Last Sunday, the great Sir Christopher Lee ascended to take his place in the pantheon of Horror Gods alongside Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Vincent Price, and his good friend Peter Cushing.
Legendary actors age and die all the time, and we watch retrospectives and read articles to remember their great performances that have enhanced our lives so much. But rarely does the loss feel so immediate. Usually their best performances are decades behind them, and their increasingly rare appearances serve mainly to remind us of their former glory. Not so with Christopher Lee. At age 93 with near 300 film credits to his name, it still felt like he was just getting started.
For the majority of his career, including most of his horror roles, Christopher Lee was always better than the movies he was in. In his work with Hammer Studios, he brought a gravitas to his roles that elevated the material from cheap Universal Monsters knockoffs to something more Shakespearean, and for his refusal to merely phone in a performance, he become a genre star. Unfortunately, he also became typecast and was typically confined to the genre movie ghetto. Imagine all of the classic roles he could have played if only he'd gotten the respect he deserved.
Fortunately for Sir Lee, his late career renaissance saw him fulfilling his lifelong dream to star in a live-action adaptation of Lord of the Rings, an epic which he read every year for most of his life. He had always wanted to play Gandalf, and he would have killed it, but then who could have matched his stature to play against him as Saruman the Wise?
His later years also gave him the chance to be a part of another of the most beloved film franchises of all time: Star Wars. Say what you will about the prequel trilogy, but his turn as Count Dooku was flawless. Plus, the first time audiences ever saw Yoda wield a lightsaber, he was facing off against Christopher Lee. Just yesterday, still mourning the loss, I looked down at my son's toy bucket and who should be right on top, looking right at me but that venerable villain, looking regal even in plastic.
Since learning the news yesterday, I've been watching Christopher Lee movies, and rather than starting with an old favorite, I chose a film I'd never seen before: The Man with the Golden Gun. Until I started reading the obituaries, I'd forgotten he'd had a turn as one of Bond's greatest villains. And I must say, even though Roger Moore is my favorite Bond, I was rooting for Scaramanga from start to finish.
This morning, I rewatched The Wicker Man, which featured Sir Lee as Lord Summerisle, reportedly one of his favorite roles. It is the rare horror film that did justice to Lee's talent. I've always been torn by the film though. Lord Summerisle's paternal, free-thinking spirit is contrasted with Sergeant Howie's self-righteous authoritarianism, yet the end of the film almost reverses their roles. Maybe it's just that Christopher Lee was so likable a screen presence that you can't help but see him as the hero even when he's playing villains.
Though we mourn his passing, you can't feel too bad about a man who lived such a long, remarkable life, who bravely served his country in the second World War, who HUNTED FREAKIN' NAZI WAR CRIMINALS for gods' sake, who redefined Dracula--one of film and literature's most enduring characters--for generations, who recorded heavy metal albums in his nineties, and who never once considered retirement from the craft that he loved. His films are his gift to the world and through them he is immortal. So tonight, throw in your favorite Chirstopher Lee film and raise a glass of something red in honor of one of the all-time greats. There will never be another like him.
Rest in Peace, Sir Christopher Lee