The last of his kind. That was how Tim Burton described Sir Christopher Lee last week after the actor passed away at the age of 93. Of course, it is perhaps fair to say that Sir Christopher was the only one of his kind, let alone the last. Who else has appeared in nearly 300 films, released numerous heavy metal albums, been a part of the SAS, hunted Nazis, and can speak eight languages (five of them fluently)? Sir Christopher was truly the definition of a polymath. I should in fact go back and change that earlier usage of ‘actor’ to ‘actor, author, singer, legend.’
I was first introduced to Sir Christopher in 2001 when, for my eleventh birthday, I went to the cinema with a group of friends to see The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. From the moment I heard that glorious baritone voice of his (because of course you hear Saruman before you see him), I was in awe. Sir Christopher was the perfect evil wizard. A year later he would be the perfect evil lightsaber-wielding space aristocrat Count Dooku in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. Indeed, that film doesn’t get good until he turns up about 80 minutes into it. The duel between him and Yoda remains one of my favourite moments of the prequel trilogy.
I remember watching Newsround in 2003, and seeing that Saruman had been cut from the theatrical version of The Return of the King. Sir Christopher was disappointed, deeply it seemed. By this point I had read Tolkien’s entire trilogy and I felt pretty much the same. How could they do this? It was an outrage! Clearly, I was fast becoming a Sir Christopher Lee fanboy. I began to see if I could dig out any other films he had been in, and was always absurdly pleased when he popped up in something unexpected. I was studying Treasure Island in school around that time, and they showed us a film adaptation (why read the book?) in which he appeared as Blind Pew. Brilliant.
I sought out Sleepy Hollow, and The Musketeers films in which he plays the one-eyed Rochfort. I tried to find a version of the BBC mini-series Gormenghast somewhere. I watched clips of Dracula on YouTube and The Man with the Golden Gun is one of my favourite Bond films. In 2005 I must have been the only 15-year-old to purchase Sir Christopher’s autobiography Lord of Misrule to take on a family trip to Spain as my holiday reading.
Sir Christopher Lee had a profound effect on me, and my appreciation for the world of film. Being a fan of his work opened me up to films and genres, directors and writers, which I would have otherwise never discovered. His IMDb page reads like a history of cinema and he boasts some of the most iconic roles in film, as well as having worked with quite literally everyone. He’ll always be most associated with on-screen villains; he terrified a generation as Dracula, and was then introduced to an entirely new generation as the duplicitous Saruman the White. Then of course there was the charming-like-a-snake Lord Summerisle in The Wicker Man, a film the late actor considered his favourite. If you have read his autobiography, you’ll know he was never happy with what the distributors did with The Wicker Man, and that the definitive cut is yet to see the light of day, probably buried beneath a motorway somewhere.
Amongst all the neck-biting, Gandalf-bashing, Bond villain-ing, and pagan rituals though, one must be careful not to forget Sir Christopher’s softer turns. The stern but kind-hearted Monsieur Labisse in Hugo, The Lord Provost in the rather charming yet little-seen Greyfriars Bobby, the voice of Death in various Discworld adaptations, and – “by far the best thing I’ve ever done” – Mohammed Ali Jinnah in Jinnah; a film about the founder of Pakistan.
I’d like to return to that deep, rich voice of his that I mentioned earlier as being my first ‘experience’ of Sir Christopher Lee. It was not widely known until he started to release music how good a singer he was, unless of course you’ve seen The Wicker Man, or even The Return of Captain Invincible. His albums Revelation and Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross are both worth a listen; the latter won him the ‘Spirit of Metal’ award in 2010, and his involvement in heavy metal music makes him the oldest performer ever in that genre. Upon winning that ‘Spirit of Metal’ award, he quipped that he was a “young man right at the beginning of his career.” It is incredible that a person can find and develop a new talent well into their 80s, and one is left to ponder what other strings Sir Christopher could have added to his bow had he not passed away last week.
The wonderful thing, however, is that to us fans at least, he isn’t really dead. One need only pick up a copy of The Lord of the Rings (special extended editions naturally), or The Man with the Golden Gun, or Dracula, and there he is. Immortalised forever in some of the most memorable films of the past seventy years. We should be grateful, and astonished, that the man continued to work almost right up until his death. A real legend of not just cinema but culture itself; in our lifetime, there will never be another Sir Christopher Lee.
To celebrate his 92nd birthday in 2014, Sir Christopher released an EP, Metal Knight, which included his metal cover of My Way. He sings “I faced it all, and I stood tall, and did it my way!” You certainly did Sir Christopher, and I’ll always be immeasurably thankful to you for doing so.