After the tragic death of acting great Christopher Lee last week, Rob Stoakes pays a personal tribute to the legend.
As of time of writing, the death of Christopher Lee at age 93 has been announced earlier today. His last film, Angels in Notting Hill, is set to be released later this year.
It’s difficult to know where to start. This is going to be a very personal tribute retelling Lee’s impact on me, because any attempt to document his long, event-filled and amazing life, and equally long and amazing career as an actor, would be as long as a novel. He has appeared in over 200 films, over 60 television programmes and somehow managed to fit in 16 video games. All of this after a semi-infamous career as a spy in World War Two. He was the only cast member in all of the Lord of the Rings films to have actually met J.R.R Tolkien, he was officially the oldest performer of heavy metal and had collaborations with Rhapsody of Fire as well as 4 solo albums, and he received the BAFTA Fellowship Award in 2011 from Tim Burton.
With such a huge career under his belt, it’s difficult to cherry pick a few roles of his that really matter to me. It was Hammer that brought him to the attention of the British public with his portrayal of Frankenstein’s Creature in their 1957 The Curse of Frankenstein, though he is remembered best for perhaps his most iconic role of all; Count Dracula himself, starting in the 1958 horror classic Dracula. He challenges Belo Legosi as the most remembered version of this role, and with fellow Hammer regular Peter Cushing as Van Helsing, Christopher Lee cemented himself as one of Britain’s top horror actors in many Hammer films to follow.
But it is perhaps his tenure as Lord Summerisle in 1973’s The Wicker Man that best shows off just how menacing he truly can be. This, alongside his arresting and inspiring portrayal of Muhammad Al Jinnah in Jinnah, was Christopher Lee’s personal favourite role, and after nearly two decades of playing monsters, Christopher Lee makes Summerisle absolutely terrifying in how human he is; how sincere in his beliefs he is, and how willing he is to commit human sacrifice on an industrial scale for the greater good.
Christopher Lee is best known for his villains, and very rightly. With his deep, booming voice and towering stature he was always able to command awe from an audience. However, I feel that one of his television roles best shows off his range. In the TV mini-series Gormenghast, based on Mervyn Peake’s gothic fantasy novels, Lee played the manservant Flay, one of his few heroic roles, and his performance is one of the most perfect translations from book to film I’ve ever seen. You’d think it’d be impossible for an actor as recognisable as Lee to be lost in a role, but when I watch Gormenghast, I don’t see an actor playing Flay; I see Flay, leaping off the pages of the original book and onto the television screen. The series contains some of Lee’s finest work, and I highly recommend it to all who want some lesser known Lee goodness.
His definitive portrayal as Saruman of Lord of the Rings is perhaps the role this generation will know him best for, certainly not without good reason, but that’s the thing with Christopher Lee; his career has been so long and filled with so many great performances, that every generation since the mid-fifties has a Christopher Lee role that they will remember him forever for. Even in absolute junk titles like Howling 2; Stirba Werewolf Bitch or The Brides of Fu Manchu, Christopher Lee has always been electrifying, with his dignified baritone and imposing presence. In every film he’s in, he has found the meat of a role and dominated it. The monstrous Count Dracula. The chilling Lord Summerisle. The sympathetic Flay. The inspirational Muhammad Ali Jinnah. The imposing Saruman. All of these and more are performances that we were blessed to see, and it is a sad day to know that we have lost the great man who brought them to us.