Sir Christopher Frank Carandini Lee (1922–2015) was an English actor, singer and author. With a career spanning nearly 70 years, Lee initially portrayed villains and became best known for his role as Count Dracula in a sequence of Hammer Horror films.
His other film roles include Francisco Scaramanga in the James Bond film The Man with the Golden Gun (1974), Saruman in The Lord of the Rings film trilogy (2001–2003) and The Hobbit film trilogy (2012–2014), and Count Dooku/Darth Tyranus in the final two films of the Star Wars prequel trilogy (2002 and 2005) and Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008).
Lee was knighted for services to drama and charity in 2009, received the BAFTA Fellowship in 2011 and received the BFI Fellowship in 2013. Lee considered his best performance to be that of Pakistan’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah in the biopic Jinnah (1998), and his best film to be the British horror film The Wicker Man (1973)
Always noted as an actor for his deep strong voice, Lee was also known for his singing ability, recording various opera and musical pieces between 1986 and 1998 and the symphonic metal album Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross in 2010 after having worked with several metal bands since 2005. The heavy metal follow-up titled Charlemagne: The Omens of Death was released on 27 May 2013. He was honoured with the “Spirit of Metal” award at the 2010 Metal Hammer Golden God awards ceremony.
Lee’s first film for Hammer was The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), in which he played Frankenstein’s monster, with Peter Cushing as Baron Victor Frankenstein. It was the first film in which Lee and Cushing were co-stars, and ultimately appeared together in over twenty films and became close friends. When he arrived at a casting session for the film, “they asked me if I wanted the part, I said yes and that was that.” A little later, Lee co-starred with Boris Karloff in the film Corridors of Blood (1958), but Lee’s own appearance as Frankenstein’s monster led to his first appearance as the Transylvanian vampire in the film Dracula (1958, known as Horror of Dracula in the United States). Lee accepted a similar role in an Italian-French horror picture called Uncle Was a Vampire (1959).
Lee returned to the role of Dracula in Hammer’s Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1965). Lee’s role has no lines, he merely hisses his way through the film. Stories vary as to the reason for this: Lee states he refused to speak the poor dialogue he was given, but screenwriter Jimmy Sangster claims that the script did not contain any lines for the character. This film set the standard for most of the Dracula sequels in the sense that half the film’s running time was spent on telling the story of Dracula’s resurrection and the character’s appearances were brief. Lee went on record to state that he was virtually “blackmailed” by Hammer into starring in the subsequent films; unable or unwilling to pay him his going rate, they would resort to reminding him of how many people he would put out of work if he did not take part.
“The process went like this: The telephone would ring and my agent would say, “Jimmy Carreras [President of Hammer Films] has been on the phone, they’ve got another Dracula for you.” And I would say, “Forget it! I don’t want to do another one.” I’d get a call from Jimmy Carreras, in a state of hysteria. “What’s all this about?!” “Jim, I don’t want to do it, and I don’t have to do it.” “No, you have to do it!” And I said, “Why?” He replied, “Because I’ve already sold it to the American distributor with you playing the part. Think of all the people you know so well, that you will put out of work!” Emotional blackmail. That’s the only reason I did them.”
His roles in the films Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968), Taste the Blood of Dracula (1969), and Scars of Dracula (1970) all gave the Count very little to do. Lee said in an interview in 2005. “all they do is write a story and try and fit the character in somewhere, which is very clear when you see the films. They gave me nothing to do! I pleaded with Hammer to let me use some of the lines that Bram Stoker had written. Occasionally, I sneaked one in.” Although Lee may not have liked what Hammer was doing with the character, worldwide audiences embraced the films, which were all commercially successful.
Lee as Dracula and Stephanie Beacham as Jessica Van Helsing in Dracula A.D. (1972) Lee starred in two further Dracula films for Hammer in the early 1970s, both of which attempted to bring the character into the modern-day era. These were not commercially successful: Dracula A.D. (1972) and The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973), which was his last appearance as Dracula. The film was tentatively titled Dracula Is Dead… and Well and Living in London, a parody of the stage and film musical revue Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, but Lee was not amused. Speaking at a press conference in 1973 to announce the film, Lee said: “I’m doing it under protest… I think it is fatuous. I can think of twenty adjectives – fatuous, pointless, absurd. It’s not a comedy, but it’s got a comic title. I don’t see the point.” Hammer went on to make one more Dracula film without him: The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974), with John Forbes-Robertson playing the Count and David de Keyser dubbing him.
Lee’s other work for Hammer included The Mummy (1959). Lee portrayed Rasputin in Rasputin, the Mad Monk (1966) and Sir Henry Baskerville (to Cushing’s Sherlock Holmes) in The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959). Lee later played Holmes himself in 1962’s Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace, and returned to Holmes films with Billy Wilder’s British-made The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), in which he plays Sherlock’s smarter brother, Mycroft. Lee considers this film to be the reason he stopped being typecast: “I’ve never been typecast since. Sure, I’ve played plenty of heavies, but as Anthony Hopkins says, “I don’t play villains, I play people.” “Lee played a leading role in the German film The Puzzle of the Red Orchid (1962), speaking German, which he had learned during his education in Switzerland. He auditioned for a part in the film The Longest Day (1962), but was turned down because he did not “look like a military man”. Some film books incorrectly credit him with a role in the film, something he had to correct for the rest of his life.
He was responsible for bringing the occult author Dennis Wheatley to Hammer. The company made two films from Wheatley’s novels, both starring Lee. The first, The Devil Rides Out (1967), is generally considered to be one of Hammer’s crowning achievements. According to Lee, Wheatley was so pleased with it that he offered the actor the film rights to his remaining black magic novels free of charge. However, the second film, To the Devil a Daughter (1976), was fraught with production difficulties and was disowned by its author. Although financially successful, it was Hammer’s last horror film and marked the end of Lee’s long association with the studio that had a major impact on his career.
by Jeffrey A Swanson / Publisher / Editor / Writer