There was a time when I was afflicted by the supernatural in the form of ghost stories and horror movies. Being terrified by terrible tales of ghosts, devils, vampires and monsters was an enjoyable type of agony then.It was a self-inflicted period of craze for the macabre. This phase in my life began in my childhood and continued through my teenage years lasting till my early thirties. I do see an occasional scary movie now and then but reading such books has ended.
While referring to reading books causing dreadful fright, an experience that I recall now with amusement is reading Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’. The novel written in 1897 by the Irish author was a Gothic horror cult classic. It is about the human vampire Count Dracula who relocates to England from Transylvania.
I was 13 when I first read it in full. It was late into the night when I finished. Dracula was the embodiment of evil and horror. The fear of the devil came upon me. I frantically read the Bible again and again. I kept entreating God to protect me from Dracula. Finally I went to sleep with a small cross tucked under my pillow.
I am reminded of that incident concerning Dracula and my past fascination for ghosts and horror by the death of legendary British actor Sir Christopher Lee. The 93-year-old veteran has enacted the role of Dracula in many movies and personified the Transylvanian Count on screen to generations of film fans including myself. Dracula was made alive to me on the screen by Christopher Lee.
Christopher Lee was an actor of repute who received many honours including a knighthood in 2009. In a career spanning more than six decades, he has acted in about 350 film and TV roles, setting a Guinness World Record. The younger generation of today will identify Christopher Lee as the wizard Saruman in ‘Lord of the Rings’ and Count Dooku in ‘Star Wars’. To an earlier generation Christopher Lee will always be remembered as Dracula, though the actor himself hated being stereotyped in that part.
From ‘Dracula’ in 1958 (it was titled ‘Horror of Dracula’ in the USA) to ‘The Satanic Rites of Dracula’ in 1973, Christopher Lee has acted in many versions and variations of Dracula. Most of them were made by Hammer Productions.Among these are ‘Dracula Prince of Darkness’ (1965), ‘Dracula has Risen from the Grave’ (1968), ‘Taste the Blood of Dracula’ (1969), ‘Scars of Dracula’ (1970), ‘Dracula A.D. 1972’ (1972). At one stage of his life Christopher Lee hated to act as Dracula but was reluctantly compelled to do so due to “emotional blackmail”.
In an interview with ‘Total Film,’ Christopher Lee was pointedly asked: “You played Dracula seven times for Hammer. Didn’t you ever think, ‘Oh, no. Not this again…?’”
He replied: – “I did have a big problem after the first two. I said to my agent, ‘I don’t want to do this part again.’ Because all they do is write a story and try and fit the character in somewhere, which is very clear when you see the films. They gave me nothing to do! I pleaded with Hammer to let me use some of the lines that Bram Stoker had written. Occasionally, I sneaked one in. Eventually I told them that I wasn’t going to play Dracula any more. All hell broke loose. I got frantic telephone calls from [Hammer honcho] Jimmy Carreras saying, ‘I’m begging you! I’m on my knees. You’ve got to do this film!’ I asked why and he said, ‘I’ve already sold it to the American distributor with you playing the part.’ Then he said something I’ve never forgotten because it was sheer blackmail: ‘Think of the people you’re putting out of work.’ That’s the only reason I did the last few Draculas. I didn’t want to be the reason for a hundred people not working.”
The British actor who portrayed Dracula and several other epitomes of evil on the screen passed away on 7 June at the Chelsea-Westminster hospital. His wife Birgit Krancke Lee made a public announcement of his death only four days later on 11 June. The delay was in order to inform all other family members before the public came to know.
News of Lee’s death though belated has churned in its wake a worldwide wave of nostalgic sorrow. Among those issuing condolence messages was UK Prime Minister David Cameron. Lee was a longstanding supporter of the British Conservative party.
Family and early years
Sir Christopher Frank Carandini Lee was born on 27 May 1922 in London. His father was Lt. Col Geoffrey Trollope Lee of the 60th King’s Royal Rifle Corps. His mother was Contessa Estelle Marie Carandini di Sarzano. She was of Italian aristocracy. Christopher had one sister, Xandra Carandini Lee, who is no more. His maternal ancestors trace their lineage to European emperor Charlemange and were entitled to wear the coat of arms of the Holy Roman Empire.
Christopher Lee married Danish painter and model Birgit Krancke known as “Gitte” on 17 March 1961 after a year-long courtship. Their daughter Christina Erika Carandini Lee was born in 1963. His great grandmother was the famous Opera singer Marie Carandini. One of Lee’s distant relatives was Gen. Robert E. Lee, who commanded the Confederates in the American civil war. Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond novels, was a step-cousin of Lee. British actress Dame Harriet Walker is also a niece.
Entry into acting
Christopher Lee joined the Royal Air Force during World War II. He later worked for the Special Air Services (SAS). After the war his cousin Nicolo Carandini who was then the Italian Ambassador to Britain suggested that Christopher try his hand at acting. Christopher liked the suggestion and enrolled at a training school for actors (Charm School) run by the Rank organisation. Later he signed a seven-year contract with Rank Organisation.
Despite the training at Rank’s charm school, Lee found it difficult to get good acting roles. His imposing height of six feet and four-and-a-half inches was seen as an impediment to getting parts easily. Lee’s film debut was in 1947. He acted in Terence Young’s ‘Corridor of Mirrors,’ playing the part of Charles in one scene. The Director surmounted Lee’s height problem by seating him at a table in a nightclub with the other actors such as Lois Maxwell, Mavis Villiers, Hugh Latimer and John Penrose.
For almost a decade Lee got only minor roles. He recalls that time in the ‘Total Film’ interview thus: “I was around a long time – nearly 10 years. Initially, I was told I was too tall to be an actor. That’s quite a fatuous remark to make. It’s like saying you’re too short to play the piano. I thought, ‘Right, I’ll show you…’ At the beginning I didn’t know anything about the technique of working in front of a camera, but during those 10 years, I did the one thing that’s so vitally important today – I watched, I listened and I learned. So when the time came I was ready… Oddly enough, to play a character who said nothing.”
The character “who said nothing” that Lee refers to is Frankenstein’s monster. After his contract with Rank expired, Lee was free to act in outside films, His break out movie was ‘The Curse of Frankenstein’ (1957) by Hammer Film Productions. The story was loosely based on the novel ‘Frankenstein’ by Mary Shelley. Peter Cushing played Victor Frankenstein and Christopher Lee his ‘Creature’. Lee described his role thus: “When I was in full make-up as the Creature – which was pretty unattractive – somebody said I looked like a road accident. For a character put together from bits and pieces of other people, that’s a very good description.”
The film was a huge success and a number of ‘Frankenstein Monster’ films starring Cushing and Lee were made by Hammer Productions. It was a passport to success for both Cushing and Lee, who became close friends thereafter. They acted together successfully in many films.
Christopher Lee says of his friendship and partnership with Peter Cushing: “He was a wonderful human being and a brilliant actor. He did things other people simply couldn’t do. And I loved him, I really did. I remember something Boris Karloff said to me, which does apply to Peter and myself. He said, ‘Find something that other actors can’t do, or won’t do, and if you make an impact doing that you’ll never be forgotten.’”
Dr. Fu Manchu
The Dracula and Frankenstein films boosted Lee’s film career immensely. He branched out to many more roles in different films thereafter. One of these roles was that of the criminal genius Dr. Fu Manchu who was a fictional character invented by British novelist Sax Rohmer.
Film Producer Harry Alan Towers made five ‘Fu Manchu’ films starring Christopher Lee who played the titular character with oriental features and a moustache which became famous or notorious as the Fu Manchu moustache. The five films were ‘The Face of Fu Manchu’ 1965), ‘The Brides of Fu Manchu’ (1966), ‘The Vengeance of Fu Manchu’ (1967), ‘The Blood of Fu Manchu’ (1968), and ‘The Castle of Fu Manchu’ (1969).
As stated earlier, the writer Ian Fleming who wrote the James Bond novels was a step-cousin of Christopher Lee. His 1958 novel ‘Dr. No’ was filmed under the same name in 1962 by Harry Saltzman and Albert R. Broccoli. The Director was Terence Young. Fleming wanted his cousin to play the part of the Villain ‘Dr. No’ and Lee accepted. The absentminded Fleming forgot to inform the producers and director of this. Not knowing that Lee had consented, another well- known actor Joseph Wiseman was picked to play Dr. No in the first-ever James Bond movie.
Christopher Lee however got another chance to act in a James Bond film in 1974. Ian Fleming had passed away but Saltzman and Broccoli continued to make James Bond films. In 1974 they made ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’ with Roger Moore instead of Sean Connery as ‘Double O Seven’. The film script was vastly different to that of the original book.
Christopher Lee was cast as Francisco Scaramanga, the man with the golden gun who assassinates persons with a golden bullet. Scaramanga was projected in the film as an alter ego to James Bond like “a super-villain of the stature of Bond himself”. Lee says of his role: “Ian wasn’t with us when I did Scaramanga, who is not remotely like the character in the book. In Fleming’s novel he’s just a West Indian thug, but in the film he’s charming, elegant, amusing, lethal… I played him like the dark side of Bond.” His portrayal of Scaramanga earned Christopher Lee rave reviews as a “Goodish Villain”.
In 1977 Christopher Lee left the UK and moved to the USA. He explains the reason for this in this way: “I became totally disillusioned with the British film industry. Richard Widmark told me, ‘You’re wasting your time here. They’ll always be asking you to play the same sort of characters, you’ll get bored and so will the audience. You must come to the States.’ So I did, and my life changed.”
Christopher Lee had met J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of ‘Hobbit’ and ‘Lord of the Rings’ once. He also read and re-read the novels often. Lee says of ‘Lord of the Rings’: “I always dreamed that it would one day be made a film and I always dreamed I’d be in it. Sometimes dreams do come true. At the time I read it, I wanted to play Gandalf. Who wouldn’t? But they thought I was too old. So I played Saruman, which is in many ways immensely important because Sauron is just an eye, so Saruman is the one and only total adversary of the Fellowship. Everything that happens he’s responsible for.”
Lee’s part was cut off in the final film of the Trilogy but re-instated in the extended DVD edition due to public outcry.
The man who played the wizard Saruman also says that he knew the films were going to make film history as blockbusters. Christopher Lee recalls: “I remember when I was making the first one, most of the executives from New Line visited the set and one of the biggest cheeses sat next to me and asked me what I thought of the film. I’d seen a very rough assembly and I said to him, ‘You’re going to make motion picture history.’ He never forgot it. And I’ve never let him forget it. Nothing will ever surpass these films.”
Another role in which Lee made his mark was as Count Dooku also known as Darth Tyranus in ‘Star Wars’. Lee played Dooku in ‘Attack of the Clones’ (episode two) and ‘Revenge of the Sith’ (episode three). What is impressive about Lee’s performance is that he did much of the stunts himself despite his age.
Lee says: “In Star Wars, for the light sabre fights, everything from the waist up is me, but I was doubled for long shots – I couldn’t do the running. I was 80! I said to George Lucas, ‘I can do the sword fighting, but I can’t run!’”
Lee has acted in more than 200 big screen films and over a 100 small screen films playing numerous parts. Which is the best film he ever starred in?
According to Lee it was ‘The Wicker Man’ in which he acts as Lord Summerisle. The film made in 1973 was inspired by David Pinner’s novel ‘Ritual’ and was directed by Robin Hardy. The film has achieved celebrity status as an intelligently-made horror movie. An American re-make of the British film was released as ‘The Wicker Man’ in 2006 with Nicolas Cage.
Muhammed Ali Jinnah
Among the diverse roles essayed by Christopher Lee, which is the one he savours most?
“I played Muhammed Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan .That’s the best thing I’ve ever done. And the greatest responsibility I’ve ever had as an actor because quite a few of his relatives came to watch and they were wonderfully supportive.” The biopic was made in 1998.The narrator is Hindi actor Shashi Kapoor.
Lee elaborates further about Jinna in an interview in 2004 to the BBC. Here are excerpts: “The most important film I made, in terms of its subject and the great responsibility I had as an actor was a film I did about the founder of Pakistan, called Jinnah,” he said. “It had the best reviews I’ve ever had in my entire career – as a film and as a performance. But ultimately it was never shown at the cinemas.”
Filmed seven years ago in Pakistan, Jinnah was never released on the big screen – though it was applauded at film festivals around the world and later appeared on satellite television. “It’s a film about a Muslim who said the Muslims of India should have their own country… it’s about a Muslim leader.”
“It’s a very, very good film but, I’m guessing, the Americans were a bit cautious,” said Lee, referring to the film’s non-release. The film, which was also the subject of unspecified legal wrangles, was finally released on DVD and according to a delighted Lee was selling extremely well, but clearly its thwarted release remains a disappointment.
Reaction from people
I began this column by stating how Christopher Lee personified Dracula to me on the silver screen. He played many characters who were the embodiments of evil. How did his fans perceive those roles and relate to him in real life?
Let me end with an answer by quoting Christopher Lee himself: “The reaction I get from people is always the same. They say, ‘You’re Christopher Lee, aren’t you?’ I say, ‘Yes.’ Then they say, ‘I do so enjoy your films. Thanks for the pleasure you’ve given me.’ Nobody says, ‘You’ve scared the living daylights out of me!’ Nobody comes up to me and makes the sign of the cross before backing away.”
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at email@example.com
This article written for the “Spotlight” Column appears in the “Daily FT” of June 13, 2015. It can be accessed here: Farewell, Sir Christopher Lee