Author’s note: It can sometimes be difficult to separate fact from fiction in a life as legendary as Sir Christopher Lee. The information below has been cross-examined and fact-checked to ensure accuracy.
Fans across the world mourned the recent death of Sir Christopher Lee. Beloved for his numerous film roles that included iconic performances of Dracula, Saruman, and Count Dooku, he also served Great Britain during World War II, hunted Nazi war criminals at the end of the war. In an industry known for celebrity scandals and breakups, he married his wife Gitte, a Danish model and actress, and the two remained married until his death. As will be shown below, Sir Christopher Lee is notable not only for his films, but for his life off the screen as well.
Sir Christopher Frank Carandini Lee was born on May 27, 1922 in London. His father, Geoffrey Trollope Lee, served as a Lieutenant Colonel in the 60th King’s Royal Rifle Corps during the Boer War and the First World War. His mother, Estelle Maria Carandini, was an Italian Contessa descended from the Borgias and, Lee claims, a descendant of the Emperor Charlemagne. Estelle strongly disapproved of his plans to enter acting. Lee recollected her reaction in the Independent:
“She was absolutely appalled. Her behaviour was like something out of an old tragedy. She was an Edwardian, you see. She said: ‘Think of the disgrace you will bring on the family.’ When I reminded her that her own grandparents had founded the first opera company in Australia, she didn’t have much of an answer. But she did add one comment, which I have always found very amusing: ‘Think of the appalling people you will have to deal with.’ And I can’t deny that.”
He had one sister, Xandra, and a brother, Nicholas. He later became step-cousin to James Bond creator Ian Fleming.
Lee suffered family hardships early in life when his parents divorced when he was only four years old and when his stepfather cut his university education short by filing for bankruptcy. Despite these setbacks, Lee grew fluent in Italian and French and studied Greek and Latin at Wellington College. During these years as a student, his love of myth and fantasy grew with his studies of Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey,” which he read in the original Greek (Forward, Chris Smith, “The Lord of the Rings: Weapons and Warfare,” pg. v). The teenaged Christopher Lee also witnessed the public execution of Eugène Weidmann, the last public guillotine execution in France.
Sir Christopher Lee served Finland during the Winter War against Soviet Russia and Great Britain during World War II against Nazi Germany. He enlisted with the Royal Air Force in time to see action during the North African campaign, but a bad optic nerve in his eye prevented him from finishing flight school. Yet his grounded status did not prevent him from seeing combat. Lee joined the Long Range Desert Group, the precursor to the modern UK’s Special Air Service (SAS). According Forces.tv, a news outlet specializing in the British armed forces, “Lee moved behind enemy lines from base to base sabotaging Luftwaffe planes and airfields along the way” and saw action “from Egypt across Tobruk to Benghazi.” He is also reported to have stopped a mutiny. After Allied victory in North Africa, Lee took part in the Allied invasion of Italy, leading Ghurkas at the Battle of Monte Cassino.
He transferred to the Special Operations Executive (SOE) where he “[conducted] espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance in occupied Europe against the Axis powers,” Forces.tv reports. He later hunted Nazi war criminals. Lee recalled,
“We were given dossiers of what they’d done and told to find them, interrogate them as much as we could and hand them over to the appropriate authority. In view of the fact that there were Palestinians with us — which simply means Jews, because of course Israel was not its own country until 1948 — you can imagine how they felt. We saw these concentration camps. Some had been cleaned up. Some had not.”
True to his duties, Lee took his secrets to the grave. “I was attached to the SAS from time to time but we are forbidden – former, present, or future – to discuss any specific operations,” he told the Telegraph. “Let’s just say I was in Special Forces and leave it at that. People can read in to that what they like.”
Like a true knight, Sir Christopher Lee distinguished himself with the sword. He left his mark as a fencer at Wellington College, but his days as a swordsman continued after school. Over the course of his numerous films, he earned entry in the Guinness Book of World Records for the most on-screen sword fights, “having duelled in 17 films with foils, swords, and even billiard cues.”
Swashbuckling legend Errol Flynn crossed swords with Sir Christopher Lee while drunk. The two were filming close-up shots for a swordfight in “The Dark Avenger.” Showing his disfigured hand to students during a Q&A session at the University College Dublin, Lee said, “That was the result—souvenir of Errol Flynn.” Gentleman that he was, Lee shrugged off the incident with his typical rapier wit—“Of course, it was after lunch.”
The name Christopher Lee is virtually synonymous with Dracula, Scaramanga, Count Dooku, and Saruman, villains that not only made the heroes work for a living but stole scenes with as simple a gesture as shutting a door. Lee’s long career resonates in different ways to different generations. To the Boomers, he represents perhaps the dominant face of Hammer House of Horror though his roles as Frankenstein’s Monster, the Mummy, and, most famously, Count Dracula; for Millennials, Lee threatened the realms of Middle-earth and a Galaxy Far, Far Away as Saruman and Count Dooku.
Lee walked a slow and difficult road to stardom. Like so many other geniuses, directors rejected the aspiring actor again and again. Once he was told, “You’ll never be a film actor, your height is against you. Why do agents waste my time sending me people like you?” But Lee kept trying. He finally got his foot in the door with some small roles. Then Lee got his true breakout role as the monster in “The Curse of Frankenstein” opposite Peter Cushing, whose own rise as a figure in horror also began with this film. “It didn’t worry me that they might make me totally unrecognizable, because I wasn’t getting anywhere looking like myself,” Lee said. Cushing later recalled his first meeting with Lee out of character: “The story does go that I first met Christopher in that makeup [of Frankenstein’s monster]. . .At lunchtime he took it off and when he came into the restaurant I screamed.”
If “The Curse of Frankenstein” established Lee as an actor, it was “The Horror of Dracula” that solidified it. Bela Lugosi defined the classic film archetype of the vampire in the 1930s with his dashing cape and wooden accent that lingers in popular imagination to this day. He left future actors such as Lon Chaney, Jr., John Carradine, and Christopher Lee with a big cape to fill, but Lee donned it with a poise that redefined the character for generations to come. He went on reprise the role of the count for eight more outings, most of them with Hammer Studios, though he repeatedly expressed frustration that the limitations imposed on him by filmmakers prevented him from portraying the character described in Bram Stoker’s classic novel.
“Nobody has ever filmed in its entirety the book that Bram Stoker wrote,” Lee claimed. In “Dracula, Prince of Darkness,” he refused to utter any lines from the script. Speaking of speechless monsters, in Hammer’s “The Mummy,” Lee conveyed threat and emotion with only his eyes and his postures while wrapped head to toe in tissue. With Hammer, Lee did get to play the good guy as Duc de Richleau in “The Devil Rides Out.” Lee not only enjoyed playing a good guy for a change, but he also believed in the film’s message. “I thought that people should know about the dangers of Satanism, and diabolism does exist—there’s no question about it,” he said.
Beyond Hammer’s dark celluloid fantasies, Lee played characters as diverse as Sax Rohmer’s criminal mastermind Dr. Fu Manchu, Alexandre Dumas’ Comte de Rochefort, cheery cult leader Lord Summerisle in “The Wicker Man,” and the celebrated Bond villain Francisco Scaramanga in “The Man with the Golden Gun.” The Scaramanga portrayed by Lee and the scriptwriters differed significantly from the character created by Lee’s step-cousin Ian Fleming. In an interview about the role, Lee explained that he preferred the changes:
“In the book, The Man with the Golden Gun, the villain was in fact a very nasty piece of work who went around shooting at everything, including bottles in bars and harmless animals and birds. We were able to make Scaramanga a much more interesting character. He was charming, but lethal.”
“Charming, but lethal” describes Lee’s approach to playing villains in general. Even in his later roles in old age, his villains retained a sense of dark charm and noble poise.
Lee put more recent audiences under his spell with his same trademark devil-as-a-gentleman approach to villains as a Sith lord and a corrupted wizard. As Count Dooku, Lee carried himself in a lordly air and a dark presence. In his old age, Lee continued fighting his own action scenes, and he brought to his lightsaber duels a classical poise largely missing in today’s filmmaking. Count Dooku and Saruman wield their forked tongues as potently as their physical weapons—dripping honey from one prong and venom from the other. Who can forget Saruman’s persuasive line, “It would be wise, my friend,” followed by his knowing smile and slight tilt of the head in “The Fellowship of the Ring?”
As if reliving his career with Hammer, Lee spent his last scene as Saruman fighting wraiths in nightmarish ruins—a dark fantasy lord to the end. For
“as an actor, playing a part on a screen, it [the role of Saruman] will mean more than anything I’ve ever done. And I’ve done quite a bit. . . .I think I will be remembered more for these films—when they’ve all been seen—than anything else I’ve ever done, because I think they’ve achieved immortality. They really have. What has appeared on these screens with these films has never been done by anybody else.”
According to Hammer Studios’ official historian Marcus Hearn, Lee was “privately anxious about being typecast as a wizard.”
The Man Who Knelt Before Tolkien
Sir Christopher Lee was the only member of the cast and crew of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit films to have actually met J.R.R. Tolkien in person, “quite by chance, really,” Lee said in a manner fitting for Tolkien’s own characters. The paths of two creative geniuses crossed at the Eagle and Child pub, where the Inklings used to gather for their literary discussions. Lee described his meeting in an interview on his website that has since been lost to the Internet but is quoted with citations by The Huffington Post, Tolkien Gateway, and in a blog comment:
“We were sitting there talking and drinking beer, and someone said, “Oh, look who walked in.” It was Professor Tolkien, and I nearly fell off my chair. I didn’t even know he was alive. He was a benign looking man, smoking a pipe, walking in, an English countryman with earth under his feet. And he was a genius, a man of incredible intellectual knowledge. He knew somebody in our group. He (the man in the group) said “Oh Professor, Professor…” And he came over. And each one of us, well I knelt of course, each one of us said “how do you do?” And I just said “Ho.. How.. How…”
The actor read Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” annually and Lee knew so much of Middle-earth’s lore that the cast and crew of Jackson’s films failed to stump him. “Members of the cast and crew where always trying to catch me out. They’d ask me questions like, ‘what was the name of Frodo’s father,’ or ‘what was the name of this or that sword.’ Things like that. Well, they never caught me out—not once!” Lee stated in an interview with Cinefantastique. In the same interview, Lee recalled reading “The Fellowship of the Ring” when it first came out in 1954:
“I was immensely impressed with what I read. I still think THE LORD OF THE RINGS is the greatest literary achievement in my lifetime. Like so many other people, I couldn’t wait for the second, and then the third book. Nothing like it had ever been written. Other authors like T. H. White and Lewis Carroll invented imaginary worlds, but Tolkien not only invented an imaginary world, he invented imaginary races, which you can easily believe in. And he created very long appendices with all the family trees and the names of the previous Kings and so-forth. It’s quite incredible, really, the scholarship and imagination that went into the writing of it. And what is even more remarkable is that Tolkien, who was a professor of philology, invented new languages. The Elf languages are two: Quenya and Sindarin. Quenya is based on Finnish, and Sindarin is basically Welsh. Most of the Elves speak Sindarin. And if you want, you can learn to read it, to write it and to speak it, just like English or any other language. I always thought the books would make a wonderful film, but I also felt it would probably never happen, because of the enormous amount it would cost to make. But if they ever were made, I dreamed that I would be in them. It just goes to show you, that sometimes dreams do come true.”
In addition to his work in Peter Jackson’s films, Sir Christopher Lee read selections of Tolkien’s writing for recordings by the Tolkien Ensemble and voiced the audio reading of J.R.R. Tolkien’s posthumously published novel “The Children of Húrin.”
Lee’s love of fantasy predated his discovery of Tolkien’s Middle-earth. “When I was a boy, I was brought up on Grimm’s ‘Fairy Tales,’ Gulliver’s Travels,’ ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ and ‘Through the Looking Glass,’” he wrote. “I thought these books were weird, fascinating, and enthralling’” (Foreword to “The Lord of the Rings: Weapons and Warfare” by Chris Smith, pg. v). He also explained how in his teens and as a young man he enjoyed Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey,” the myths and legends of the Norse and Celtic societies, and the Icelandic Sagas that so influenced the work of Tolkien. Lee said of the Greek tales, “I was completely fascinated by these great epics of battle, heroism, treachery and doom” (Smith, pg. v). He also described T.H. White’s “The Sword in the Stone” as his favorite book until he read Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” (Smith, pg. v).
Peter S. Beagle, author of the fantasy classic “The Last Unicorn,” wrote in an article for Vanity Fair that Sir Christopher Lee was “ by far, the most literate” actor he ever met. He also recalled how Lee recited poetry by G.K. Chesterton during a trip to a Men’s restroom—all while using “The Voice,” of course.
The Rock Star
In addition to acting, athletics, and academics, Sir Christopher Lee possessed talents in music. A number of articles claim that he was classically trained, but Lee’s own music bio does not confirm this, and indeed reports that “Lee’s singing voice was discovered. . .by the Swedish tenor Jussi Björling, considered the ‘Caruso’ of the North” but shortage of money and his chosen career as an actor prevented him from pursuing opera. Yet Lee did sing on film several times, including as the villain Mr. Midnight in the musical superhero comedy “The Return of Captain Invincible” and lent his voice to “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” Christopher Lee’s music tastes ranged wider than opera and musical theater: Lee also enjoyed and performed heavy metal.
According to Rolling Stone, Lee’s interest in metal music began when he heard Black Sabbath in the 70s, when the genre was still new. “You’re the one that started it, really, because we used to go watch ‘Dracula’ and the horror films you did and that’s what influenced us,” Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi told him. “The good ones, I hope!” Lee replied.
Lee didn’t record metal music until he began collaborating with Italian symphonic metal band Rhapsody of Fire, known for their concept albums telling their own epic fantasy tales. He turned 83 the year his first contribution with the band, “Symphony of Enhanted Lands II: The Dark Secret,” in which he narrated and even sang on the track “The Magic of the Wizard’s Dream,” a song Lee recorded in several languages. Lee also narrated a part originally performed by Orson Welles for a re-recording of American power metal band Manowar’s 1982 album, “Battle Hymns MMXI.” But Lee earned his own success as a rock star with his own independent releases that included two concept albums on the life of Charlemagne as well as metalized covers and Christmas songs. Tony Iommi honored Lee with the Spirit of Metal award at the 2010 Golden Gods ceremony hosted by Metal Hammer
An article by Metal Hammer described Lee’s response when Iommi asked Lee what attracted him to metal: “He paused for a moment, his eyes then widening and, with a slowly clenching upturned fist, simply said, ‘The power.’”
It comes as a surprise that a man in his 80s should begin to perform heavy metal music, let alone listen to it, but surprising people was exactly what Lee wanted to do. He told Metal Hammer,
“I have a great belief that things – no matter what they are: music, literature, anything in life – should from time to time surprise people and that’s what I believe in: surprising people. Heavy metal has, since its very beginning, surprised in the best sense of the word, and people all over the world. To be involved in that, and to show people that even now I can still surprise my audience, it’s very important. I’ve spent my entire career taking risks. Acting is a risk, it has to be. I’ve never been afraid, and I’ve done my best to take those risks.”
Sir Christopher consistently released new recordings up until his death, proving that heavy metal is not just for the young.
Few actors have as much influence on multiple generations of film viewers as Sir Christopher Lee or enjoy such long careers. Whether seeing him as Count Dracula or Count Dooku, chances are that just about every Westerner has seen Sir Christopher Lee on film at least once. Yet as this article has endeavored to illustrate, Lee’s life off the screen, from his impressive academic and athletic achievements to his devotion to his country and his family, is just as worth celebrating as his career as a film star. Official Hammer Studios historian Marcus Hearn described his off-screen personality beautifully:
“The better I got to know Christopher the more I came to appreciate Peter Cushing’s astute observation that this forbidding exterior was a disguise. The real Christopher Lee was an occasionally sentimental and sometimes child-like character. He was at his most endearing in these off-guard moments, flicking through scrapbooks in his Belgravia home, showing off his collection of military memorabilia or reminiscing over tea in a nearby hotel.”
For a man who lived so fully, who mastered seemingly everything he pursued, and whose monumental legacy will no doubt long outlive him, there are perhaps no finer words fit for eulogy than those penned by William Shakespeare for his play “Hamlet” (in which Lee snuck into playing an uncredited extra in the 1948 film adaptation starring Sir Laurence Olivier): “He was a man, take him for all in all,/ I shall not look upon his like again.”