Thursday, 11 June 2015

RIP Sir Christopher Lee, total legend

Sir Christopher Lee has passed away at the age of 93.

The British actor is known to genre fans for almost too many roles to count, including Dracula in half a dozen Hammer Horror movies of the 1960s and 1970s; the villainous Lord Summerisle in the classic The Wicker Man; Bond villain Scaramanga in The Man with the Golden Gun; Comte de Rochefort in The Three Musketeers, Four Musketeers and Return of the Musketeers; Captain Wolfgang von Kleinschmidt in Steven Spielberg's 1941; Dr. Catheter in Gremlins 2: The New Batch; and Mr. Flay in the BBC mini-series Gormenghast. Lee's own favourite role was as Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, a role he played in the 1998 film Jinnah.

However, he is best-known to modern movie-goers for his role as Count Dooku in two Star Wars movies (Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith) and as the wizard Saruman in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy. He later reprised the role in the Hobbit movies. For the latter films, Lee felt unable to make the long trip to New Zealand so filmed his sequences separately on a soundstage in London and was green-screened alongside his co-stars. Lee was the only person involved in the films to have met J.R.R. Tolkien, as he had spent time in Oxford in the 1950s. Lee had also met C.S. Lewis and Gormenghast author Mervyn Peake.

Lee's early life was as action-packed as anything in his movies. He was born in London in 1923 and raised both in London and Switzerland. He was the step-cousin of James Bond creator Ian Fleming. During the opening stages of WWII Lee was a number of British men who, unhappy with the lack of action in Europe, chose to fight alongside the Finns in the Winter War with Russia. However, he soon returned to the UK and joined the RAF, being deployed at home, in South Africa and in Egypt. He fought alongside Gurkhas at Monte Cassino and climbed Mt. Vesuvius shortly before it erupted. Lee is credited with helping defuse a near-mutiny among disaffected British soldiers and airmen during the Italian campaign. He also took part in the capture and interrogation of Nazi war criminals. Alongside his other duties, Lee also took part in operations for the Special Operations Executive, the forerunner of the elite SAS. He declined to speak of these operations, but later confirmed (during the filming of Lord of the Rings) that he was familiar with the sound someone makes when killed by stealth.

After the war Lee became an actor but found it tough going: he didn't get his first speaking role until 1947 and spent a decade playing heavies, muscle or background characters. In 1957 he made his breakthrough as Frankenstein's monster in Hammer's The Curse of Frankenstein, alongside Peter Cushing. Lee and Cushing became fast friends, remaining so until the latter's death in 1994. They made twenty films together. The following year Lee appeared as the titular character in Dracula, a role with many sequels. Lee enjoyed the attention and fame the films brought, but was unhappy with the quality of the sequels. He felt that the character was too often shoehorned into the scripts for no real reason and rarely had a substantial role. After almost twenty years Lee ended his association with Hammer with 1976's To the Devil a Daughter.

Seeking to avoid the typecasting that had afflicted fellow Hammer actors Cushing and Vincent Price, Lee moved to the United States. He sent up his horror movie roles with an appearance on Saturday Night Live, showing a hitherto rarely-hinted dry sense of self-deprecating humour. Impressed, Steven Spielberg recruited him as the villain in his comedy movie 1941. Lee enjoyed a career boost from his time in America, especially when a new generation of directors who had been impressed by his Hammer appearances as children (such as Peter Jackson and Tim Burton) broke through.

In later years Lee continued working, shrugging off suggestions that he should retire. When he became too old for physically demanding roles, he switched to cameo appearances and a lot of voiceover work. His deep voice, undaunted by age, also saw him reprise his role as a narrator and singer. To the bewilderment of many, he released two heavy metal-influenced albums about the life of Charlemagne, for which he was honoured at the Metal Hammer Golden Gods Awards.

Sir Christopher Lee passed away on Sunday, 7 June 2015 from respiratory problems. He had a full, well-lived life and leaves behind a truly amazing body of work.

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