Sir Christopher Lee probably had a more interesting life before he became an actor than most of us could ever hope to have without ever becoming one at all. But we’re not here to talk about his military service, as the man himself never liked to talk much about it either. Rather, we’re here to talk about Sir Christopher Lee the actor, in order to better establish his sainthood as an icon of cinema, and to mark his mortal passing in kind.
To begin, Christopher Lee had one of those fantastic careers in which he was a cultural icon twice over. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, he was a maestro of horror movie monsters, becoming one of the greatest actors to ever grace the silver screen as Count Dracula, just behind Bela Lugosi, and a bit ahead of Gary Oldman. He made a ton of horror movies for the Hammer Film Productions company, playing such iconic characters as Frankenstein’s Monster, Rasputin, and The Mummy. His tall, thin frame, and deep, sonorous voice made him tower over other actors in terms of both stance and sound. In all of his villainous performances, his was a commanding presence that proved a formidable foe, regardless of whether his enemy was Van Helsing or James Bond.
After his time as a star performer with Hammer, Lee moved to the United States where he starred in even more movies, but with none of the impactful quality found in much of his earlier work.
Years later, Lee became a cultural icon once more, playing the Saruman the White in The Lord of the Rings feature film trilogy. Peter Jackson wisely cast Lee as the villain of the first two movies, realizing that a giant, flaming eye on the top of a building was not nearly as intimidating as Lee was with his army of Orcs and deathly stare. His performance in Jackson’s primary Middle Earth trilogy led to a resurgence of his career that saw him playing the evil Count Dooku in the second and third Star Wars prequels, introducing him to a new, younger audience of fans. In the years leading up to his death, he forged a friendship with Tim Burton that led to a fruitful partnership, with Lee appearing in a grand total of five of Burton’s movies.
Personally speaking, Lee will always be Lord Summerisle in one of my favorite movies of all-time, The Wicker Man. He is the devil in plimsolls in that movie. A charming, cult leader with a twinkle in his eyes, like the light reflecting off of a dagger. Of all the roles he’s played over his nearly 70 years in the business, whether it be as Count Dracula, Saruman, the character of Death in the late Terry Pratchett’s Disccworld series, Count Dooku, Mycroft Holmes, Fu Manchu, Scaramanga, or any and all of his other fantastic characters, it will always be Lord Summerisle who I think of when I reflect on the passing of Christopher Lee. He had the kind of life and career anyone would be proud to have. He was an icon in movies and, by all accounts, a hero in war. Though close-lipped about his time in secret service to his country, Lee used to always say when asked about his actions in the war, “Can you keep a secret,” to which the other person would nod vigorously, saying, “Yes, yes, yes,” and Lee would lean forward, and respond, “Well, so can I.”
Sleep well, sir. You’ve earned your rest.