Christopher Lee, Dead at 93, Was a Lifelong Badass of Darkness
The legendary actor's real life was even more extraordinary than what you saw on screen.
The story goes that when Christopher Lee came to fame as the first true horror star in decades, his image was so irrevocably linked with blackness that when a cop pulled him over in Hollywood, the officer’s first question was whether it was safe for Lee to be out driving in broad daylight.
Apocryphal, but that it has a ring of truth is a good example of how at home Lee seemed as a villain. By all accounts Sir Christopher Lee, who died Sunday at the age of 93 after suffering from respiratory and heart problems, was a genuinely kind and thoughtful man. But he had plenty of encounters with real terror. As a teenager in France, he witnessed the death of the last man publicly executed by guillotine. As a child he met the people who killed Rasputin; when he played the Mad Monk himself on stage, Rasputin’s daughter told him they resembled one another, chiefly in the eyes. Serving in British Intelligence in World War II, Lee absorbed enough death and destruction that while filming the Lord of the Rings more than half a century later he was able to advise Peter Jackson on the real sound of a man being stabbed in the back.
Lee never stopped pushing himself. By the time you saw him threatening Frodo, your parents knew him from their childhood nightmares. Bela Lugosi planted the Dracula flag with an aristocratic, stagey performance. Lee played the Count in the Hammer film series with a barely restrained ferocity. Others may have been more tragic, more sexual, or more elegant. Lee’s Dracula most enjoyed being evil.
Lee last donned the cape in 1976’s Dracula and Son. He went on to play a gleeful zealot in cult classic The Wicker Man, a Bond villain for the screen adaptation of his cousin Ian Fleming’s The Man With The Golden Gun, and a Sith Lord in the Star Wars prequels. Then Jackson invited him down to New Zealand to film Tolkien’s epic trilogy and antagonize an entirely new generation. Despite meeting Tolkien years earlier and getting the author’s blessing to play Gandalf, Lee chose instead to play Sauron. Between takes, he gave the other actors pointers on how to speak Elvish. He was fluent, of course.
And because this was still not enough for a single life, he found time to record a metal concept album about his great ancestor Charlemagne (yes, that Charlemagne) and two black metal Christmas albums. He had no gifts for the little drummer boy.
Friends and admirers flooded social media with tributes after Lee’s family released the news.
Tim Burton praised the actor he’d directed in five films:
“Christopher has been an enormous inspiration to me my entire life. I had the honour and pleasure to work with him on five films (Sleepy Hollow, Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, Corpse Bride, Alice In Wonderland and Dark Shadows).
“He was the last of his kind — a true legend — who I’m fortunate to have called a friend. He will continue to inspire me and I’m sure countless others for generations to come.”
Lee’s IMDB page lists a few films yet to be released, though it’s uncertain how much production may have been completed. It seems only natural that his work would continue beyond this mortal coil. Anyone who’d be in a black metal band at 90 deserves a posthumous album. It’s fair to wonder without irony what he’d be doing at 110.