Thursday, June 11, 2015

Tall, Dark & Magnificent - The Christopher Lee Obituary

One of this blogger's favourite actors, Sir Christopher Lee, has died at the age of ninety three. The veteran actor appeared in many of the world's biggest movie franchises. But, of course, he made his name playing Count Dracula, Frankenstein's Creature and The Mummy in a series of Hammer productions of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s and in other British horror movies for a number of different companies. Because, contrary to common belief, Dr Terror's House of Horror, The House That Dripped BloodCurse Of The Crimson Alter and numerous other British horror movies of that era are not 'Hammer films' despite often having Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing in 'em. Sorry, it's just that oft-repeated non-fact is something which really pisses this blogger - the author of a book on the subject - off, big-style(e). Anyway, where were we ...? Oh yes, Christopher Lee. In total, he appeared in more than two hundred and fifty movies, some of them not very good, admittedly, but many of them outstanding, not least because of Christopher's presence in them. At least twenty of them would probably be in any hypothetical thirty or so that this blogger would be taking with him to a desert island in the extremely unlikely event that he got banished to such a place and that it had, you know, an electricity supply, a DVD player and a telly. His six foot four inch frame and pointed, if handsome, features often typecast Christopher Lee in villainous roles - including Scaramanga in The Man With The Golden Gun and the evil wizard Saruman in The Lord Of The Rings trilogy. The actor's other credits include the cult 1973 horror movie The Wicker Man which he, personally, considered to be among his favourites of the many movies he made. Christopher is reported to have died on Sunday at Chelsea and Westminster hospital after being hospitalised for respiratory problems and heart failure. A Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea council spokesman said: 'We can confirm that the Register Office issued a death certificate for Mr Christopher Lee on Monday 8 June, Mr Lee died on Sunday 7 June.'
'Peter Cushing and I have made so many horror films,' Christopher Lee once famously noted, 'people think we live in a cave together.' Lee and his The Curse Of Frankenstein and Dracula co-star of course became as close friends off-screen as they were frequent enemies on it before Cushing's death in 1994.
A step-cousin (and golfing partner) of the James Bond creator Ian Fleming, Christopher Frank Carandini Lee was born in Belgravia on 27 May 1922 the son of Lieutenant Colonel Geoffrey Trollope Lee (1879–1941), of the Sixtieth King's Royal Rifle Corps and his wife, Contessa Estelle Marie (1889–1981). Chris's father had fought in the Boer War and the First World War and his mother was an Edwardian beauty who was painted by Sir John Lavery as well as by Oswald Birley and Olive Snell and sculpted by Clare Frewen Sheridan. Lee's maternal great-grandfather was an Italian political refugee, whose wife was the English-born opera singer Marie Burgess. Chris had a sister, Xandra Carandini Lee (1917–2002), the mother of the actress Dame Harriet Walter. Chris's parents separated when he was four and divorced two years later. During this period, his mother took Chris and Xandra to live in Wengen in Switzerland. After enrolling in Miss Fisher's Academy in Territet, Chris played his first stage role, as Rumpelstiltskin. The family returned to London, where Lee attended Wagner's private school in Queen's Gate. His mother soon married Harcourt George St-Croix Rose, a banker and the uncle of Ian Fleming. The family moved to Fulham, living next door to the noted actor Eric Maturin. One night, Chris was introduced to Prince Yusupov and Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, the (alleged) assassins of Grigori Rasputin, whom Lee was to play many years later in Hammer's Rasputin: The Mad Monk. When Chris was nine, he was sent to Summer Fields School, a preparatory school in Oxford many of whose pupils later attended Eton. He continued acting in school plays though, as he would later remember, 'the laurels, deservedly, went to' his classmate and friend Patrick Macnee. Christoper and Patrick finally got to work together fifty years later, playing Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson (respectively) in a pair of reasonable American TV Movies Incident At Victoria Falls and Sherlock Holmes & The Leading Lady. Chris applied for a scholarship to Eton, where his interview was to prove portentous because of the presence of the academic and noted ghost-story author MR James. Sixty years later, Lee would play the part of James in a series for BBC4. Chris's poor maths skills meant that he missed out on being a King's Scholar by just one place. Instead, he attended Wellington College, where he won scholarships in the classics, studying Ancient Greek and Latin. Aside from one 'tiny part' in a school play, Chris didn't act while at Wellington. He was, he would recall, a 'passable' racquets player, a good fencer and a 'competent' cricketer - a sport that he loved all of his life. Forced to abandon his promising academic career at Wellington by the outbreak of war, Chris spent much of the next five year in RAF intelligence and in the SOE. Prior to Britain joining the conflict, the then eighteen-year-old Lee had already worked alongside the Finnish in their Winter War against the Russians as a volunteer in 1939. Chris subsequently was attached to the precursor of the SAS, known as the Long Range Desert Group in North Africa from 1941. He reportedly moved behind enemy lines, destroying Luftwaffe aircraft and fields, until he was seconded to the army and served with a Gurkha regiment. Following his work with the LRDG, and owing in part to his language skills and the favourable impression he developed with senior officers, he was assigned to the Special Operations Executive, conducting reconnaissance in occupied Europe and then, as the war came to close, tracking down suspected Nazi criminals. 'We were given dossiers of what they'd done and told to find them, interrogate them as much as we could and hand them over to the appropriate authority. We saw the concentration camps. Some had been cleaned up. Some had not,' he said in 2009. 'When the Second World War finished I was twenty three and already I had seen enough horror to last me a lifetime.' But, he seldom talked about his wartime experiences, famously answering most questions about what he did with the witty retort 'can you keep a secret? So can I!' On another occasion he noted: 'I was attached to the SAS from time to time but we are forbidden – former, present, or future – to discuss any specific operations. Let's just say I was in Special Forces and leave it at that. People can read in to that what they like.' Returning to London in 1946, Chris was offered his old job back at Beecham's pharmaceutical, with a significant raise, but he turned them down as 'I couldn't think myself back into the office frame of mind.' The Armed Forces were sending veterans with an education in the Classics to teach at universities, but Christopher felt that his Latin was too rusty for such a role and, anyway, didn't care for the strict curfews of academic life. Having lunch with his cousin, Nicolò Carandini, now the Italian Ambassador to Britain, Chris was detailing his war wounds when Carandini reportedly said: 'why don't you become an actor, Christopher?' Despite his mother’s mistrust of showbusiness ('Think of all the appalling people you will meet' she allegedly told him), that's what he did. His screen career began when he joined the Rank Organisation in 1947, training as an actor in their so-called 'charm school' on a seven year, multi-movie contract. His early roles included two in movies which also featured his future frequent screen partner, Peter Cushing, Hamlet and John Huston's Moulin Rouge. Christopher recalled that his breakthrough came in 1952 when Douglas Fairbanks Junior began making films at the British National Studios. Chris said in 2006, 'I was cast in various roles in sixteen of them and even appeared with Buster Keaton and it proved an excellent training ground.' Whilst filming a sword-fight with a drunken Errol Flynn during the making of The Dark Avengers in 1955, Flynn accidentally cut Christopher's hand badly and left he actor - an excellent swordsman - with a nasty injury. It is then claimed that, when completing the scene, Chris angrily cut off a piece of Flynn's wig and the temperamental Irish actor stormed off the set and refused to come out of his trailer until Christohper had apologised.
However, it was his association with the British studio Hammer which made Christopher Lee a household name, playing characters such as Frankenstein's Monster, The Mummy and Dracula from the late 1950s onwards. Chris took on his most famous role, the Count his very self, in seven movies between 1957 and 1973, most of them very good (Dracula, Dracula, Prince Of Darkness, Dracula Has Risen From The Grave, Taste The Blood Of Dracula, The Satanic Rites Of Dracula), one of them pretty wretched (Scars Of Dracula) and one of them so bad it's utterly brilliant (Dracula AD 1972). Christopher brought a new dimension to Bram Stoker's creation, playing the Count as a smouldering Byronesque sexual predator, biting his way through the necks of a seemingly endless parade of Hammer's usually well-endowed starlets. He also starred, playing very much against type in, for once, a heroic role, as the Duc de Richleau in The Devil Rides Out, based on Denis Wheatley's novel. Chris himself had persuaded Hammer to make the movie and many critics - this blogger included - consider it to be one of the studio's finest moments. Then again, yer actual Keith Telly Topping is also a sucker for Dracula AD 1972 so, what do I know?!
In 1973, Chris appeared as the laird of a pagan Scottish island community in The Wicker Man, a low budget musical horror which has since become a cult classic. 'It's the best performance I believe I've ever given because the part was specifically written for me by the very distinguished Anthony Schaffer,' Chris recalled. Again, many agreed with him.
Never as comfortable with horror typecasting as his friend Cushing, Chris nevertheless attempted as early as possible to make a parallel career for himself as a versatile character actor equally at home in numerous different genres. See, for instance, his dryly comic turn as Mycroft in Billy Wilder's superb The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes (1970), another movie which has become something of a cult favourite and which has been a huge influence on Moffat and Gatiss's Sherlock.
Christopher married his wife, the Danish model Brigit Krøncke, in 1961 and the couple had a daughter, Christina, two years later. He appeared on the cover of Paul McCartney & Wings's 1973 LP Band On The Run and was a classic James Bond villain, Scaramanga, opposite another of his good friends, Roger Moore, in The Man With The Golden Gun a year later. Christopher had known Roger since the late 1940s when they were both jobbing actors who bonded over their mutual poverty. Chris's cousin, Ian Fleming, reportedly suggested Lee to play the eponymous Doctor No in first Bond movie a decade earlier but producer Cubby Broccoli - who had already worked with Chris on the acclaimed 1950s war movie The Cockleshell Heroes - considered that he wasn't a big enough name in America at the time and the role went to Joseph Wiseman instead. Chris said of his performance in The Man With The Golden Gun, '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.'
An educated, erudite man, fluent in several languages, Chris relocated to California in the 1970s. From then onwards a new generation of movie-makers, many of whom grew up watching Lee's Hammer and Amicus films, queued-up to work with him in Hollywood; Steven Spielberg (1941), Joe Dante (Gremlins 2: The New Batch) and Tim Burton (Sleepy Hollow) being the most obvious examples. Christopher also worked with Burton on Charlie & The Chocolate Factory (2005), Alice In Wonderland (2010), in which he voiced The Jabberwocky and Dark Shadows (2012). A measure of his popularity across the Atlantic came when he hosted Saturday Night Live, watched by thirty five million Americans. And, he proved he was no slouch when it came to comedy, notably in the improbable role of a gay Hell's Angel in the film Serial. More in demand during his eighties than ever, Chris was honoured with a CBE in 2001. He was knighted in 2009 for services to drama and charity and was awarded a BAFTA fellowship in 2011. Many felt he should have had one years earlier. His autobiography, Lord Of Misrule, was published in 2003. 'One should try anything one can in a career,' he wrote. 'Except folk dancing and incest.'
He was proud to note that he was the only member of the cast and crew of The Lord Of The Rings trilogy to have actually met JRR Tolkien, and he performed most of his own light sabre stunts in Star Wars Episode II: Attack Of The Clones. Which was pretty impressive, considering that he was seventy nine at the time of filming.
Christopher's extraordinary movie CV also includes (deep breath) his début in 1948's Corridor Of Mirrors, Valley Of Eagles, Quo Vardis, Police Dog, Hammer's The Hound Of The Baskervilles, Amicus's Dr Terror's House of Horror, The House That Dripped Blood, The Skull and Scream, & Scream Again, Scott Of The Antarctic, Babes In Baghdad, Powell and Pressburger's Ill Met By Moonlight, Bitter Victory, Beat Girl, Corridor Of Blood, The Terror Of The Tonga, The Man Who Could Cheat Death, The City Of The Dead, The Hands Of Orlac, The Gorgon, The Face Of Fu Manchu (and three sequels), The Pirates Of Blood River, Theatre Of death, Storm Over The Nile, Night Of The Big Heat, Curse Of The Crimson Alter, The Oblong Box, The Magic Christian, I, Monster, Julius Caesar, Death Line, Nothing But The Night, The Creeping Flesh, Horror Express, Richard Lester's The Three Musketeers (and its sequels), To The Devil … A Daughter, Airport ’77, Hannie Caulder, Circle Of Iron, The House Of Long Shadows, Meatcleaver Massacre, the memorably awful Charles & Diana: A Royal Love Story (as Prince Philip!), the superb Jinnah, The Return Of Captain Invincible, Howling II, The Golden Compass, Glorious 39, Burke & Hare, Season Of The Witch, Tale Of The MummyNecessary Evil and about two hundred others. In 2011, he returned to Hammer with a role in the Hilary Swank thriller The Resident although he generally tended to avoid the horror genre in his later years (with a couple of notable exceptions). 'There have been some absolutely ghastly films recently, physically repellent,' he said when asked his thoughts on the genre. 'What we did was fantasy, fairy tales - no real person can copy what we did. But they can do what Hannibal Lecter does, if they're so inclined, people like Jeffrey Dahmer and Dennis Nilsen, and for that reason, I think such films are dangerous.' On his career in general, he told the BBC News website: 'I've appeared in so many films that were ahead of their time - some of them were very good. Some weren't!' Christopher reportedly turned down the role of Doctor Loomis in John Carpenter's Halloween during a period when he was trying to steer clear of the genre (the role was subsequently played by another of his old friends, Donald Pleasance). Christopher later said it was one of his biggest career regrets. He also once confessed that he turned down a role in Airplane!, something which he also regretted. Despite the wide variety of films he made, however, Chris never really managed to shake off the shadow of Count Dracula and always expressed his - rather endearing - tetchiness when interviewers or fans tried to define his career using just that one role. 'People sometimes come up to me,' he once said, 'and they say, "I've seen all your films, Mr Lee." And I say, "Oh no you haven't!"'
Although primarily a film actor, Chris did make the occasional forays into television, appearing in The Avengers (twice), Space: 1999, Charlie's Angels, Ivanhoe, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Colonel March Of Scotland Yard, The Far Pavilions, The Morecambe & Wise Show, The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, The Tomorrow People and Gormenghast.
Christopher still has one film yet to be released, the fantasy movie Angels In Notting Hill, where he reportedly plays a godly figure who looks after the universe. He was also due to star in the Danish 9/11 drama The Eleventh opposite Uma Thurman but it is believed that the film has not yet started production. A lover of opera, Sir Christopher launched his singing career in The Wicker Man and then, in the 1990s, released a CD of Broadway tunes, including 'I Stole The Prince' from Gilbert & Sullivan's The Gondoliers and 'Epiphany' from Sweeney Todd. He also enjoyed an unlikely heavy metal career. Having collaborated with bands like Manowar and Rhapsody of Fire, in 2010, his CD Charlemagne: By The Sword & The Cross won a 'Spirit of Metal' Award from Metal Hammer magazine. He marked his ninety second birthday by releasing a CD of heavy metal cover versions, A Heavy Metal Christmas. His 2013 single 'Jingle Hell' entered the Billboard Hot One Hundred at number twenty two, which made him, by a distance, the oldest living artist to ever have a chart hit. Contrary to popular belief, Chris did not have a vast library of occult books. When giving a speech at the University College Dublin in November 2011, he said: 'Somebody wrote I have twenty thousand books. I'd have to live in a bath! I have maybe four or five [occult books].' He further admonished the students against baneful occult practices, warning them that he had met 'people who claimed to be Satanists. Who claimed to be involved with black magic,' however he himself had never been involved: 'I warn all of you: never, never, never. You will not only lose your mind, you'll lose your soul.'
In an interview in 2013, Chris spoke about his love of acting. 'Making films has never just been a job to me, it is my life,' he said. 'I have some interests outside of acting – I sing and I've written books, for instance – but acting is what keeps me going, it’s what I do, it gives life purpose.'

1 comment:

Gail Jacqueline Mrs Gray said...

I have loved Sir Christopher Lee and his multi talents he has a wonderful voice when he sings, and i have enjoyed all his films, sadly missed by me and i miss his closest friend Peter Cushing they were both instoppable, with great sense of humour and wit, Christopher mentions he misses Peter well Christopher is in heaven and joining Peter forever.