He made his name by rising from the grave, but in 2015 the acting was over and he was laid to rest for real. After a very long and active life, Sir Christopher Lee passed away in a London hospital at the age of ninety-three. He might have died more than seventy years ago, during his service with the Royal Air Force in the Second World War, but he escaped the bombs and bullets, and began a long apprenticeship as an actor.
His first real step towards stardom came when he appeared in the Hammer Horror film The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), where he played the monster created by the mad German scientist Baron Victor Frankenstein, as played by Peter Cushing. The following year, he appeared in the role with which he will always be associated: that of Dracula, the Transylvanian Prince of Darkness. Given little dialogue, he had to hold the audience with his facial expressions, body language and menace. He was completely successful: the films he made for Hammer were hits right around the world and gave him a fame he would never lose.
Lee played many other roles, but for millions of his fans the definitive image of him will come from one of his Dracula films: lying with blazing eyes and bared teeth in his coffin, for example, or bending to bite the neck of a beautiful and enthralled young victim. The character of Dracula speaks to something very deep and very primitive in human psychology. Lee skilfully evoked the dark charisma of the Undead Count, but the power of his performance put him in danger of being typecast as an actor suited only to evil or villainous roles.
Seeking to escape that fate, he moved to America in 1977 and appeared in more varied films, including action adventures and comedies. He also took advantage of his skill in languages like Italian, French and German, and made films in Europe or provided voice-overs when films were issued in the European market. But it was horror that had made him famous and he never completely abandoned the genre. He appearing as Dracula for film companies other than Hammer and brought another icon of villainy to the screen in a series of Fu Manchu films.
Acting, as he said, was his life and he never considered retiring. The twenty-first century brought him not just a knighthood, but new roles and a new generation of fans. He was signed to appear in films based on the work of one of his favourite authors: The Lord of the Rings trilogy, based on the fantasy novels of J.R.R. Tolkien. Lee had always wanted to play the good wizard Gandalf, but by the time Tolkien’s work was brought to the screen in a serious way he felt that he was too old for such an active part and chose to play the evil wizard Saruman instead. He was approaching his eightieth birthday when he made the first film, but his charisma and rich baritone voice enabled him to dominate the screen once again.
The Tolkien films revived his career and encouraged a younger audience to seek out the films he had made forty and fifty years before. With his acting stock riding high, he then appeared as the villain Count Dooku in two of the Star Wars films, where he was still able to perform some of his swordplay. He ended his life exactly as he would have wished: entertaining a world-wide audience with his acting and voice-overs. He had the respect of his peers, had achieved fame on a level that few other actors have ever achieved, and had remained devoted to his wife Birgit since their marriage in 1961. Nobody’s life is perfect, but Sir Christopher Lee’s life seems to have come closer to perfection than most. And he will continue to enthral and entertain as long as his films are watched.