The Lives of Christopher Lee: An Icon at 100

by Susan Ryant

Some people seem to fit multiple lifetimes’ worth of experience into one. Christopher Lee was one of these. Christopher Frank Carandini Lee was born 100 years ago on May 27, 1922 to Lieutenant Colonel Geoffrey Lee and the Contessa Estelle Marie Carandini Lee. The actor who would later become world famous for playing Dracula joked in his autobiography Tall, Dark and Gruesome that “at the same time that I was being made, so was Nosferatu.” His mother had a royal pedigree that could be traced back to the Emperor, Charlamagne, a character that Christopher would always find great fascination with. Lee knew very little of his father as he left his mother when he was only four and his sister Xandra was nine. A few years later, his mother married a banker, Harcourt Geroge St-Croix Rose, who went by Ingle, who Christopher quite liked, calling him a “clever and capable man” who “showed me many kindnesses.”

In his youth, Christopher Lee had an aptitude for languages, something possibly gleaned from his stepfather. He also had a surprising skill with knife-throwing and could “even throw scissors with tolerable accuracy.” He did not take well, apparently, either to mathematics or to anything involving water, nearly drowning on several occasions. Like many of his age, Lee attended a boarding school in his youth, in his case Wellington College, a “very military establishment” until he was seventeen. Before he completed his education there, Ingle’s money ran out and he and Lee’s mother divorced. In 1939, he visited one of Ingle’s friends in Paris and was taken to the last public execution in France of serial killer Eugen Weidmann, an event that shook him to the core and had a profound impact on his life. In Paris, he also learned of what was going on in the world and escaped France just barely ahead of Hitler’s invasion. Upon returning to England, Lee got a job at a shipping company before the War came to his home shores as well.

Though Lee discusses his war years over several chapters of his autobiography, he reveals very little beyond the broad strokes of the facts along with several amusing, though generally innocuous anecdotes. His military service began in Finland but was short-lived there as “the tiny Finnish army was doing rather well…without our help.” He went back to work in the shipping company mail room job he had gotten just before the War. He then switched to a manufacturing and exporting firm called Beecham’s before joining the Royal Air Force (RAF), partially prompted by learning of the death of his long-absent father. He suddenly felt the need for drastic change and decided to join the war effort. Lee quickly took to flying but was permanently grounded when “a grinding headache” accompanied by a blurring of the vision in his left eye took hold on one of his last flight training sessions and his optic nerve was determined to be “unreliable.” He put in an application for the RAF Intelligence section. While waiting for a response, he joined the Rhodesian police as his flight training took place in that nation.

Soon, he was added to the ranks of RAF Intelligence and described his duties with usual vagueness when discussing his military years. “Broadly speaking, I was expected to know everything…For this purpose I had a trailer, in which I was swathed with paperwork and maps of all scales…” He served in the North African campaigns that helped route Rommel’s desert armies before moving on to Sicily and Italy. In Rome, he looked up some of his Italian relations and connected with his mother’s cousin Niccolò Carandini who had been a Resistance fighter against the fascists. This proved to be a valuable and ultimately life-changing relationship. While in Italy, he also famously climbed Mt. Vesuvius a mere three days before its most recent eruption in March of 1944.

In the last days of the war, he was promoted to flight lieutenant which he feared largely involved “decay at a desk job.” Ultimately it meant serving in the Central Registry of War Crimes and Security Suspects in which he was engaged with finding, arresting, and interrogating Nazis. He later wrote that his visits to concentration camps and other work in this period was the only part of his military career “that has left me with a residue of tension.” At one point, between his demobilization and the beginning of his acting career, this tension exploded out of him, and he pushed a “smooth young fellow” away with such violence that “he went through a plate-glass window.” Lee never gave public details about his activities during this time. When asked about them at a convention many years later, he asked the questioner, “can you keep a secret?” When the reviewer responded in the affirmative, Lee said, “so can I.”

‘The Curse of Frankenstein’

Following his demobilization, Lee found himself undecided about his future. Then, during a visit, Niccolò Carandini suggested, “why don’t you become an actor?” after being impressed by Lee’s engaging abilities as a storyteller and gift for mimicry. Through connections from Carandini, and over his mother’s objections, Lee signed a seven-year contract with the J. Arthur Rank Organization and was enlisted in its “charm school” along with seventy other movie-star hopefuls. He then toiled in bit parts in film and television for ten years before anything resembling a “big break” finally arrived. He did, however, create a number of important connections in these years and learned a great deal about his craft and himself. Terence Young, who would go on to direct several early Bond films, and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. gave Lee quite a bit of work in these early years. The little finger on his right hand was given a permanent curvature by Errol Flynn in a swordplay mishap, but sword work would become a major element of his screen work. He also found himself learning to properly die on screen, which became something of a trademark as well and discovered that he was quite gifted at dubbing. He did not, however, have the knack for either stage acting or live television, though the latter would prove to be a career-altering opportunity many years later.

Christopher Lee also developed two great loves during these years that would last the rest of his life: classical music and golf. Not only did he have an ear for music but became a rather good singer, so much so that he was offered the option of joining the Swedish Opera. He could not afford to stay in the country, though, and opted to continue his acting career instead. He sometimes regretted not pursuing a singing career and was delighted to have several opportunities later in life to explore his love for it publicly and professionally. Of his other great passion he wrote, “acting has been good to me. It has taken me to play golf all over the world.” He became quite good at the game, playing at a high level in many competitions over the years and walking the links with a number of great golfers, both from within and outside of the field of acting.

His days as a horror icon began as his friend Boris Karloff’s had, as the creation of Dr. Frankenstein. Lee employed some advice he learned from Karloff on the set of an episode of the television series Colonel March of Scotland Yard some years before. According to Lee, Karloff told him, “an actor must never be faceless, even when that face is obscured by bandages,” and by extension, heavy make-up. Lee clearly took this lesson to heart and imbued his creature with similar empathy to Karloff’s while playing it differently in every other way possible. Lee greatly enjoyed working on The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), calling “the atmosphere of the unit the happiest I’d ever worked in.”

He also found an instant and lifelong friend in the film’s star, Peter Cushing. The two had both appeared in Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet (1948) in small roles but did not meet until Lee barreled into Cushing’s dressing room on the set of Frankenstein protesting that he didn’t have any lines. Cushing wryly responded, “you’re lucky. I’ve read the script.” Cushing’s disarming humor was the beginning of a fruitful collaboration both on and off screen. The two would go on to appear together in twenty more films, sometimes sharing scenes, sometimes not, but always memorable. According to a 2004 interview with Lee, he and Cushing shared a surprising love for Warner Bros. cartoons, which would reduce both to puddles with laughter and even got them thrown out of a theater once for laughing too loudly.

Christopher Lee’s next film for Hammer would prove to be defining for him. “It was the one that made the difference,” he wrote, “It brought me a name, a fan club and a second-hand car, for all of which I was grateful.” The film was Dracula (1958, released in the U.S. as Horror of Dracula ) and would once again set him opposite Peter Cushing, this time playing Dracula’s arch nemesis Professor Van Helsing. Dracula would become the role Lee would be most associated with more than a little to his chagrin. Though generally satisfied with the first film in Hammer’s series, he became increasingly unhappy with the scripts as they diverged further and further from the source material, often begging to be allowed to add even a single line of dialogue from Bram Stoker’s novel. He disliked the script for his second appearance as the character in Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966) so much that he refused to speak any of his lines, opting instead to hiss and snarl. In all, he played the Count seven times for Hammer and all but eclipsed Bela Lugosi as the definitive Dracula in the ‘60’s, but he was determined to not suffer the same kind of typecasting fate as his most famous predecessor in the role. At age 50 he determined to never play the character again with the deciding factor being his dismal view of the last two Hammer Dracula films, Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972) and The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973), though he did technically break this rule more than once.

Outside the Hammer series, Lee played Dracula or a version of him several times. In the hip, biting satire The Magic Christian (1969), Lee proved willing to spoof his own image as he would again later in the comedy Dracula and Son (1976). With its promise of being a faithful adaptation of Stoker’s novel, Lee agreed to star in the Spanish production El Conde Dracula (Count Dracula-1970) directed by Jesús (Jess) Franco and co-starring Hammer regular Herbert Lom as Van Helsing and Klaus Kinski, who would later play his own unique version of the Count, as Renfield. Around this same time, Lee filmed Umbracle (released in 1972) for Pere Portabella, an avant-garde director who had also made an unusual “making of” semi-documentary about Count Dracula titled Cuadecuc, Vampir (1971). Finally, Lee played various incarnations of Dracula, including Vlad Tepes Dracula, the Romanian prince which inspired elements of Stoker’s most famous creation for the documentary In Search of Dracula (1974). Try as he might to distance himself in later years, Lee admitted the difficulty of this in saying “Count Dracula might escape, but not the actors who play him.” He never entirely shed the vampiric image as even late-period roles like Count Dooku and Saruman contain more than a few echoes of the character.

Christopher Lee rasputin

‘Rasputin: The Mad Monk’

In his personal life, Chirstopher Lee’s new-found success was accompanied by a desire to settle down and get married. He was briefly engaged to Henriette von Rosen, a young Swedish woman whose father did not want her to marry a lowly actor. After spending a great deal of time trying to convince her father, even garnering a character reference from the King of Sweden, Lee ultimately called off the wedding, perhaps seeing something of his fiancée’s father’s point. Soon after, he was introduced to Danish actress, painter, and former model Birgit Krøncke, known as Gitte, by a friend. It did not take long for Lee to ask for her hand and the two were married on March 17, 1961, with the enthusiastic blessing of her father, and the marriage lasted until Christopher’s death more than fifty years later. The couple made a home in Switzerland for three years where their daughter Christina was born in November of 1963. There were complications in the birth, and Christina was required to wear leg braces for several years, prompting the family to move back to London where they were delighted to find their neighbor to be none other than Boris Karloff, who remained close to the family for his remaining years.

Of the many films he made during the Hammer years, two in particular stood out for him. Rasputin: The Mad Monk (1966) is one of Lee’s finest performances and one of his favorite roles. The real-life Rasputin also found his way into Lee’s life in unusual ways. As a child, he met one of Rasputin’s assassins and after making the film, met his daughter Maria. Some years later, he visited St. Petersburg to see where Rasputin’s famous demise took place. The other film was The Devil Rides Out (1968) which he later called his favorite of Hammer’s output. He had lobbied the powers that be to adapt Dennis Wheatley’s black magic novels but was continually met with objections that the censors would never allow it. When the film was finally made, Lee started his own production company, Charlemagne, which purchased the rites to the other novels in the series and ultimately helped to make Nothing but the Night (1973) with Rank and To the Devil a Daughter in 1976, which proved to be the last film of Hammer’s original incarnation.

Of course, Christopher Lee did not work exclusively for Hammer in this era. From the late 50’s until moving to Los Angeles in the mid-70’s, Lee specialized in making all kinds of films throughout Europe. His ability to speak multiple languages proved to be a great asset during these years as he was able to play scenes in English, Spanish, French, Italian, and German as needed and dub his own roles for international releases. The first film he made in two languages was The Hands of Orlac (1960), an opportunity to play a part previously played by an actor he had been enamored with since his youth, Conrad Veidt, and another actor he admire greatly, Peter Lorre. Other films of this period include The Whip and the Body (1963) with Mario Bava, several films with Amicus including The Skull (1965) and The House that Dripped Blood (1971), and the films featuring his second most often played character, Fu Manchu. He also made his first trip to Hollywood to film an episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour . He was rather disappointed to find that the master was not going to be directing the episode but was delighted to catch a glimpse of Hitchcock as he passed in his car.

He made two important friendships in these years as well. The first was another horror icon that he even shared a birthday with, Vincent Price, born on May 27th eleven years earlier than Lee. The two met on The Oblong Box (1969) and worked together again on Scream and Scream Again (1970) and House of the Long Shadows (1983). Lee loved Price’s impish sense of humor and was thoroughly impressed by his wide variety of interests. He met with Price and his wife Coral Browne whenever possible and said, “they were never otherwise than sweet to me.” The other was the prolific writer Robert Bloch, perhaps best known as the author of the novel Psycho. They met at a science fiction convention in London and instantly “found an affinity” that lasted until the author’s death in 1994.

Christopher Lee wicker man

‘The Wicker Man’

As the Hammer era was winding down, Christopher Lee made one of his favorite films, The Wicker Man (1973) which he called “the best-scripted film I ever took part in,” though he found the final product, due to studio and censorial meddling, to be “a flawed masterpiece.” This was soon followed by the highest profile film of his career up to that point. He was chosen to play the villain Francisco Scaramanga in the James Bond adventure The Man with the Golden Gun (1974). In a fascinating footnote, Lee was related by marriage to Bond’s creator Ian Fleming and had met him on several occasions. When the first Bond movie was about to be filmed Fleming told Lee that he would like him to play the villain, Dr. No, though the role ultimately went to Joseph Wiseman. The role of Scaramanga brought Lee more public attention than he’d ever had before and sent him on a globe-trotting publicity tour that involved several personal and talk show appearances, particularly in the United States. Not long after, Lee and family would move to Los Angeles in an attempt for him to branch out into new kinds of roles.

One of his first roles upon arrival was in the disaster film Airport ’77 in which he played a scientist and was required to do several stunts for which he was given a Stunt Men’s Association belt buckle by noted stunt performer Ted Duncan. “I value it more than I would an Oscar” he said of the gift. Following this, he reluctantly appeared on live television, something he swore he would never do again after an early-career embarrassment with the medium, and hosted Saturday Night Live in 1978. He credited the show for changing his life as it brought in several offers in diverse roles. He went on to appear in Stephen Spielberg’s 1941 (1979), Serial (1980) as the leader of a band of gay Hell’s Angels, and The Return of Captain Invincible (1983) which gave him the rare opportunity to sing on celluloid. During this time, he also turned down a few roles that he later regretted including the role that ultimately went to Leslie Nielsen in Airplane! (1980) and, famously for horror fans, the role of Dr. Sam Loomis in Halloween (1978).

It didn’t take long for both Christopher and Gitte to lose their taste for the Hollywood scene. Just before returning to London, Lee found that he was becoming easily winded and tired, and it was discovered that he had a heart condition in the form of a valve that was not closing properly. Upon his return to England, he had surgery to repair it and before long was back to work, making The Disputation (1986) for the BBC. He worked steadily throughout the late 80’s and 90’s and was given opportunities to explore his passion for singing as well. In 1996 he released his first solo album, Christopher Lee Sings Devils, Rogues Other Villains (From Broadway to Bayreuth and Beyond), which allowed him the opportunity to perform several of his favorite pieces and in several languages. In 1998, he played the lead role of the founder of the nation of Pakistan in Jinnah . By Lee’s account, it was a very difficult film to make for several reasons, but he took great pride in his portrayal of Mohammed Ali Jinnah. The performance is considered one of his finest, though it is also one of his least seen as the film failed to find a distributor outside of Pakistan.

Christopher Lee saruman

‘The Lord of the Rings’

During this stage of his career several directors who had been raised on Christopher Lee’s films were becoming heavy hitters in Hollywood and he was on the verge of being introduced to a new generation of fans. His roles in 1941 and Gremlins 2 (1990) would be just a foretaste of this. In 1999, director Tim Burton would cast him in a small role in Sleepy Hollow in a way not too far removed from his casting of Vincent Price in Edward Scissorhands (1990). He would work with Burton several more times in films including Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) and Dark Shadows (2012) and voicing characters in Corpse Bride (2005) and Alice in Wonderland (2010) as well as playing a supporting role in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (2011). Another honor that came in these years was being made a Knight Bachelor “for services to Drama and Charity” in 2009, which bestowed the title Sir Christopher Lee upon him.

Two key late-career roles that exposed him to a wider audience than he’d ever had before were in two blockbuster series of the early 2000’s: as Count Dooku in the Star Wars Prequels and as Saruman in The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. The latter was in many ways a dream come true for Lee who had read Tolkien’s magnum opus annually since it was first published in the 1950’s and wished to play Gandalf in a hypothetical film version. When that hypothetical became reality, he knew he would be too old to play that role but auditioned for director Peter Jackson in hopes of playing some part in the film. He was pleased to play the fallen wizard and chief human villain Saruman. He would reprise the role in The Hobbit films the following decade, which would prove to be his last on-screen performance. In his final years, Lee also revealed a surprising passion to the world—heavy metal music, which he had become fond of in the early 1970’s upon hearing the music of Black Sabbath. Lee released several heavy metal albums including two rock operas based on the life of his ancestor, Charlamagne.

Sir Christopher Lee passed away on June 7, 2015, at the age of 93. He continued to appear in films all the way up to 2014 and did voice work for film and video games well into 2015. His life and work are surrounded by legend, some of which may never be fully known, but what we do know is astounding. With nearly 300 film and television credits to his name, his legend is well earned. His image is indelible in the history of horror, and he is one of the very few who is truly worthy of the title that so many seek—icon.