The Watchers

The Watchers

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Sir Christopher Lee (1922-2015)

We at The Watchers were deeply saddened to hear of the death of acting legend Sir Christopher Lee, who sadly passed away on 7th June. He was 93 years old.

In a career spanning eight decades and over two hundred screen appearances, Lee has played everything from iconic horror villains, suave assassins, charismatic lords, evil wizards and scheming counts. 

Born in 1922 to a professional soldier and an Italian countess, Lee's family lineage could be traced back as far as Charlemagne. His parents divorced when he was six years old and he was sent to a preparatory school in Oxford. When World War II broke out, Lee volunteered to fight for the Finnish forces in 1939 and later volunteered for the Royal Air Force. He was retired from the RAF in 1946 with the rank of Flight Lieutenant. There is some mystery to some of Lee's wartime work. He mentioned that he was attached to the SAS from time to time but could not disclose any specific operations, preferring the euphemistic term 'Special Forces'. 

Once home from the war, Lee applied to the Rank Film Organisation to become an actor and was initially signed on a seven-year contract with them and was a student at their 'Charm School' (an acting school for young contract players). One of his first screen roles was as an uncredited spear-carrier in the 1948 film adaptation of Hamlet, directed by and starring Laurence Olivier. He appeared as Bernard Day in Scott Of The Antarctic (1948), Georges Seurat in Moulin Rouge (1952) and Submarine Commander Alan Grieves in The Cockleshell Heroes (1955)

In 1957, Lee made his first appearance in a Hammer Horror film playing The Creature in The Curse Of Frankenstein, opposite Peter Cushing as Victor. Despite having both appeared in Hamlet and in Moulin Rouge, this was the first time that Lee and Cushing met. They formed a deep friendship which lasted until Cushing's death in 1994, appearing in over 20 films together.

1958 saw Lee taking on one of his most recognisable and iconic roles for the first time: Dracula. Opposite his friend Cushing as Van Helsing, Lee epitomised suave seduction and danger as the titular Count. Lee would reprise his role a further nine times on screen. Whilst it is undeniably one of his most popular roles, Lee demurred from the title of 'horror legend', saying he 'moved on from that'. He also went on to play The Mummy in Hammer's 1959 film of the same name.

In 1959, he appeared as Sir Henry Baskerville in The Hound Of The Baskervilles, opposite Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes. Three years later, Lee took on the role of the titular detective in Sherlock Holmes And The Deadly Necklace. In 1970, he completed a rare trifecta by playing Holmes' brother Mycroft in The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes, directed by Billy Wilder.

Throughout the 1960s, Lee immersed himself in horror films such as Crypt Of The Vampire (1964), Castle Of The Living Dead (also 1964) and The Skull (1965). He portrayed Rasputin and Sax Rohmer's Chinese criminal mastermind Fu Manchu and was uncredited as the voice who accuses the guests of their various crimes in the 1965 film adaptation of Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians. His performance as the Duc de Richleau in the 1968 adaptation of Dennis Wheatley's The Devil Rides Out is particularly chilling.

In 1973, Lee took on one of his greatest roles as Lord Summerisle in seminal British cult thriller The Wicker Man opposite Edward Woodward, Britt Ekland and Diane Cilento. There's a wonderfully seductive edge to Lee's Summerisle as his earthy paganism clashes with Woodward's staunch Christianity. Lee worked for free but considered it one of his very best performances, and it's very hard to disagree.

In 1974, he added one of the biggest film franchises of all time to his filmography when he appeared as assassin Francisco Scaramanga in The Man With The Golden Gun, opposite Roger Moore as James Bond. Frankly, Lee is easily the best thing in the film, really raising the source material (which isn't strong). Interestingly, he was cousin to Ian Fleming.

He rounded out the 1970s with roles in To The Devil, A Daughter, Airport '77 and Return From Witch Mountain. In 1982, Lee made one of the more unusual entries into his filmography- and I'm not talking about voicing King Haggard in The Last Unicorn: he played Prince Philip in a TV movie called Charles & Diana: A Royal Love Story! (David Robb and Caroline Bliss played the titular couple with Margaret Tyzack as the Queen).

Throughout the 1990s, Lee appeared in films as diverse as Gremlins 2: The New Batch, Police Academy: Mission To Moscow and Jinnah. He also provided the voice of Death in two animated versions of Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels- Wyrd Sisters and Soul Music- and appeared as the Narrator in an interactive video game version of The Rocky Horror Show! He played faithful manservant Flay in the TV adaptation of Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast and he also began his association with Tim Burton with a small role in the 1999 film Sleepy Hollow.

In 2001, Lee joined the cast of The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring as duplicitous wizard Saruman. He was the only member of the cast who had ever met J.R.R. Tolkien and prior to being cast made a habit of reading the trilogy once a year. He reprised his role in the two sequels (although his scenes in The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King was initially cut from theatrical release and reinstated for the extended edition). He also made appearances as Saruman in The Hobbit films. As if that wasn't frankly awesome enough, in 2002, he joined the cast of the Star Wars prequels, playing Count Dooku in Episode II: Attack Of The Clones (where his character has a memorable light-sabre fight with Yoda) and Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith

Lee took further roles in Tim Burton's movies, appearing in Charlie And The Chocolate Factory and Dark Shadows, and giving voice performances for Corpse Bride and Alice In Wonderland. He also appeared in The Golden Compass, Season Of The Witch, Hugo and The Wicker Tree (a companion piece to The Wicker Man, in which he cameos as the Old Gentleman). He had completed filming on Angels In Notting Hill and was in pre-production for The 11th at the time of his death.

Lee was knighted in 2009 for his services to drama and charity and was awarded the BAFTA Fellowship in 2011.

Aside from his impressive acting career, Lee was also a skilled linguist, speaking French, German, Italian and Spanish and getting by in Greek, Russian and Swedish. He also holds the record for being the oldest living performer to enter the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart (at the age of 91 years and 6 months) with a heavy metal Christmas song called 'Jingle Hell'. Lee had recorded several EPS of heavy metal covers, and won the Spirit of Metal award in 2010.

An icon. A gentleman. A true acting legend. He will be sadly missed.

Our thoughts are with his family and friends at this time.

The Watchers
(Rhys, Matt & Tez)

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