By Ian Beabout, Online Editor
I’m very saddened to hear the news today that legendary English actor Christopher Lee passed away Sunday, June 7th, at age 93. With nearly 300 film credits to his name, we’ve lost one of our most gifted actors and greatest voices in movie history.
I grew up watching the old Hammer Films that he starred in, especially Horror of Dracula (1958) and Dracula – Prince of Darkness (1966), and to me he was Dracula. I still watch those old, atmospheric films every Halloween – as well as his performances in The Curse of Frankenstein (1959), The Gorgon (1964), The Mummy (1959), and countless other misty, eerie, and ancient castle-based Hammer films.
He also appeared in some really cool roles later in life – first Saruman in The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-03), my favorite film ever, which I’m fairly certain I went to see just because he was in it. The experience of seeing that film at age 9 or 10 completely changed my life. Then, he appeared in Star Wars Episodes II and III (2002 and 2005), and let’s face it, every shot he was in made those oft-maligned Star Wars films better. He was perfect for the rather sophisticated and mysterious Count Dooku, a name and characterization which was no doubt a tribute to his classic role!
It wasn’t until relatively recently that I saw him in the English cult horror film, The Wicker Man (1973), a truly disturbing film that many consider to be one of the all time greats. He’s really terrific and ‘scary’ in that, if not in the traditional ‘heavy makeup’ fashion of the Hammer films. It’s been too long since I’ve seen it and I plan to revisit soon.
Lee was truly interesting man who lived a full life. He volunteered to serve in World War II and ended up serving in what he ambiguously described as ‘special forces’. He also knew Lord of the Rings author JRR Tolkien personally and was known to reread the trilogy every year.
When Lee heard that the trilogy was being turned into a film in the 1990’s, he asked to be a part of it – having been Tolkien’s personal choice to play Gandalf had a film ever been made. Of course, he ultimately ended up being perfectly cast as the villainous wizard Saruman, which he played brilliantly. Recently, he revealed that his talents extended into music and released a heavy metal concept album about King Charlemagne, providing many of the operatic vocals for the title role.
I admit I’ve looked him up in recent years now and then to make sure he was still working and he always seemed to have some project in various states of production, which was amazing. He was even really great in the recent Hobbit films and I look forward to seeing if there were any unused scenes from the third Hobbit – The Battle of Five Armies that pop up in the extended edition, due sometime this year.
There’s a really amazing initially unused scene in The Return of the King extended edition (2004) with some bantering between he and Ian McKellan’s Gandalf which always left me scratching my head wondering why it was cut. It is on Youtube and well worth checking out if you haven’t seen it.
Rest in peace, Christopher Lee. A part of me honestly expected him to go on living forever and the universe seems a bit off balance today without him.