(27 May 1922 – 7 June 2015)
There will be no dawn… for men.
Saruman Saruman from The Lord of the Rings trilogy broke the tradition of benign cinematic wizards with long silvery beards by being unapologetically evil. Older generations will know him as the blood-thirsty Count Dracula long before the Twilight craze of sparkling vampires. Although considered camp in its days, Christopher Lee’s vampire aged to become a cult classic. By the time he was 93, Lee had done it all; learnt the Classics, spoken seven different European languages, served in the World War II as an intelligence officer, been a classically trained opera singer, not to mention an ace fencer and golfer, dubbed European films into English, released a heavy metal album — Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross — at the tender age of 88 to critical acclaim, had a career prolific enough to find mention in the Guinness Book of World Records, besides, becoming one of the most enduring villains in the history of Western cinema. In one of his last interviews the actor had said, “when I die I want to die with my boots on.” Christopher Lee breathed his last on 7 June shortly after turning 93 on 27 May; he had just completed work on what was to be his last film Angels in Notting Hill.
For someone who left behind such a legacy, it is incredible to think that he had ambled into acting almost by accident. From his parents, Lee inherited a distinguished lineage—his mother being a beautiful Italian Contessa whose descent to the Cardini family could be traced all the way back to Emperor Charlemagne of the Holy Roman Empire. Through his father, he was linked to Robert E Lee, a decorated Confederate general. Apart from his participation in a school production of Rumpelstiltskin as an indication of things to come initially, Lee looked all set to be a future diplomat with his breeding. All that changed once the 25-year-old Lee returned scarred from the war and his cousin Count Niccolo Caradini suggested acting.
For long, Lee acted in stock horror characters, playing a Mummy or a “Creature” in the Frankenstein films until his first break in the mid-1960s to play Count Dracula of Transylvania. Lee once remarked, “When the WW-II ended, I was 23 and had seen enough horror to last me a lifetime. Seeing horror depicted on film doesn’t affect me much.” Drawing from his personal life, Lee infused his screen avatars with a realness that rendered the monstrous human.
In the 1974 James Bond film The Man with the Golden Gun, Lee played the villain Francisco Scaramanga deftly overshadowing Roger Moore’s Bond. It was not the only time that a ‘positive’ character struggled to find footing in front of his antagonists. Ian McKellen, who essayed the good wizard Gandalf to Lee’s malicious Saruman, wrote in a tribute, “I felt inadequate. Not that that was Chris’s intention: he was 78 and well practised in the art of gentlemanly rectitude.” Lord Summerisle from another cult classic The Wicker Man is notable for being insidious without his usual accompaniment of heavy make-up and fake fangs. Lee had also been particularly proud of his turn as Mohammad Ali Jinnah in the 1998 film Jinnah.
The second part of Lee’s career is made up of his shift to Hollywood, future collaborations with filmmakers such as Tim Burton, Peter Jackson and his induction into the Star Wars franchise. For him, acting in the Lord of the Rings films was destiny as an ardent admirer of JRR Tolkien and was the only person in the cast to have met the author in person. Despite his erudition, Lee remained young at heart as his abiding friendship with actor Johnny Depp proved, albeit his quiet personal life. Following a broken engagement to Henriette von Rosen, a Swede aristocrat, he went on to marry Birgit Kroencke, better known as Gitte Lee, a Danish model to whom he remained married until his death. Of his late friend, Depp observes, “The consummate gentleman. He was an inspiration in both life and art.” Truly, Sir Christopher Lee was one of the last gentlemanly villains that contemporary cinema could boast of.