Christopher Lee: An Unexpected Giant of Cinema (Christopher Lee Biography)


Christopher Lee is most familiar to the world as a consummate actor with a deep, rich voice and a towering presence. In ten hammer Studios films he became the embodiment of evil, inhabiting the character of Count von Dracula with a sinister charm.

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Christopher Lee is most familiar to the world as a consummate actor with a deep, rich voice
00:04
and a towering presence.
00:05
In ten hammer Studios films he became the embodiment of evil, inhabiting the character
00:09
of Count von Dracula with a sinister charm.
00:12
Then, breaking the mould, he went on to play some of the most iconic characters in cinematic
00:17
history.
00:18
Yet, who would have known that the great character actor was a former WW2 RAF Intelligence Officer
00:22
and Nazi hunter who had been witness to unspeakable atrocities.
00:27
In this week’s Biographics we pierce the celluloid to discover the real Christopher
00:32
Lee.
00:37
Early Life Christopher Frank Carandini Lee was born on
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May 27th, 1922 in Belgravia, London.
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His father, Geoffrey, was a hero of the First World War, having been decorated for gallantry
00:59
at the Battle of the Somme.
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At the time of his son’s birth he was a Lieutenant Colonel on the King’s Royal Rifle
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Corps.
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Geoffrey was married to an Italian countess by the name of Estelle Marie.
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Blessed with great beauty, Estelle’s heritage traced all the way back to Emperor Charlemagne.
01:14
As a result, the Lee household was frequently visited by high ranking figures of European
01:18
nobility, and the young Christopher came into contact with some very interesting and important
01:24
people.
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Christopher was the Lee’s second child, with a sister, Xandra, having been born in
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1917.
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However, the marriage was not a happy one and, when the boy was just four-years-old
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his parents separated.
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For the next two years, the children lived with Estelle in Wengen, Switzerland, while
01:40
their father remained in the Belgravia house.
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After two years the marriage was officially ended.
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While in Switzerland, Estelle enrolled her son in a preschool called Miss Fischer’s
01:49
Academy, which was located in Territet.
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It was here that Christopher was given his first acting role, appearing as the lead character
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in the play Rumpelstiltskin.
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In 1928, Estelle and the children returned to England.
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Christopher was put into Wagner’s private school in Queen’s Gate, London.
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In 1929, Estelle married a banker by the name of Harcourt George-St-Croix Rose.
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Lee’s step-father happened to be the uncle of a young writer by the name of Ian Fleming,
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who would go on to create, not only James Bond, but also Bond’s arch enemy, Scaramanga
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or The Man With the Golden Gun, who Lee would famously play on film a half century later.
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Following the marriage, the family moved to Fulham.
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At the age of nine Christopher was enrolled at Summer Fields, a boarding school in Oxford.
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Lee enjoyed his time at Summer Fields.
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He made friends quickly and proved himself to be a gifted and studious pupil.
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Among his closest friends at Summer fields was Patrick MacNee, who would also carve a
02:42
career as an actor and find fame as secret agent John Steed in The Avengers.
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Lee and MacNee both enjoyed acting and appeared together in a number of school plays.
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Summer Fields was a feeding school to Eton College, and in 1935, Christopher sat the
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scholarship exam and was interviewed by the school provost.
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However, his maths ability let him down and he missed out on a scholarship by one place.
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If he was to attend Eton, his family would have to pay his way.
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Despite his mother’s urgings, his step-father was unwilling to foot the bill, so he ended
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up at Wellington College in Berkshire.
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It was at Wellington that Lee proved himself to be a brilliant linguist.
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He mastered French, Spanish, Italian and German and gained a passing knowledge of Swedish,
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Greek and Russian.
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Yet, despite his academic prowess, he chafed under the harsh discipline that was meted
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out at the school.
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He hated the regular parades and weapons training that became more and more regular as talk
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of war became more frequent in political circles.
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So, it was with some relief that he had to leave Wellington when his step-father went
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bankrupt in 1939.
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Making a Living The seventeen-year-old’s education was over.
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He was now expected to make his own way in the world.
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But he entered the job market just as the summer holidays were beginning and there were
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no prospects.
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After a month of fruitless job hunting he was allowed to join his sister who was on
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holiday on the French Riviera.
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While there, Lee heard news that the last public execution in France was to take place
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in Paris.
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Along with thousands of others he took the trip to witness the gruesome event.
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From Paris, he travelled to Menton in southern France.
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There he stayed with an exiled Russian princely family with ties to his mother.
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He enjoyed his time there and wanted to stay, but, with Europe about to erupt into warfare,
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it was decided that he would be better off back in the relative safety of London.
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For a short time, he worked as a clerk in a shipping line office.
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When war broke out in September, 1939, Lee was eager to do his part.
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Too young to join up in the regular army, he teamed up with some friends and travelled
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to Finland with plans to fight aside the Finns in their struggle against Russia.
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The British teens may have had a lot of fighting spirit, but none of them knew how to ski,
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which rendered them virtually useless in the snow-covered battle terrain.
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They were politely thanked for their assistance and then strongly encouraged to return to
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England.
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Back in London, Lee resumed his work as an office clerk.
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In 1940, aged 18, he joined the Home Guard.
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It was around this time that his father, Geoffrey, died.
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Though he had great respect for his father’s wartime endeavours, Christopher had no desire
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to follow his footsteps into the regular army.
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Knowing that conscription was not far away, he decided to enter the armed services on
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his terms.
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Consequently, he volunteered to the Royal Air Force.
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The War Years Following his training at the Initial Training
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Wing at Paignton, Lee was stationed to Southern Rhodesia.
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On the brink of his first solo flying mission he complained of blackouts and blurred vision.
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He was diagnosed with a failed optic nerve and told that he would never fly again.
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For a number of months, he was transferred around the RAF service in Africa, but given
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nothing meaningful to do.
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Then, out of frustration, he applied to the RAF Intelligence Service.
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Gaining entry to the service, he was posted as a warder to the Salisbury Prison in Rhodesia.
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From there he was moved to the Suez Canal Zone, where he was put to work in intelligence
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gathering activities.
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During the North African Campaign, he was deeply involved as part of No. 260 Squadron
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RAF, nearly losing his life when an airfield was destroyed by a German bombing raid.
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Throughout 1943 and ’44 he was constantly struck down by malaria, finally being sent
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to Carthage for treatment.
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In the winter of 1943, Lee was part of an officer’s swap, and he was seconded to the
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army.
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He spent the next year serving with the Gurkhas of the 8th Indian Infantry Division.
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He saw action in the Battle of Monte Cassino, almost losing his life when a plane crashed
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on take-off.
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Towards the end of 1944, Lee was promoted to flight lieutenant and posted to Air Force
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HQ.
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When the end of hostilities finally came in April, 1945, he was given a position in the
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Central Registry of War Criminals of Security Suspects.
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He now became a Nazi hunter.
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The work was top secret and we have few specifics about what he did.
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In a later interview however he did say this . . .
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“We were given dossiers of what they’d done and told to find them, interrogate them
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as much as we could and hand them over to the appropriate authority . . . We saw these
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concentration camps.
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Some had been cleaned up.
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Some had not.”
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A New Career Beckons Lee left the army in 1946.
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After what he had experienced over the previous few years, he could no longer bring himself
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to working in an office.
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He had the opportunity to teach classics at University, but didn’t fancy that prospect
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either.
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Unsure what to make of his post-military life, the twenty-four-year old found himself dining
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at the Italian Embassy in London with his cousin, the Italian ambassador to England,
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Nicolo Carandini.
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Out of the blue, Carandini looked at Lee and said, ‘Have you ever thought of being an
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actor?’
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Taken a little off guard, Lee replied, ‘No, I don’t think so.’
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Carandini then replied, ‘Perhaps, when you go away, you might want to think about it.’
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Think about he did.
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He decided that he quite liked the idea and mentioned it to his mother.
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The countess, however, was vehemently opposed.
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A career in acting was beneath their status she implored and, besides, at 6 feet five
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he was too tall, he was too foreign looking and it was hardly a steady line of work.
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But the more she railed against the acting idea, the more her son became determined to
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make a success of it.
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Towards the end of 1946, he joined the Rank Company of Youth.
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For the next few years he busied himself learning the craft of acting.
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He swept the theatre stage, held prompt cards for the actors on stage and eventually got
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tiny parts himself.
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Then came small roles in films.
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His height did, indeed work against him, with casting directors struggling to find a place
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for him.
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However, the roles did come.
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Directors managed to find creative ways to hide his height, such as having him sit during
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his scenes.
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Some of his roles in these early years were uncredited, while others ended up on the cutting
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room floor, but they all added to the skills that he would display when the big roles eventually
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came his way.
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Hammer Horror In 1957, Lee was hired by Hammer Film Productions
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for his biggest part yet.
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He was to play the monster created by Baron von Frankenstein, who was to be played by
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his good friend Peter Cushing.
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The movie, called The Curse of Frankenstein, found an immediate audience among lovers of
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horror, who clamoured for more.
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Hammer decided to satisfy the demand with a cinematic take on the Bram Stoker classic
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Dracula, with Lee in the lead role.
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The movie, released in 1958, was a huge hit, with Lee’s sinister yet charming take on
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the fanged count forever embedding itself in the public consciousness.
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Dracula was the movie that turned the struggling 36-year-old journeyman actor into a star.
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He later recalled, ‘It brought me a name, a fan club and a second-hand car, for all
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of which I was grateful.’
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The Dracula role was both a blessing and a curse for Lee.
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It inevitably type cast him – and it tied him to appear in a succession of sequels,
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each one worse than the last.
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When he tried to bring the series to an end he was, in his own words, ‘blackmailed’
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by Hammer executives, who would remind him how many people he would put out on the street
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if the next movie was not made.
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Lee played the part of Dracula ten times, and increasingly grew tired of the shadow
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that it cast over his career.
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It took eight years for the second Dracula to be released, by which time the first movie
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had made a tremendous impact all over the world.
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Yet, when Lee was handed the script for the sequel, he was horrified, not by the murderous
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things that his character was asked to do, but by the terrible dialogue that he had been
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given.
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As a result, he refused to do the lines, which is why Dracula does not say a word in 1965’s
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Dracula: Prince of Darkness.
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Lee was also concerned that the character of Dracula was getting further and further
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away from what Bram Stoker had in mind when he wrote the book.
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Serious Acting According to the man himself, Lee’s real
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career as a serious actor started when he was cast as the Marquis de Sade in A Tale
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of Two Cities in 1958.
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This was, in fact, his 43rd movie.
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Other serious roles followed, but he was unable to escape the horror genre for over a decade,
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appearing in a slew of largely forgettable blood and guts flicks, both for Hammer Studios
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and other production companies.
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In 1962, Lee auditioned for a role in the World War Two classic The Longest Day.
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It is ironic that, despite his distinguished service for his country during the actual
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war, he was turned down because it was felt that audiences wouldn’t accept him as a
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military type.
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From 1965 until 1969, Lee, despite his obvious English bearing, starred in a series of movies
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in which he played the villainous oriental Fu Manchu.
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His skill as an actor, along with long hours in the makeup chair, allowed him to breathe
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life into the role of the criminal mastermind.
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In 1970, Lee picked up a single day’s work as the narrator in a film about the Marquis
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De Sade entitled Eugenie.
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It was only when the movie was released that he realized that he was appearing in a soft
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porn film, loaded with sex scenes that were shot when he wasn’t around.
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He was embarrassed and angry, but he could do nothing about it.
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Lee credits his role as Sherlock Holmes’ smarter older brother, Mycroft, in 1970’s
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The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes as the role that allowed him to finally break free
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from being typecast as the ‘horror’ guy.
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Three years later he played Lord Summerisle in what he considered the best movie he ever
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made, The Wicker Man.
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Lee was so taken with the book Ritual upon which the movie is based that he offered his
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services free of charge.
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The film has become a cult classic and is considered one of the best British movies
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ever made.
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In the mid-70’s, Lee appeared as Comte de Rochefort in The Three Musketeers, and its
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sequel The Four Musketeers.
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During a fight scene he received a knee injury, which would plague him for the rest of his
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life.
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Back in the early ‘60’s, Lee’s step-cousin Ian Fleming, who had made it big as an author,
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had offered him the role of the villainous title character in the movie adaptation of
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his James Bond novel, Dr. No.
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Lee accepted on the spot.
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However, Fleming hadn’t cleared Lee with the producers and they had already chosen
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their man.
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A dozen years later, Lee finally got his chance when he landed the role of Francisco Scaramanga
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in the tenth Bond flick, The Man With The Golden Gun.
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Lee breathed life into the character, who Fleming had written as a rather bland bad
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guy lacking real depth.
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The writer was delighted with the portrayal, claiming that Lee had created the sinister
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counterpart to James Bond.
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Coming to America By 1977, Lee had established a reputation
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as a fine actor who could take on any role and make it his own.
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Still, he was concerned that, if he remained in England, he would eventually be lured back
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into the dark tunnel of horror movies.
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Avoiding that fate was the prime motivation for his move to the United States in 1977.
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His first American role was a departure from anything that had gone before – the modern-day
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disaster Airport ’77.
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The following year he went even further beyond his comfort zone by appearing as the guest
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host on the NBC live comedy Saturday Night Live.
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He remembered the experience as the most terrifying hour and a half of his life.
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That night he impressed many people, including budding director Steven Spielberg, who promptly
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signed him up for his next project, the period comedy 1941.
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Lee had the chance to follow up with another comedy, a spoof of Airport ’77 called Airplane!
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But he turned the role down and it went to Leslie Nielsen, who made it his own.
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Lee would refer to this decision as ‘a big mistake.’
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Through the 80’s and ‘90’s, Lee appeared in a broad spectrum of movie genres from dramas
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to comedies and even musicals.
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He also made regular appearances on the small screen, for both British and American TV audiences.
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In 1998, Lee was controversially cast as Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan in the
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movie Jinnah.
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It was to be his most demanding role, and the one that carried the most responsibility.
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For ten weeks, he acted the part of the father of the Pakistani nation on location, as thousands
15:05
of locals scrutinized his every move.
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The vast majority of them were won over by the consummate actor, amazed and delighted
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with his ability to ‘become’ Jinnah.
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The movie was hugely important to Lee but it did not achieve widespread commercial success.
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A Lifelong Dream Fulfilled Lee had been a lifelong fan of the J.R.R.
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Tolkien Lord of the Rings series of books, reading them annually.
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He had once actually met Tolkien and for decades he had harbored the desire to play the role
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of Gandalf.
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What he was offered, and immediately accepted, was the part of Saruman in a trilogy to be
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directed by New Zealand director Peter Jackson.
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The role brought him to a new generation of fans, who were enthralled with his commanding
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performance.
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Those who were privileged to work with him on the set were also captivated by the Christopher
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Lee aura.
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In one scene, Saruman was to be stabbed in the back and director Jackson coached Lee
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to scream as the blade entered his body.
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Lee turned to Jackson and asked him if he’d ever actually seen a man get stabbed in the
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back.
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Jackson admitted that he hadn’t, to which Lee said, ‘Well, I have, and I know what
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to do.’
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He went on to explain that such a wound would puncture the lungs, preventing the person
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from screaming.
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At best they would let out a quiet groan.
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With this revelation, the set went quiet.
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All present knew that they were in the presence of a man who had lived through things that
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they could only imagine.
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The success of the Lord of Rings movies led to Lee’s insertion into the Star Wars franchise,
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where he played the evil Count Dooku.
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Throughout the 2000’s he also appeared in a string of Tim Burton movies, including Sleepy
16:42
Hollow and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
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The Waning Years In 2011, Lee embraced his roots by appearing
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in his first Hammer film in 35 years, The Resident, alongside Hilary Swank.
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While filming in Mexico, he suffered a back injury and had to undergo surgery.
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As a result, he was unable to play a leading role in the long awaited sequel to The Wicker
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Man, entitled The Wicker Tree.
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However, he was determined to appear in the film and was given a small role as the mentor
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of the character he was meant to play.
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Although in his late 80’s, Lee was insistent that he had no intentions of retiring from
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acting.
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He often said that making movies had never been a job to him – it was his life, it
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gave him meaning and purpose.
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With respiratory problems and a dodgy heart he couldn’t accept as many roles as in earlier
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times.
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Still he kept busy with voice-over and narration work and at least one major production each
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year.
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His final movie was an independent production called Angels of Notting Hill.
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Christopher Lee died on June 27th, 2015, at the age of 93.
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The official cause of death was heart failure.
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In the tributes that flowed he was recognized as appearing in 208 films, more than anyone
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else in history.
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Those myriad roles allow him to live on, enabling his millions of fans, both old and new to
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experience the presence of a true giant of
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the cinema.


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Photo credit: Screenshot from video.