Last week, an icon of cinema, having left behind the most vast body of work in motion picture history, left this world never to be forgotten.
That opening line does not do justice to a man who lived such an amazing life. Let’s try again:
Though born in the 1920’s to a father who served in World War I, Lee was not part of the oft-forgotten “silent generation.” He served in World War II, as part of the “greatest generation,” first with the Finnish Army and then the Royal Air Force. In addition he served with the Special Air Service (which specialized in covert operations). Though he claimed he was forbidden from ever detailing any of the operations he was involved in, he did let slip one fascinating detail while shooting the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The scene involved the death of his character, Saruman, who was stabbed in the back. While director Peter Jackson tired to explain what he wanted Lee to do, the always gentlemanly actor turned and said
Peter, have you ever heard the sound a man makes when he’s stabbed in the back? (“no” comes the response) …Well I have, and I know what to do.
According to him, while he served he witnessed the deaths of so many people he became numb to it. His time as an operative saw him help in the retaking of Sicily. He also staved off a mutiny among his comrades, and fought off a minor disease called malaria six times in a single year.
And he still had time to climb Mount Vesuvius three days before it erupted.
While promoting the LOTR movies, he was asked about his special ops past by the interviewer. He leaned forward and whispered “Can you keep a secret?” Excited, the interviewer responded “yes.” Lee grinned and then replied “So can I” before leaning back in his chair.
Yeah. Dude was James Bond before James Bond was James Bond.
And speaking of, Lee was cousin to James Bond creator Ian Flemming, and is thought by some to have partially inspired the part (including Fleming’s description of the spy as “tall, dark and handsome”). I’m sure the fact that Christopher Lee was a 6’5, dark-haired and handsome British covert operative was just a coincidence.
He was also related to Charlemagne himself. On that note it should be stated that Charlemagne is well assumed to have spread his seed across much of western Europe. There’s a lot of people kin to him if you know what I mean.
Shoot I’m probably kin to the guy. Did he ever make his way to the Netherlands? My Dutch ancestors probably include a fair skinned maiden who was bedded by the king.
Lee, on the other hand is of the Carandini family, one of the oldest lines in Europe, with a lineage reaching back to the turn of the millennia. His family was blessed by Emperor Barbarossa and was granted the right to the coat of arms of the Holy Roman Empire.
So we’re both related to Charlemagne, but he was just a little bit more so.
After the war he was persuaded by a cousin, who just happened to be Italy’s ambassador to Britain to pursue acting. Though initially he intended to focus on the stage, and even the opera, he ended up being signed to a film contract and made his debut in 1947, beginning a career that would reach across eight different decades and over 200 films. His most famous role was Dracula, a part he played in a dozen films. In addition he portrayed The Mummy, Jekel & Hyde, and the real life villain Grigori Rasputin. Incidentally Lee once met the real-life killers of Rasputin while still a child. And while we’re on the subject, he also witnessed the killing of Eugene Weidmann, the last man killed via guillotine in Paris. And was on the cover of the best Wings album of all time, Band on the Run (I’m just throwing that last one out there for variety).
Despite all the work he was doing as the busiest film-villain in the business, Lee found time for recreation as well. By that I mean being a world-class fencer. Because of course he was a world class fencer. He was in fact so good that, after famous Robin Hood actor (and swordsman) Errol Flynn accidentally sliced his finger, Lee flicked his lance with such precision that he removed Flynn’s wig (while he was still wearing it, mind you), leaving the apparently-drunken actor stammering to his trailer, butthurt and embarrassed.
Lee also found time for love. In the mid 1950’s he sought the hand of marriage to one Henriette von Rosen. Her father, however, opposed the union and refused to agree to it lest Lee could get the signed blessing of the very king of Sweden. So Lee up and got it.
The man was pimp.
And his amazing experiences never ceased. But for many, his exploits were unknown until the last few decades of his life.
For me personally, I first discovered him when he had a small part in Tim Burton’s Headless Horseman film, Sleepy Hollow. His deep and gravelly voice was so impressive, and his line-delivery was so theatrical I remember thinking “this guy is too good to be in just one scene.” He was, but he made the most of it.
When I saw the cast list for the new Lord of the Rings trilogy, soon after, I recognized his face and then discovered the vastness of his body of work (including the films he passed on, such as the starring role in Airplane, and a key role in Halloween). Lee amazed his LOTR castmates with his knowledge of Tolkien Lore. He was the only man in the production to have men JRR Tolkein (because of course he was), and had read the trilogy more times than all other castmates. Combined.
The guy who once turned down a chance to teach at Cambridge because his Latin was too rusty spent half his time on the set of Lord of the Rings quoting the books from memory, in both English and Elvish.
Though he always desired to play Gandalf (and even got the author’s personal blessing), he was perfect for the role of villainous Saruman, playing the part with the right mixture of gravitas and ham. After that he found himself in the decade’s other huge trilogy, as he played Darth Tyranus in Star Wars Episodes II and III.
Now that he’s gone, those will likely be the two roles (even moreso than Dracula) that will allow him to be remembered for years and years to come. And though he will probably be remembered for those two roles more than anything, due to the fame attached to the projects, only a quick look at his biography (much less his filmography) shows that he deserves far more accolade. He was a soldier, a spy, a B-movie villain, an A-list performer, the likely-inspiration to one of fiction’s greatest heroes, an avid reader, a gentleman and a knight.
And he released two heavy metal albums. At age 90. Just because he could. In so doing he became the oldest heavy metal artist in history. One of them was about Charlemagne, because of course it was. The other was a Christmas album. A heavy metal Christmas album.
Because why not. He’s Christopher Lee.
He’d done everything else.