Sir Christopher Lee, the legendary actor who embodied Dracula, Saruman, The Man with the Golden Gun and more in a career that spanned more than 200 films over more than 60 years, died June 7 in London. He was 93.
A decorated World War II veteran who always hinted about (but never revealed in detail) some covert work in British Special Forces — specifically a unit referred to alternated as the Special Operations Executive, “Churchill’s Secret Army” or the Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare — Lee decided to try his hand at filmmaking at the end of the war, and took up acting in his early 20s. After a decade of working in small roles like “Chariot Driver” and “Submarine Commander,” and even after being told he was “too tall” at 6'5" to ever be a leading man, Lee’s perseverance paid off when he was cast as the creature in Hammer Studios’ The Curse of Frankenstein.
Frankenstein, the first in a series of horror extravaganzas that would eventually be the crowning commercial achievement of Hammer Studios, was a watershed moment in Lee’s life and career. It was his first collaboration with fellow legend Peter Cushing, who would become a lifelong friend, and it was the beginning of a long collaboration with Hammer, which led to Lee landing his most famous role: Dracula.
Beginning with Horror of Dracula in 1958, Lee played the legendary vampire 10 times, including seven times for Hammer. By the end, he was basically being dragged back into the role by what he famously termed “emotional blackmail,” but even in the worst of the Dracula films he brought a presence and a power that couldn’t be denied.
“As Boris Karloff told me, you have to make your mark in something other actors cannot, or will not, do,“ Lee said. "And if it’s a success, you’ll not be forgotten.”
Throughout his time as Dracula, Lee also embodied other iconic roles, including Rasputin, Fu Manchu, Lucifer, The Mummy, Sherlock Holmes, and more. By the 1970s he was one of the most recognizable character actors in the world, and leant his exquisite villainy to two more classic films: The Wicker Man and Roger Moore’s second outing as James Bond, The Man with the Golden Gun, in which he played the titular million-dollar-per-bullet assassin.
Though he never completely abandoned horror, Lee sought different kinds of films later in his career. He worked with Steven Spielberg in 1941, starred in Police Academy: Mission to Moscow, played the founder of Pakistan in Jinnah (what he often said was his finest role), and fulfilled a lifelong dream in 2001 when the Tolkien fan joined the cast of The Lord of the Rings.
By the late ‘90s, filmmakers who’d revered Lee as young fans were casting him in their own blockbusters. Horror enthusiast Tim Burton cast him in five films over the course of more than a decade, including Sleepy Hollow and Corpse Bride. George Lucas, in search of a new villain for his Star Wars prequels, cast Lee as Count Dooku, and no less a cinematic titan than Martin Scorsese called upon Lee for Hugo in 2011. Peter Jackson cast him in his Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies as Saruman — his last screen appearance was in The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies. (There is one more film in the can, Angels in Notting Hill.)
Lee’s towering screen presence and compellingly deep voice were enough to keep him steadily working as an actor, but there was more to his legend than that. Though he attained living legend status in the final decades of his life, he always felt like a journeyman, like a man with a job to do who showed up on time, worked hard, and gave it his absolute best even when the films were the absolute worst. He also had the quality of someone who just seemed to throw himself into life. Apart from acting, he was also an expert fencer who loved to do his own stunts and participate in onscreen sword fights. He owned thousands of books on the occult thanks to his constant fascination with the darker side of humanity. He even recorded metal albums, including concept records about Charlemagne and a few notably heavy Christmas tunes.
Put simply, Christopher Lee was an original, and we’ll never see his like again. Bravo, sir.