Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Happy Birthday to the Legendary Mr. Christopher Lee…Day 147 of Bond 365

Christopher Lee
Born this day in 1922
Scaramanga in The Man with the Golden Gun

Count Dracula. Saruman. Francisco Scaramanga. Count Dooku. Lord Summerisle. The list of memorable characters that leave an indelible mark on popular culture by Sir Christopher Frank Carandini Lee, CBE, CStJ cannot be overstated. At 93, Lee is an actor, singer, author, and truly a living legend.

His background is fascinating. Born in the Westminster district of London, his parents separated when he was four years old and divorced not long after. His mother moved him and his sister, Xandra, to Switzerland and then back to London, where she married Harcourt George St-Croix Rose, uncle of Ian Fleming and consequently, Lee’s step-cousin. He was a passable student and went to Wellington College. While he had engaged in acting prior to going to college, apparently, he did little to no acting during that time.

In 1939, his mother and stepfather separated so Lee was required to go to work to help support the family. Since the summer months were upon him and that’s when employers went on holiday, there were no immediate positions for Lee. He and his sister went to France that summer. He stayed with the Russian Mazirov family and rubbed elbows with exiled royal families for a time until he returned to London, prior to war breaking out.

Scars of Dracula (1970)
Lee volunteered for military service. First with the Finnish forces in 1939 then for the Royal Air Force, because he did not want to follow his father’s footsteps by serving in the Army. Training to pilot did not work out for Lee; he was diagnosed with optic nerve failure (he suffered headaches and blurred vision symptoms). Since he couldn’t fly but wanted to “do something constructive for my keep” he applied with the RAF Intelligence. He was almost killed in the line of duty several times. Being fluent in many languages (9 actually!), Lee was assigned to the Central Registry of War Criminals and Security Suspects. Lee has mentioned that he was attached to the Special Operations Executive and the Long Range Desert Patrol, precursor to the SAS, but he has declined to go into any details of that part of his service.

Dynamic duo - Peter Cushing and Lee
With the war over, Lee returned to London and to a job with more money, but he was restless and wanted to do something else. A relative suggested he become an actor. It seems absurd, but one person in the industry claimed Lee was too tall to be an actor (he’s 6’5”), but Rank Organisation signed him to a seven-year contract. And in 1947, Lee made his film debut in Corridor of Mirrors directed by Terence Young. Thus began a 10-year apprenticeship in which Lee learned the trade, worked with stellar talent – Laurence Olivier, Peter Cushing, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., John Huston, and Buster Keaton – and proved he could act, in spite of his height!

Trio of Horror: Lee, Cushing and Vincent Price
From the mid 1950s to the mid 1970s, Lee worked in the horror genre via the Hammer films. During that time, he re-teamed with Peter Cushing, but he also worked with horror greats Boris Karloff and Vincent Price, among others. Lee became synonymous with the character Dracula and eventually, Lee was ready to break from that character and pursue other roles.

To me, two films stand out from the others of that time when he was seeking to redefine his filmography away from horror. Lee as Scaramanaga in The Man with the Golden Gun was his second shot at starring in a James Bond film. The first was actually Dr. No. Fleming offered the villainous role to Lee, who accepted, however the producers had already chosen Joseph Wiseman. I think either role would have fit Lee. I’m glad he got a second opportunity. My favorite Lee film of this period however is his portrayal of Lord Summerisle from The Wicker Man (1973). Where else will you get to see a charming (and smiling) Lee singing and wearing a kilt? Joking aside, this is a fascinating film with an amazing soundtrack.

Lee moved to America to continue his shift away from being typecast in the horror genre. He did several American films from the late 1970s and on. And, now into the 21st century, Lee has continued to work in some of the biggest franchises – Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings – and on a number of Tim Burton films.  He has lent his voice to video games and in the music industry, he has contributed from opera to folk to metal to musicals. His single from Charlemagne: The Omens on Death makes him the oldest performer in the history of heavy metal! Rock on and happy birthday Mr. Lee!

Lee as Lord Summerisle in The Wicker Man

As Count Dooku

As Saruman

Note: All images found via Google. 

© Copyright. Michele Brittany. 2011 - 2015. All rights reserved. All text, graphics, and photos are protected by US and International Copyright Laws, and may not be copied, reprinted, published, translated, hosted, or otherwise distributed by any means without written permission.

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