I don’t know for sure what my real first exposure to Christopher Lee’s remarkable career really was. It was in all likelihood, due in no small part to my father’s viewing habits, his turn in The Man with the Golden Gun, but it could easily have been any of his many other roles. However, the one I actually remember, the one that made the biggest impact on my young mind, was seeing him in the role of Dracula.
I wasn’t even ten-years-old at the time, and as such I didn’t recognize the talent behind what I was seeing. But I didn’t need to recognize it to appreciate it or to be affected by it. Christopher Lee was able to do for me what so many others had not been able to do before then. He made the “human monster” terrifying to me. Others relied on heavier makeup and small prosthetics to help create the terror in their performances, often failing and ending up with twitchy looking performances. Still others used lighting, camera angles, and music to try to create terror. But Lee did it with sheer presence, all 6’5’’ of it, and he did it amazingly well.
He created the impression of an apex predator walking amongst the herds of clueless, unsuspecting sheep. When he unleashed Dracula’s fury, it was primal, animalistic, and terrifying. The thing that made it more terrifying still was the fact that he could seemingly go from having the appearance of the finest of proper English gentlemen to becoming that animalistic predator and back again in the blink of an eye. He was the human monster you believed really could be a monster, but could hide his nature while standing in front of you, smiling while greeting you warmly.
It was from that point forward that he became one of those actors that I made a point of watching whenever I knew he was on a television show or in a movie. It was from there that I saw the incredible range he actually had. For a man who became best known for playing the heavy in so many films over the years, he could also play characters with an extremely gentle nature and soft touch. But what he never lost in a role, no matter the size of the role or the quality of the film, was that amazing presence.
And that was a hard trick to pull off over the years. Lee never acted like a movie star. He acted like a working actor, taking roles, both major and minor, whenever he could work them. Some were absolute classics while at other times the productions didn’t seem worth the work he put into them. But the reaction to Lee’s performances by the fans was almost always the same. He was always one of the best parts, if not the best part, of the production.
There were a lot of roles. Lee’s IMDB has him starring in some 278 roles, but the record books have him at some 350 roles. Either way, that was an impressive body of work for just one man. More impressive still was the fact that he found so much time to do so much else in between all of those roles. Over the years he has teamed with singer Gary Curtis for both a light, country-pop sounding offering as well as a more pop-opera based one. He would also do country covers like Ghost Riders in the Sky. Still later he would move into recording with metal acts with songs like TheBloody Verdict of Verden and the remake/rerecording of Dark Avenger. Oh, yeah, and then there were the heavy metal Christmas songs. The heavy metal Christmas songs also gave him another distinction when at the age of 91 Jingle Hell allowed him to become the oldest musician to chart on Billboard.
He also managed to find the time to write two autobiographies. There’s much there to be found of interest as well. One of his ancestors was Charlemagne. His mother was the Contessa Estelle Marie Carandini di Sarzano and she married an uncle of James Bond creator Ian Fleming, making Fleming Lee’s step-cousin. He also served alongside Fleming in the war.
The fun part with his autobiographies though is that some of the most interesting aspects of Lee’s life could not all legally be told at the time of their writings or even now. Lee didn’t simply play tough guys on screen from time to time. He spent years being the genuine article in real life.
He volunteered to fight for Finland in the Winter War before the start of WWII. When his country called, Lee enlisted in the Royal Air Force in 1940. He had a keen intellect for puzzles and problems and was a fast learner as well as having a knack for learning to speak multiple languages. This served him well in the military where he spent some time as a special intelligence officer deciphering German ciphers. He was attached to the Long Range Desert Group, a precursor of the SAS, moving behind enemy lines and sabotaging Luftwaffe planes stationed on desert base after desert base.
Lee spent time with the Special Operations Executive where he performed reconnaissance, espionage, and sabotage missions in Axis occupied areas of Europe. After the surrender of the Axis in 1943, Lee was a part of an officer swap program where he was assigned to the Army and was placed in charge of assisting the Gurkhas of the 8th Indian Infantry Division during The Battle of Monte Cassino.
His final year in the RAF was spent tracking down Nazi war criminals with the Central Registry of War Criminals and Security Suspects before retiring as a Flight Lieutenant. Of his time tracking down war criminals, Lee would later remark, “We were given dossiers of what they'd done and told to find them, interrogate them as much as we could and hand them over to the appropriate authority.”
But much of his time with these operations remained classified to his final days. When pressed, he would usually give one of two responses. To those who politely pressed, he would give this one.
“I was attached to the SAS from time to time but we are forbidden – former, present, or future – to discuss any specific operations. Let's just say I was in Special Forces and leave it at that. People can read in to that what they like.”
To those who wouldn’t take the hint, he was known to display his sense of humor, shooting their interview down with the oldest of jokes. He was famously known for asking more than one interviewer if they could keep a secret. When answered in the affirmative, he’d conspiratorially nod before smiling and saying, “So can I.”
While much in his service records remains classified and Lee himself would rarely discuss it, it is worth noting that he was individually decorated for bravery on the battlefield by the Czech, Yugoslav, British, and Polish governments. He was also known to have been for a time on personal terms with Josip Broz Tito, the Yugoslav revolutionary and statesman, after their mutual involvement with the Partisan resistance movement; a movement that the history books widely cite as the most effective resistance movement in occupied Europe.
He was knighted in 2009 for his services to drama and charity. Lee remained married to the same woman, Gitte, a former Chanel model, since 1961. His stated secret for staying married for such a long in the world of movie and television making?
"Marry someone wonderful, as I did. And always have her come along on location.”
There were two things that bothered Lee in later life. One was in part the thing that sent him away from England and into Hollywood for a time all those years ago. He wished to avoid being typecast as simply a horror and monster actor in England after his productive years in Hammer, and later in life he wanted to be described in headlines as more than simply “horror legend” Christopher Lee. Given the body of his work, the range of his life, it was understandable. For me, Lee will always be first and foremost a horror legend, but then I’m a horror guy. The truth however is that he was an amazing actor who showed a broad range in his talents over the years, as well as an artist who pushed himself out into new endeavors whenever he could.
He also occasionally remarked on his own legacy, perhaps somewhat self-consciously. Lee had long ago lost in his life the man who he considered his best friend, Peter Cushing, remarking in various interviews that he had lost the last real person to have “remember when” conversations with. He was heartened to see the outpouring of genuine love by fans for Cushing after his death, but remarked to at least a few interviewers over the years that he’d doubted that he’d see anything close to the same.
He was wrong of course. The last few days have shown that he was greatly loved by fans around the world, and deservedly so. He left us with an amazing body of work to enjoy, and he lived a life that was inspiring in many ways. He never seemed to slow down, even in his later years, continuing to work and to seek out new things to do and enjoy. But he’s resting now, and one hopes that it’s a peaceful one.
Christopher Frank Carandini Lee (May 27, 1922 – June 7, 2015)
Jerry Chandler is a lover of horror and dark fantasy. This has not been a good week for such fans with the news of the deaths of Richard Johnson, Ron Moody, and Christopher Lee. Rest well, gentlemen, and thank you so much for the decades of entertainment and joy you’ve given.