Christopher Lee: Life of a Genre Icon

Christopher Lee heavy metal

Christopher Lee sadly passed away this past week on June 7th due to respiratory problems and heart failure. He was 93. But anyone who accomplished even a quarter of what Christopher Lee did within those years would have lived a full and amazing life. Appearing in nearly 300 movies, it would be impossible to adequately cover every role, but following is a chronological list of some of Lee’s greatest accomplishments. He was a horror and sci-fi icon. A heavy metal musician. A Nazi hunter. A linguist and amateur historian. And a husband and father. Plus he was in a Captain America movie.

MILITARY

christopher lee knighted

Christopher Lee was born into the military. In 1922, he was born in London to a mother who was a Countess and a father who was a lieutentant colonel in the 60th King’s Royal Rifle Corps. His parents divorced when he was six and his mother remarried and Lee’s stepcousin was Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond. When World War 2 broke out, Lee volunteered to fight with the Finnish forces in the Winter War of 1939. Later, he enlisted in the Royal Air Force. Due to vision problems he was not medically cleared to fly and instead ended up in intelligence. Throughout the war he was stationed in South Africa, the Suez Canal, Italy, North Africa, and more. During some leave time he climbed Mount Vesuvius three days before it erupted. Due to his fluency in French and German, following the war he was attached to the Special Operations Executive (the precursor to the SAS and also known as the Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare) to track down escaped Nazi war criminals. He was sworn never to speak of his work there, but during the filming of Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson asked him to imagine the sound of a man being stabbed in the back for a scene and Lee told him he wouldn’t have to imagine it.

FILM

christopher lee dracula

Following his service in 1946, Lee took up acting. By 1957 he began his association with Hammer films, producers of gothic horror films which has become nearly synonymous with Lee’s name. He first played Frankenstein’s monster with Peter Cushing playing Baron Victor Frankenstein. The two would go on to play opposite one another in many movies and became best friends. The next year, Lee played Dracula for Hammer with Cushing playing his nemesis, Van Helsing. While Lee was not overly a fan of the Dracula films at the time he played the role across seven films and gave him a quiet, animalistic persona.

In 1972 he played Lord Summerisle in the cult hit The Wicker Man, a strange mix of horror and folk music set on a small English isle where Lee played the enigmatic but cultured leader of a secret pagan society. This movie was brought about by Lee who had met screenwriter Anthony Schaffer who eventually wrote the film. Christopher Lee wanted to move away from his gory, gothic horror roles. In 1974, Lee played the James Bond villain Scaramanga, an assassin, in The Man with the Golden Gun. His cousin Ian Flemming had wanted Lee right from the beginning and Lee had been offered the role of Dr. No in the first film but was too slow to accept. He didn’t make the same mistake when the opportunity came by a second time.

In 1977, Lee moved to the United States in an effort not to get typecast in horror films as had happened to his friends Peter Cushing and Vincent Price. In this time he appeared in Airport ’77 and the TV movie Captain America: Death Too Soon. He hosted Saturday Night Live, spoofing his roles. Steven Spielberg was in the audience and loved his sense of humor, casting him in his comedy 1941. The 80s were a bit quieter but by the 90s he appeared as Sherlock Holmes in two films and was in Police Academy: Mission to Moscow. In 1998, Lee starred in the role of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, founder of modern Pakistan, in the film Jinnah. In a 2002 interview, he claimed this was the role he was most proud of. Among other roles, he also played both Death and Lucifer.

christopher lee count dooku

In the 2000s, Lee appeared in several iconic roles. He played Saruman, the evil wizard in the Lord of the Rings movies (and later, The Hobbit). He also appeared as Sith lord Count Dooku in Star Wars Episodes 2 and 3. Lee also began collaborating with director Tim Burton, appearing in many of his films such as Sleepy Hollow, Corpse Bride, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Alice in Wonderland, and Dark Shadows.

MUSIC

christopher lee heavy metal

With his deep bass voice, Lee has sung for several films. He sang in The Wicker Man and also the superhero comedy/rock musical The Return of Captain Invincible (1983) in which he performed a song and dance number called “Name Your Poison”. Lee first encountered heavy metal when he performed a duet with Fabio Lione, lead vocalist of the Italian symphonic power metal band Rhapsody of Fire. In 2010, at age 87, Lee released his first heavy metal album, which was also a historical account of Charlemagne titled “Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross.”  It received critical acclaim and he was awarded the “Spirit of Metal” award from the 2010 Metal Hammer Golden Gods ceremony. On his 90th birthday he released a new single, another heavy metal song about Charlemagne and he released a heavy metal Christmas album in 2012.

PERSONAL LIFE

Lee was married once and never divorced, a relatively rare accomplishment in Hollywood. He married Danish painter and former model Birgit “Gitte” Krøncke in 1961. They were married until his death, over 60 years. They had one daughter, Christina Erika Carandini Lee. Lee loved history, as evidenced by his albums about Charlemagne, and language. He was fluent in English, Italian, German, French and Spanish, moderately proficient in Swedish, Russian and Greek and conversational in Mandarin.

An amazing list of accomplishments. We are all fortunate that his work lives on beyond him.