It’s with a heavy heart and sad soul that I am writing these words, for on Sunday, June 7, Sir Christopher Lee died at the age of 93 at the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital after being admitted for respiratory problems and heart failure. I wasn’t prepared for this one; certainly the news isn’t shocking as we can all only dream to last so long on this earth, but to lose a man that was so important to my cinematic education is a blow I’ll be feeling for days to come. He was not only a man who accomplished great things on screen (appearing in over 300 films and TV shows) but also was a man of great historical importance, who lived through and took part in some of the greatest events of the 20th Century. Looking back on all Lee has accomplished, it’s amazing a film based on his life has not been made yet.
Born in 1922 in London England, Christopher Lee bled history. Not only was he a relative to Robert E. Lee, the confederate general that fought in the Civil War, as well as the step-cousin to Ian Flemming, author of the James Bond novels, but his ancestral line can be traced all the way back to Emperor Charlemagne of The Holy Roman Empire. In 1939, Lee witnessed the last public execution by guillotine in France, that of murderer Eugen Weidmann. During WW II, Lee served in the SAS (Special Air Services) fighting on the North African front were he prevented a mutiny in his squadron, caught malaria six times in a year and climbed Mount Vesuvius three days before it erupted. Lee was also assigned to SOE (Special Operations Executive) also called the “Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” because of its reputation for espionage and sabotage. During his time in the SOE, Lee took part in missions so confidential they have yet to be disclosed to the public to this day. You could say that Lee was a real life James Bond. After the war, Lee was tasked with hunting down Nazi war criminals, before retiring from military service in 1946, after which he began his career as an actor.
Though he was a hero during the War, Lee’s imposing stature (he was 6 feet, 5 inches tall) and deep, booming voice made him an ideal antagonist during his acting career. Lee touched people of all generations with his work, crossing a multitude of genres including horror, fantasy, sci-fi and spy films. You might have been introduced to him in the 60s with his frequent portrayals of Count Dracula in the many Hammer films he appeared in or as one of the great James Bond villains, Francisco Scaramanga in The Man With The Golden Gun. Decades later, a whole new generation (including me) was introduced to him in the early 2000s with his appearances as Count Dooku in the Star Wars prequels and his portrayal of wizard Saruman the White in Peter Jackson’s Lord of The Rings Trilogy. One of the coolest anecdotes I’ve heard of Lee was of a discussion he had on the set of The Return of The King with Peter Jackson. Jackson was attempting to instruct Lee on what sounds to make after his character gets stabbed. Due to his service in the War, Lee replied by saying: “Have you any idea what kind of noise happens when somebody gets stabbed in the back? Because I do.”
Knighted for his services to drama and charity in 2009, the man continued doing what he loved until the bitter end. Just last December we saw him play Saruman in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, a role that had to be filmed in England (as opposed to New Zealand) because Lee’s health prevented him from traveling. Over his illustrious and prolific career, Lee has played such iconic figures as Sherlock Holmes, Frankenstein’s Monster, Rasputin and many more. Lee also held a number of Guinness World Records including “Most On-Screen Appearances” (over 300), “Most Connected Living Actor” (Lee was often called “The center of the Hollywood Universe”), “Most Films With A Sword Fight By An Actor” (17) and “Oldest Videogame Voice Actor” for his role as Diz/Ansem in the Kingdom Hearts franchise.
In addition to his military service and acting career, Lee was also an accomplished opera and heavy metal singer. He lent his voice to albums from bands such as Rhapsody of Fire and Manowar. In 2012, Lee released his first solo album entitle Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross, followed by Charlemagne: The Omens of Death, released on the date of his 91st birthday in 2013. He even released two heavy metal Christmas albums in 2012 and 2013. Lee was also an avid musical theater fan and covered some of his favorite songs including “The Impossible Dream” (which he considered to be one of the greatest songs ever written) from the musical Man of La Mancha.
There is no denying the fact that Sir Christopher Lee was one of the most important figures of the last century. In some ways, it’s a miracle that a man who stared death in the eye multiple times during the Second World War was able to live such a long and eventful life, as well as die a quiet, peaceful death, but he most certainly earned it. Soldier, spy, actor and singer, Christopher Lee did more in his life than most of us could ever imagine, and did it all with the utmost dignity and grace. He was, in every definition imaginable, a true modern day knight and will be greatly missed by his family, friends and fans.