Obituary: Sir Christopher Lee, MBE, actor

Dracula star who brought sense of nobility to roles including Saruman in Lord of the Rings. Picture: Getty
Dracula star who brought sense of nobility to roles including Saruman in Lord of the Rings. Picture: Getty
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Born: 27 May, 1922, in Belgravia, London. Died: 7 June, 2015, in Chelsea, London, aged 93.

SIR Christopher Lee was one of the most highly regarded and well-employed British film actors of modern times, who early in his career developed a trademark persona which mixed gentlemanly English reserve with an air of powerful and barely concealed menace. His greatest roles included Count Dracula in the classic Hammer Horror series (1958 to 1973), Lord Summerisle in the Hebrides-set, Dumfriesshire-shot cult Pagan psychological thriller The Wicker Man (1973), and evil wizard Saruman in Peter Jackson’s enormously successful Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies (2001-03 and 2012-14, respectively).

He played each of these characters not how a classic villain should be played, but how a classic Christopher Lee villain should be played – there was a difference, and it involved a fixed, psychotic gaze, a hint of a hiss which was much imitated but never equalled, and an only partly-concealed humanity. As Lee once said, borrowing from Anthony Hopkins, “I play people, not villains”.

Yet it’s a testament to his work ethic, his success in defining the template of a modern cinematic villain as being English and painfully well-spoken, and the high esteem within which he was held by a new generation of young and powerful filmmakers that below the above highlights lay a bedrock of further roles which most of Lee’s contemporaries might describe as career-defining even on their own.

In his 206 movies released between 1948 and 2015, Lee also played Sherlock Holmes in The Curse of the Deadly Necklace (1962), the memorably three-nippled assassin and James Bond nemesis Francisco Scaramanga in The Man With the Golden Gun (1974) and Sith Lord Count Dooku in the Star Wars prequels Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith (2002 and 2005). Along with Jackson, Tim Burton was a huge fan, reigniting Lee’s career well into his seventies with a role in Sleepy Hollow (1999; two years before the first Lord of the Rings) and three further films thereafter.

Lee was born Christopher Frank Carandini Lee in Belgravia, London, to Geoffrey, a lieutenant colonel who fought in the Boer War and the First World War, and Estelle, an Italian contessa who had been painted by the Glasgow School artist John Lavery in her younger days. Lee also had a sister, Xandra. Following his parents’ divorce when he was six, his childhood proved more eventful than most lives.

He grew up partly in Switzerland and France, but mostly in England (narrowly missing out on entry to Eton, he attended Wellington); his mother married banker Harcourt St-Croix Rose, making Lee James Bond creator Ian Fleming’s step-cousin; in England he met the assassins of Grigori Rasputin, whom he was to play on screen many years later, and in France he witnessed the country’s last ever public execution. Volunteering with Finnish forces in 1939, with the Home Guard and finally with the Royal Air Force following his father’s death in 1941, Lee saw service across the theatre of operations during the Second World War, from South Africa to Egypt and Italy, finally tracking down on-the-run Nazis for the final few months of his service in Austria (handily, Lee spoke eight languages, five of them fluently) before retiring as a flight lieutenant in 1946.

Returning to London, his cousin Nicolo – the Italian ambassador to the UK – suggested he become an actor and put him in touch with the Rank Organisation, which put him to work in minor roles for a decade.

Lee’s big break as an actor came in 1957 when he appeared in The Curse of Frankenstein, his first Hammer film, alongside his friend and soon to be fellow Hammer icon Peter Cushing. The following year’s Dracula would truly make him a star, however, with Lee – towering at 6ft 5in and ruggedly handsome – redefining what had previously been considered an ugly and stunted character with a seductive performance based on a brooding and dangerous sexuality.

For a decade and a half he remained with the studio, also playing the Mummy, Fu Manchu and Rasputin, before leaving in the early 1970s, tired with how lurid and flippant much of the studio’s output had become.

Largely eschewing horror roles in favour of parts which would test him more as an actor – although those roles offered inevitably tended towards villainy – Lee would work at a prodigious rate which was in inverse proportion to the quality of the films; in 1979, for example, seven films bore his name, yet even Steven Spielberg’s wartime satire 1941 has faded from public consciousness. Aside from parts in Richard Lester’s Three Musketeers trilogy (1973, 1974 and 1989) and hit disaster movie Airport ’77 (1977), as well as pop cultural footnotes such as Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990) and Police Academy: Mission to Moscow (1994), Lee experienced the latter part of the century in a hard-working critical wilderness.

The film performance he considered his best was playing the founder of Pakistan in the eponymous 1998 movie Jinnah. It was never put on general release.

All of which made his rediscovery as a powerful acting force in his late seventies following Lord of the Rings all the more remarkable. Knighted on this day in 2009 and given a Bafta fellowship in 2011 and a BFI fellowship in 2013, he played roles four times for ­Burton and also took a part in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (2011), as well as forging an unlikely career in “symphonic metal” rock albums released in 2010 and 2013 (although Lee had sung on stage and screen many times ­before).

A true renaissance man of his times, he died at the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital of respiratory and heart problems, aged 93. He is survived by his wife Birgit, whom he married in 1961, and their daughter Christina.