responses to “Christopher Lee 1922–2015”

  1. Aaron says:

    So what Chris Lee film did you decide to watch? I had to go with the one that started it all for me, Horror of Dracula. My dad took two friends of mine and me to see it on a big screen when the University of Maryland showed it on Halloween night back when I was about 14. The next year my mom made me a black cape with a red inner lining and black chords to tie it at the throat. I still have that. Some years back our friendly dentist made me some fangs. So you see, I’ve been a fan of Hammer Films and Christopher Lee ever since that fateful night.

    I always thought it was a shame that, when they couldn’t get Cary Grant for the role, Hammer didn’t cast Lee as The Phantom of the Opera. They could have made the character much more terrifying (as scripted he was pretty mild due to the fact that the studio execs didn’t think people wanted to see Grant as a really bad guy). Also Lee could have made good use of his operatic voice. And he wouldn’t have had to wear the scarred make up for two many scenes. He went on record as saying he didn’t like the heavy make up after Curse of Frankenstein and The Mummy.

    Too me it seems kind of too bad that he didn’t get a part in Raiders of the Lost Ark. He would’ve been great.

    Farewell, Mr. Lee, and thanks for all the memories. God give you good rest.

  2. Diane O says:

    Thanks for sharing your memories

  3. Tim says:

    That’s a great story. I also did not know you worked on Conan. That is one of my favorite films – so much better than the newest one they made. Christopher definitely had one of the coolest voices in acting, up there with James Earl Jones, Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart and Vincent Price.
    In Detroit, when I was a kid, there was a show called Creature Feature on every Saturday. Many times one of the movies would star Christopher Lee. Have fond memories watching all those old movies.

  4. Oscar Solis says:

    I keep thinking about which Christopher lee performance I enjoyed the most and I keep coming back to his role as Prof. Karl Meister in The Gorgon. There’s something great about seeing him as the hero. In fact, when I watch Horror of Dracula it isn’t too much of a stretch to imagine him as Van Helsing.

    The story about Lee starting to drive Ron Cobb and yourself a little nuts was great because it just goes to show us that these actors that we admire are just plain human. And while it would have been great to see him in Raiders, that film is about as perfect as a film can be.

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