Though you may know him from his more recent roles like Saruman from The Lord of the Rings series or Count Dooku from the Star Wars prequels, Sir Christopher Lee has been one of the most reliable forces on film and television screens around the world for more than sixty years and running. In fact, he once held the Guinness record for most acting roles -- more than two-hundred-fifty, almost all of them villainous (a record I could not confirm he still owns, though Guinness does in fact have him listed as both the “most connected” actor, which must be some Seven Degrees of Kevin Bacon sort of thing, and world’s tallest leading actor). Coming in at six feet and five inches tall, with deep-set eyes, dark features, and pale skin, he looks like he walked off the set of Nosferatu. He was born to play the bad guy.
And play the bad guy he has, from his big break to his most iconic roles. Early in his career, after serving on the British Special Operations Executive for World War II, Lee got in with Hammer Films, at the time a twenty-year-old production company that was just starting to experiment with horror. He starred as the monster alongside Peter Cushing1's doctor in 1957's The Curse of Frankenstein. The film was a huge hit and became the standard-bearer for the gothic horror film revival that would ensue for twenty years as Hammer and other studios tried (and often succeeded) to replicate its success.
Lee, along with Cushing, would ride that wave, starring respectively as the antagonist and protagonist of many horror films – Lee as The Mummy, Cushing as the slayer; Lee as Sir Baskerville and Cushing as Sherlock Holmes;2 Lee as Dracula, Cushing as Van Helsing, and so on and so forth. It is this last role where Lee’s star would shine the brightest. Hammer’s series of Dracula films turned out to be one of their biggest moneymakers, and so Lee became attached to the role in a way that many would say is second only to Bela Legosi3. Lee, however, grew to resent his role as he became disenfranchised with the films’ treatment of Bram Stoker’s character. Here Lee writes to his fan club on 1970’s The Scars of Dracula, one of his final times starring as the vampire for Hammer: “If there was anything else I would do it... I may have to do it, but I hope and pray, as I have for the last two pictures, that it will be the last time.4”
In the wake of Hammer's success, several other horror studios popped up in attempt to get some of that monster money. Primary among these is Amicus Productions, which is remembered for horror anthology films with charming titles like 1967's Torture Garden and 1970's The House That Dripped Blood. Amicus also put up the money for today's killer film 1971’s I, Monster.
I, Monster is worth watching for a lot of reasons. First and foremost, it's a chance to see Christopher Lee outside of the context you probably know him – i.e. a menacing old wizard or a menacing old Sith lord – and within the context that made him famous to an earlier generation of Brits and Americans: a horror film. And a pretty good one at that; a surprisingly thrilling and accurate adaptation of Robert Louis Stephenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. For whatever reason, they changed the names to Dr. Marlowe and Mr. Blake for this go-around, but the source material is clear.
Lee and Cushing anchor the otherwise workmanlike film with solid acting chops and a notable chemistry. Here Lee, Cushing’s foil once again, plays the mild-mannered Dr. Marlowe. Dr. Marlowe is a Freudian psychologist who believes not only in the duality of man but of its ability to be chemically separated. His experiments with a personality-splitting serum have bizarre effects on his subjects, so naturally Marlowe turns the drug on himself, and the rest is history.
Lee’s horror career reached its apex in 1973 with his role in The Wicker Man. The Wicker Man was a new high-water mark for horror, British or otherwise (Lee would even have you believe it was a high-water mark for film in general,5 and it’s hard to disagree) and Lee got to sink his teeth into a juicy role as Lord Summerisle, the leader of a creepy pagan tribe that inhabits the film’s island setting. In 1974, after years of trying, he was finally able to cash in on the prospect of being Ian Fleming’s cousin (and have a go at eschewing his creepy crawly public image) when he was offered the role as The iconic Man With the Golden Gun, Francisco Scaramanga.
Lee moved to Hollywood in hopes of revitalizing his career on the strength of the Bond film, but Lee was reluctant to appear in horror films and his acting career slowed down, though he continued to pop up for a cultural touchstone every now and again, whether it be the cover of Paul McCartney & Wings’ Band on the Run, Airport 77, or even hosting Saturday Night Live in 1978. Lee continued along in this manner, apparently content to be tall, dark, and mysterious on mostly his own time, until he eventually moved back to England.
Though Lee continued to act off and on throughout the eighties and nineties (he has become a perennial favorite of Tim Burton) it is The Lord of the Rings that re-lit Lee’s flame. Thank God for Peter Jackson! Lee, a huge Tolkein fan and the only person on the cast or crew of Jackson’s adaptation to have met the man, auditioned for the part of Gandalf in Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings. He was beat out by Sir Ian McKellan (again! He had also been considered to play Magneto in The X-Men) but thankfully cast as Saruman, the other white wizard -- the role that revitalized his career. Good fortune struck Lee again when he nabbed the role of Count Dooku in Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith.
Lee has been married to the same woman since 1961. He was knighted in 2009. In 2010, he put out his own metal album. Seriously! What can’t this man do? Here is a man who has devoted his whole life to film and absolutely been a class act from soup to nuts. He will always remain a beloved icon of science fiction, fantasy, and horror lovers. He may be famous for playing monsters and villains, but there’s no doubt that Christopher Lee is the good guy.
1 You may know him best as Grand Moff Tarkin!
2 Interestingly enough, 1962's Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace, in which Lee plays the titular character, and 1970's The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, in which he plays his smarter brother Mycroft, are two of the more notable instances of Lee playing the hero.