Christopher Lee, English actor/writer/heavy metal musician, died this past week at the age of 93. With a career on the silver screen spanning a total of nearly 70 years, Lee has played such iconic roles as Bram Stoker’s Dracula, a James Bond villain in 1974’s The Man With the Golden Gun, and Saruman the White in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings films. Retrospectively considered, Lee is a stalwart of genre film acting; his roles as various monsters, beasts, and madmen, both mystical and otherwise, largely superseding some of his other more dramatic work. Despite spending some time as an actor in certain Shakespearean dramas, Lee is perhaps most well known to rising generations of moviegoers and cinephiles alike as Count Dooku in George Lucas’ Star Wars, a character with obvious iterative ties to his other iconic roles in numerous horror films of the 1960’s.
On a personal level, Lee will always be iconographically associated with the fantasy realm of J.R.R. Tolkien. For me, Peter Jackson’s cinematic adaptation of The Lord of the Rings trilogy is a touchstone in terms of cementing a clearly defined sense of morality and ethics that has since proven immutable and globally applicable across the socio-cultural strata. While there are a wide number of distinctive characters within the Rings cycle, all of whom are brought to life by a great company of screen actors in Peter Jackson’s films, it is Lee’s turn as Saruman the White that is the most viscerally chilling and memorable.
Lee’s malevolently arched eyebrows, shockingly white beard, and imposing figure continue to cast a shadow over my waking thoughts and subconscious imagination to this day. The cinematic image of Christopher Lee as Saruman has come to define malignancy, corruption, and evil on a grand scale. Moreover, and perhaps even more so than the allegory of Smeagol depicted in the opening sequence of The Return of the King, it is Saruman’s tragic fall from grace that occurs over the course of all three films that is the most thematically resonant and individually defined by Lee’s magisterial eminence.
And yet, for many who grew up in the 1960’s and early 1970’s, Lee is unanimously better known for his work with Hammer Film Productions. Hammer, the horror genre production company of the United Kingdom that financed numerous creature features that Lee starred in, most notably as the undead Transylvanian Count, is a brand name that many members of older generations of film buffs and horror hounds will forever primarily associate with the late Christopher Lee. For many Baby Boomers, the stentorian, British actor will forever stalk the crypts and graveyards of many a schlocky, B-Movie, genre feature of a shared, popular imagination.
However, most millennials (myself included) are more likely to picture that other previously named Count whenever they recall the name of Christopher Lee. While the second episode of the prequel trilogy to Star Wars is arguably the worst entry in the entire franchise, floundering in the turbid waters of a romantic tragedy poorly written by someone with absolutely no understanding of his own script’s supported narrative content, Lee casts a certain shadowy significance over the course of Attack of the Clones‘ primary proceedings. As Count Dooku, Lee lends some menace and authority to Lucas’ impotent writing and lack of directorial vision. Even if he is forced to share screen time with a four foot tall, computer generated, little green man, erroneously christened with the same name as another diminutive extra terrestrial, who was once rumored to reside on an Outer Rim planet in the Dagobah system.
It’s a strange, albeit not altogether unusual, occurrence within popular culture for a film actor’s entire resume of professional work to come to be associated with one, singular character or role. Of a particular and pointedly similar note: Alec Guinness was a great British actor, like Lee, whose image has since come to be associated with Lucas’ Star Wars franchise, despite the fact that Guinness’ taking of the role of Obi-Wan Kenobi occurred towards the very end of a long and illustrious career. Likewise, the great, Irish performer Richard Harris enjoyed notoriety for years as one of the greatest living film stars, before becoming synonymously associated with J.K. Rowling’s fictional character Albus Dumbledore in only two of a grand total of eight installments in the Harry Potter feature film franchise.
While Lee may not have wished to be known solely for any one of these notably singular characters, for better or worse, the name Christopher Lee will go down in history next to the fictional, feature film roles of Count Dracula, Saruman, and Count Dooku. Depending on the age of the person who remembers Lee, his will be a name associated with horror, high fantasy, or sci-fi serial fiction respectively, or perhaps even novelty heavy metal recordings, in certain, idiosyncratic cases. Regardless, Christopher Lee is an actor that will be remembered and celebrated for years to come as an undead lothario, a dark sorcerer, and a nimble Sith Lord, a legacy spanning multiple generations of film fans and fiction-genre enthusiasts, which is hardly something to turn one’s nose up at, or bemoan posthumously.
Looking back on the life and career of Christopher Lee, I find myself eager to go back and watch some of the later Hammer horror features from the 1970’s that I have never seen. Additionally, I have an itching desire to see Lee as a Bond villain, despite a deeply ingrained distrust for any film starring Roger Moore as everyone’s favorite agent of the British Secret Service. While I don’t primarily associate Lee with many of the film’s that initially established him as a great screen actor, I still feel his loss keenly, and am aware of his talent and comprehensive ability to inhabit a role entirely. Even if the man has passed on to the unknown, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films still remain, and Lee will forever capture my subconscious imagination as Saruman, his talent memorable by a single role, Lee’s visceral presence on film forever unchanging and alive.