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