How can we go on without Christopher Lee? I mean, seriously, HOW?? What a comforting, menacing, horrific presence in our lives, our entire lives, no matter when, dear reader, you were born. Sir Christopher Lee was here before you, towering taller, employing that baritone, tasting the blood of virgins, and wielding a sword deemed inferior only by unkind scriptwriters.
His Frankenstein was a grotesque rethinking of what had been done by Karloff.
His Mummy was precursor to the modern version seen in Brendan Fraser’s pictures.
His Dracula was a ruthless killer minus the charisma of other title vampires. If you were a damsel, you’d succumb, but there was never any indication you’d enjoy it one tiny little bit.
Dabblers in classic cinema might remember Lee going all the way back to Captain Horatio Hornblower in 1952, when he played a Spanish ship’s captain out-dueled by Gregory Peck’s title character. He did lots of television in the 1950s, including four stints on The Errol Flynn Theatre. In one of these episodes, Lee fought a screen duel with Flynn and complained later the host was so careless with the blade that he nearly severed Lee’s little finger. “I have the scar to prove it,” Lee grumbled.
I take umbrage at obit writers who last week said Lee was an unknown when he landed Curse of Frankenstein in 1957. The hell he was! He was already an accomplished workingman’s actor; his Frankie was a soulful victim stitched together by a madman. Hammer would use Lee in an astonishing variety of vehicles for the next 20 years, not only as Count Dracula but also as as Kharis, a linebacker-style Mummy; as Rasputin the maddest of Russian monks; as fiendish harem-building Fu Manchu; and as an assortment of cops, professors, pirates, and mayhem-makers.
For me, Sir Christopher will always be Count Rochefort, the one-eyed nemesis of D’Artagnan in the 1973 version of The Three Musketeers and its sequels, The Four Musketeers and Return of the Musketeers. You’re not supposed to root for the bad guy but I couldn’t help it. At one point all-powerful Cardinal Richelieu says, “Do you fear me, Rochefort?” To which our anti-hero says, “I … fear you, Eminence.” And can’t resist adding, “I also hate you.” And the Cardinal respected him for saying it!
Lee was already 50+ when he enacted Rochefort but still superbly athletic well beyond what one would expect of a gangly man of six-foot-four. His whole adult life he had been a classic fencer and, like Basil Rathbone, more accomplished at it than the heroes who would defeat him onscreen. For both men this source of intense frustration would be a common theme: I was a better pure athlete and fencer than Errol Flynn/Gregory Peck/ Michael York but the damn script had me losing every time!
Lee never wanted for work. He eased from Hammer B’s to three-nippled Scaramanga in the James Bond picture The Man with the Golden Gun when that franchise was still huge. Then he returned to dozens of B-level film, TV, and audio roles for the next 30 years until his rebirth in not one but two of the greatest blockbuster cinema series of all time, Lord of the Rings and Star Wars. I loved seeing Lee literally mop the floor with goody-two-shoes Gandalf just as I delighted in his slicing and dicing of Jedi Knights in two Star Wars pictures. It’s just a shame his role as Count Dooku was so half-baked, but then wasn’t half-baking the norm with Star Wars from day one? And isn’t that why poor Alec Guinness recoiled in horror every day on a set cluttered with dog people, robots, and swords with no blades? Gentlemen, we did not do it this way making Lawrence of Arabia!
In bidding adieu to this magnificent performer, I remind you of a sense of humor that moved him to title his memoir Tall, Dark and Gruesome, and one that very late in life inspired participation in such head-bangin’ songs as The Bloody Verdict of Verden and re-envisioned standards like Silent Night with searing riffs as presented in Christopher Lee: A Heavy Metal Christmas. His final blaze of glory was a different sort of yuletide greeting, Jingle Hell, which he confessed was “naughty,” and did so with a sheepish smile. You will be the one smiling even as you reach for earplugs because this guy knew how to have fun while retaining every ounce of formidable British dignity.
The loss of Christopher Lee is really all about me and my problem with the very natural state-of-being called death. I explored its mysteries at length in Fireball trying to figure things out, but I can’t say I’ve gotten anywhere yet. All I know at this point is that Christopher Lee is gone from this world, and I don’t know what to do without him.