Christopher Lee was born Christopher Frank Carandini Lee in London on May 27, 1922 (the same day and month as Vincent Price and Peter Cushing). The Carandini part of the name came from his mother's side of the family, and dates back to the Holy Roman Empire and Charlemagne. Lee's father was a Colonel in the King's Royal Rifles and he wasn't pleased when his son annou ced his intention of becoming an actor. Lee made his first stage appearance at the age of nine in a school play--he played Cassius to Patrick MacNee's Brutus--but he didn't really consider becoming an actor until after the war.
It was one of the Carandini cousins--actually Italy's first post-war Ambassador to Britain--who suggested that he take up professional acting. He then introduced Lee to Filippo del Guidice, another italian who was the head of Two Cities Films, a division of the Rank organization. Within weeks of the interview Lee was given a seven-year contract and appeared in his first film, Corridor of Mirrors (1947). He appeared in eleven films during his first eighteen months at Rank, most of them little more than walk-on parts. Among these was Laurence Olivier's Hamlet, in which, ironically enough, Peter Cushing also appeared, though the two of them never actually met until almost a decade later.
After his contract with Rank expired, the next few years were hard for Lee. He continued to get a number of small parts but was obliged to supplement his income by undertaking stunt work. In 1955 Lee actually got the title role in a film--Alias John Preston a short film directed by John MacDonald which didn't attract any attention when it was released. The following year, along with his usual minor supporting roles, he also appeared as the Frankenstein monster in The Curse of Frankenstein. At the time it was just another part and Lee did not attach any importance to the film, but it was significant that for once his impressive height, instead of being a handicap as it had been up to then, was responsible for landing him a role.
The Frankenstein film didn't automatically lead to his getting the role in Horror of Dracula the following year but it did serve to keep his name in the minds of producer Anthony Hinds and director Terence Fisher. A number of actors were augitioned for the part but finally it went to Lee. Though it was Dracula that set the seal on Lee's long association with Hammer, strangely enough they didn't take proper advantage of him for many years. Instead of giving him similar roles that utilized his unique sexual attraction he was relegated to a series of supporting roles in films like Hound of the Baskervilles (Fisher, 1959), The Man Who Could Cheat Death (Fisher, 1959) and The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll (Fisher, 1960).
They had cast him as the mummy in The Mummy (Fisher, 1959) and, despite being buried under all the usual make-up, Lee managed to invest the character with a certain amount of sympathy. But after The Mummy Lee decided that he wasn't going to play any more heavily made-up characters. But despite the regularity of his appearances in Hammer films the financial rewards weren't very high and in 1959 he temporarily left England to make the first of many continental horror films. Oliver Reed, who donned Lee's rejected heavy make-up to play the werewolf in Curese of the Werewolf (Fisher, 1961), recalled that Lee used to earn extra money during his early days at Hammer by loaning out his white Mercedes and his services as a chauffeur to fellow actors for five shillings at a time.
In fact it wasn't until 1965 that Lee's career began to improve. (In the meantime he had married, in 1961, former Danish model Birgit Kroencke and two years later his daughter, Christina, was born.) 1965 was the year he first played Fu Manchu in The Face of Fu Manchu (Don Sharp) for Hallam Productions. Hammer finally realized the value of Lee and demonstrated this by starring him in both Rasputin the Mad Monk (Don Sharp) and in Dracula, Prince of Darkness (Terence Fisher). Though Prince of Darkness was thought to be almost as good as Hammer's first Dracula, Lee's scenes were kept to a minimum to make his appearances more impressive, and this time the Count was without a single line of dialogue. This didn't please Lee: "In the book he hardly ever stops talking. I think he should say something in these films."
Prince of Darkness was very successful but it was three more years before Hammer made another Dracula. Directed with real flair by Freddie Francis, Dracula has Risen from the Grave (1968) was even more successful than its predecessor, which caused Hammer to start churning out more Draculas at a faster rate. Taste the Blood of Dracula (Peter Sasdy) followed in 1969, The Scars of Dracula (Roy Ward Baker) in 1970, Dracula AD 1972 (Alan Gibson) in 1971 and The Satanic Rites of Dracula (Alan Gibson) in 1972. But with each film Lee grew more unhappy about appearing in them. "All I get to do is stand around on unhallowed ground, sweep down corridors and make the odd pounce or two. Nobody will write dialogue for Dracula."
As far as the film industry is concerned, if not the public, Lee does seem to have succeeded in escaping the horror star tag. This process began in 1970 when Billy Wilder cast him as Sherlock Holmes's brother Mycroft in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. In 1972 he made The Wicker Man, a rather upper-class horror film scripted by Anthony Shaffer of Sleuth and Amadeus fame. To set the seal on his escape from Dracula, Lee then appeared in Richard Lester's The Three Muskateers in 1973 as Rochefort, and in The Man With the Golden Gun (Guy Hamilton) in 1974.
"I have been more fortunate than some actors who have been in horror films, I know. It was a shame that Boris Karloff was confined to the playing of one type of role because he was too good an actor. But Lon Chaney, the most brilliant actor of them all, was not confined to playing horror parts. Far from it. Very few of his roles were horror ones. And you must remember that in those days they had a far higher standard of production. That's what Karloff said to me--they had top directors, top writers and they were made as top pictures before the war. That is, alas, not the way it is today, apart from a very few exceptions like Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist."
Despite his break-away from the horror film genre as an actor, Lee remains personally interested in the occult and a large portion of his 12,000-strong book collection is devoted to it. In 1971 he made his first trip to Transylvania, legendary home of Count Dracula, while making a television documentary called In Search of Dracula, and in 1977 he published his autobiography, Tall, Dark and Gruesome. Lee has also won numerous awards for his contribution to the cinema from the United States, France, Germany, Spain, Italy and Great Britain. In 2001, Lee was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.
During his distinguished career Christopher Lee has appeared in wide variety of roles in over 300 films and television productions, including Airport 77 (1977), Cross of Iron (1979), House of Long Shadows (1983), Shaka Zulu (1987), Gremlins II (1990), Jinnah (1998), Sleepy Hollow (1999) and the BBC's production of Gormenghast. Lee also and followed former co-star Peter Cushing into the Star Wars series in 2002, appearing in Episode 2, Attack of the Clones, and has been featured as Saruman in the Lord of the Rings series, Fellowship of the Ring (2001), The Two Towers (2002) and Return of the King (2003).
--JOHN BROSNAN, from
The Horror People.
A selection of Christopher Lee films.
Find Christopher Lee on eBay.com
A selection of Christopher Lee in books.
A History of Horror
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