Thursday, June 11, 2015

So much more than a monster: Sir Christopher Lee - 1922-2015

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There are actors, and then there are actors that make you stand back and simply admire. But not for their Shakespearean delivery, or their interpretation of the Stanislavski Method. No, these are actors who, through luck, design, a bit of both, and some other elements besides, inhabit their characters and brand them their own.

Sir Christopher Lee was one such actor. He was, of course, best known for his turns as fiendish monsters - Hammer's Dracula, Saruman in the Lord Of The Rings, Count Dooku of the Star Wars universe, Lord Summerisle in The Wicker Man, and Francisco Scaramanga in The Man With The Golden Gun. And while these will never place him in the same regard as Britain's more celebrated thespian knights, or indeed the greats of American cinema, Lee was one of the grandest character actors to have ever graced celluloid. And much of that has to do with Lee, himself and his background.

To contextualise the career of an actor who made more than 200 films in his lifetime by just these roles alone should not be sneered at. True, like John Wayne, Robert Mitchum or even Michael Caine, you could say he played the same character - himself - over and over again. But it wouldn't be a slur to say so, because in all of the lordly villains Lee portrayed, he applied his own rich heritage to incredible effect. That and his deep, sonorous voice and imposing 6ft 4in height.

Christopher Frank Carandini Lee was born into semi-aristocracy on May 27 May, 1922, the son of a British army officer and an Italian noblewoman, Contessa Estelle Marie Carandini di Sarzano. Echoing the childhood of James Bond - the creation of his step-cousin Ian Fleming - Lee grew up in Switzerland with his mother following the collapse of his parents' marriage.

During the Second World War he served in military intelligence - like Fleming - reportedly carrying out special operations behind enemy lines. After the war, Lee became an actor, using connections on the Italian side of his family to land a movie contract with Rank. After several years of bit parts, Lee signed to the studio with which he would make his name - Hammer Films, appearing first opposite his friend Peter Cushing in The Curse of Frankenstein, and then in 1958 making his debut in his seminal role: Count Dracula.

All would agree that Hammer put the ham in horror, but as camp as Lee's nine appearances as the Transylvanian bloodsucker were, he set the mould for every characterisation and caricature thereafter, from Sesame Street's Count right through to Gary Oldman in Francis Ford Coppola's adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula.

If Live and Let Die, with the appointment of Roger Moore and his eyebrows as Sean Connery's replacement, reinvented the James Bond franchise as a hipper, camper, flared trousers-and-wide-lapelled version affair, its follow-up, The Man With The Golden Gun provided Christopher Lee with an opportunity to shed the cape and fangs of his most famous character (despite having been rejected for the role of Dr. No in the very first Bond film 12 years before).

The literary Scaramanga was typical of Fleming's characters with a richly detailed back story: Catalonian circus child, trick-shot artist, hitman for the Naples mafia and, latterly, Fidel Castro. Lee, with his upbringing and war background, added enigma of his own to the screen version - the world's highest-paid assassin, with KGB kills to his name, and a reputation for dispatching his victims with custom-made golden bullets.

Living on his own Tracy Island somewhere in the South China Sea, and served by the diminutive Nick-Nack, Lee brought a brutish and under-stated charm to the role, playing Scaramanga as urbane and lacking the more freakish traits of Bond villains thus far (though three nipples was a character trait never again repeated until Friends' Chandler Bing came along). Even his duel with Bond in the house of mirrors carried a ring of gentlemanly arts, and none of the pyrotechnics for which the 007 films had become renown.

By the late 70s, Lee moved to Los Angeles in the hope of shedding his villainous reputation. Character parts in episodes of Charlie's Angels, sci-fi and fantasy series, however, hardly removed him from the shadow of typecasting. Even playing Prince Philip in the dreadful 1982 TV movie Charles & Diana: A Royal Love Story didn't improve things. Still, he remained solidly in work, averaging four or five films a year throughout the 80s and 90s.

Prince meets Knight
In 2001, Peter Jackson cast Lee in his 176th film role - Saruman, the malignant wizard doing the dark lord Sauron's bidding in The Lord Of The Rings. Despite having hankered to play Gandalf for years, Lee played Saruman to malevolent perfection throughout the first two LOTR films (controversially being left out of the third) and then returned in Jackson's first instalment of The Hobbit.

In the same year as his first appearance as Saruman, Lee played another duplicitous patrician. Count Dooku in George Lucas's second and third Star Wars chapters, Attack Of The Clones and Revenge Of The Sith. Though "Count Dooku" wasn't meant to be a joke reference to Count Dracula (there was, let's face it, little amusement at all in the first three Star Wars prequels) there was a serendipitous nature to playing such similar super villains in the same year.

Lord Of The Rings and Star Wars didn't so much revive Christopher Lee's career - it didn't need reviving - as reminded cinema audiences what a towering presence he could still give to a film. And, remarkably, continued to do so, right up until his death on Sunday at the age of 93 (his final film, the comedy-drama Angels In Notting Hill is due for release later this year).

Long after many of his acting peers had either retired or dropped off this mortal coil altogether, Lee developed an unlikely second career as a recording artist. Not only that, a heavy metal act. Having once supplemented acting jobs after the war by putting his distinctive baritone to good use as a singer (he even sang on the soundtrack to The Wicker Man), at the age of 88 - insanely - Lee recorded the concept album Charlemagne: By the Sword And The Cross, which even received a 'Spirit of Metal' in Metal Hammer's 2010 Golden Gods awards.

This was no ironic, eccentric one-off. Three years later he followed it up with Charlemagne: The Omens of Death, and even recorded heavy metal Christmas EPs for 2012 and 2013! "He’s amazing. He’s incredible. He’s got this incredible charisma," complemented Rob Halford, the lead singer of Judas Priest, whose  guitarist Richie Faulkner actually recorded music for Lee's albums, saying "He’s a very metal guy, he embodies the whole spirit of metal." Last year, at the age of 92, he released another EP, this time of covers of standards set to heavy metal.

And that is why we must take our hats off to Sir Christopher Lee. He may have been best known for portraying malevolence, but there was something truly amazing about him, his Boy's Own heritage and his incredible work ethic, right up until the end. Aristocratic, secret agent, film star supreme, quintessential baddie, heavy metal icon.  You couldn't make it up. RIP.

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