Sir Christopher Lee
(Christopher Frank Carandini Lee)
27 May, 1922 – 7 June, 2015
On Sunday, 7 June 2015 Sir Christopher Lee sadly passed away, at the age of 93, in hospital during the early hours of the morning. The news of his death was kept quiet until his widow was able to inform friends and family of the loss.
From century to century the list of requirements for making a “real man” changes, and while doing research on Christopher Lee’s life for this article it appears as though he has looked at each of these lists and decided to fill the requirements of all of them. There is nodoubt that Lee loved life, and was keen to make use of each moment. Like Sir Christopher Lee always said, “One should try anything he can in his career, except folkdance and incest.”
1. A Distinguished Line
Lee was one of two children had by Contessa Estelle Marie Carandini di Sarzano. His family can be traced back 2,000 years on his mother’s side, back to times when his family built chariots for the Roman army; and his father, Lieutenant-Colonel Geoffrey Trollope Lee’s side can be traced back 1,400 years, where apparently there is a line of gypsy blood. The family still bearing (mostly) the original coat of arms, Lee was also a direct descendent of Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman Emperor.
In 1961, Lee married Danish model Birgit ‘Gitte’ Kroencke. They were together until his death and had one daughter. Believing greatly in the sanctity of marriage, once when asked the secret to the happiness and success of his own, he said, “Marry someone wonderful, as I did, and always have her come along on location”.
2. The Smart Man, The Brave Man
Although he had to leave school early due to his stepfather becoming bankrupt (in today’s money he would have been £1.3 million in debt) his thirst for knowledge was not hindered. As well as being a champion fencer he could speak 5 languages fluently and carry a conversation in 3 more. His skill of fencing made it so he participated in more onscreen duels than any other actor. Did I mention he also always did his own stunts?
Before becoming an actor, at the age of 17, Lee travelled to France to witness the last public execution by beheading purely out of curiosity. He became so fascinated by this method of execution that he could name you every official executioner employed by England dating back to the mid-15th Century. His mother also made sure to drag him out of bed one night as a child to introduce him to Prince Yusopov and Dmitri Pavlovich, the men who played significant roles in the murder of Grigori Rasputin, the mad monk of Russia, who it was thought could not be killed. Lee claimed that this meeting had a lasting impact on him and helped a great deal when he eventually took on the role of Rasputin himself.
Lee saw 5 years of war, worked with Special Forces Intelligence and apparently following World War II was a true-to-life Nazi hunter. His work to this day remains classified as he signed the Official Secrets Act, but he did like to tease interviewers with all the speculation his past caused.
Being witness to real blood and horror, he said he could not be moved by the cinematic counterpart; and he unnerved Peter Jackson and the rest of the crew in earshot one day on the Lord of the Rings set when he corrected Jackson on the noise a person actually makes when being stabbed in the back.
3. From Opera to Metal
Having operatic blood (his Grandparents formed Australia’s first Opera company in the 1850s) and operatic lungs; Lee was a trained classical singer with a true talent and the capability to become a renowned opera singer according to Jussi Bjorling (one of 20th century’s greatest tenors) . One of his confessed biggest regrets was never pursuing a career as an Opera singer.
This did not stop him from singing however, when he became the oldest living performer to enter the music charts in December 2013 at 91 years old with a Christmas song entitled ‘Jingle Hell’ – it seemed the Master of Horror himself had a secret talent for heavy metal; and the song reached 18 in the Billboard Charts.
Lee had actually been involved in several metal projects during the later stages of his life and offered his voice to a ‘Lord of the Rings’ tie-in album, his narration on concept albums (two of these being about his royal ancestor) and in 2006 he released an album consisting of both traditional and show tunes – just to name a few projects. Although he believed he’d missed out on a great opportunity as an Opera singer he was also glad he had turned to the acting profession as he would have had to stop singing a long time ago.
4. The End of Dracula
Lee played Dracula 8 times during hisacting career and was often critical of the films’ interpretation of Dracula’s novelized character. He often joked that although it was not his intention, he became a sex symbol due to his original portrayal of Dracula in 1958.
After reading the script for his second Dracula role ‘Prince of Darkness’, he refused to say any of his lines from the script because he considered it so poorly written – and so ended up saying nothing at all. This was to be just the beginning of his troubled relationship with Hammer Studios.
He received, read, and refused to take part in the third, fourth and fifth instalments of the Dracula movies only to be called by Hammer and told that they had sold the movies to the Americans with him in them and to think of the people he’d be putting out of work if he didn’t do it. As he considered the crew to be like family he felt as though he had been emotionally blackmailed in to returning to the role of Dracula that day and every day after.
Eventually, however, he was able to move on to films he really wanted to make; most notably ‘The Wicker Man’.
5. The Roles He Loved
According to Lee, he starred in around 350 films (more than any other living actor), so many in fact that he had not seen them all and enjoyed telling fans that claimed to have seen all his works that they had not. The number might be so high because of his incredible height (6’5”) that put him in the Guinness Book of World Records as the Tallest Leading Actor Ever, and meant that early casting directors found it difficult to give him more than bit parts. Considering his mother was entirely against him becoming an actor, 350 films seems like the ultimate defiance.
Lee loved to constantly challenge himself in real life and on the screen; during The Hounds of The Baskervilles he let a tarantula crawl on him despite his great fear of spiders. Also, always overly dedicated to his work, he broke his hand during a sword fighting scene with Errol Flynn because the actor was drunk and continued on with the scene regardless.
Lee often said that his favourite role ever was that of Lord Summerisle in ‘The Wicker Man’ (1973). The role was written specifically for him and he was so impressed by the script’s plot, writing and characters that he played the role for free. He held the film in such high regard that he called it the greatest British film ever. Lee took it upon himself to get the film promoted by journalists after he saw the finished product and realised that Liongate had cut 15-20 minutes of scenes and that they had no faith in the success of the film because of the subject matter. Lee did try to initially get the film reedited but to this day the outtakes have not been found.
Lee read Lord of the Rings annually from when they were first published up until his death. Even after seeing enough of the world to fill two lifetimes by the time he ran in to J.R.R. Tolkien in a pub one afternoon, he was so star-struck that he could only muster a simple, “How do you do?” making him the only member of cast to meet the author. He was such a fan that when hearing that Peter Jackson would be making the films he sent him a picture of himself dressed in robes with a note that said, “This is what I look like as a wizard, don’t forget this when you cast the movie”.