Christopher Lee, the second most famous Dracula of the 20th century — an impressive feat — and a memorably irrepressible villain in James Bond film “The Man With the Golden Gun,” in the “Star Wars” films and in “The Lord of the Rings” pics, died Sunday in London after suffering heart failure and respiratory problems. He was 93.
Lee appeared in 10 films as Count Dracula (nine if his uncredited role in the comedy “One More Time” is excluded).
His first role for famed British horror factory Hammer Films was not the Transylvanian vampire, however, but Frankenstein’s Monster in 1957’s “The Curse of Frankenstein.” His close friend Peter Cushing, with whom he would co-star in horror films frequently, starred as the Baron.
Lee made his first appearance as the sharp-toothed Count in 1958’s “Horror of Dracula.”
For reasons not quite certain, he skipped the 1960 sequel “Brides of Dracula,” but he returned to the role for 1965’s “Dracula: Prince of Darkness” — a movie in which he hissed a lot but had no dialogue, because the dialogue was so bad, Lee later claimed.
Lee said later that he was reluctant to continue in the role but appeared in “Dracula Has Risen From the Grave” (1968), “Taste the Blood of Dracula” (1969) and “Scars of Dracula” (1970), hit films that are all now considered classics of the genre. In his last Dracula films for Hammer, Lee starred in the less-successful “Dracula A.D. 1972” and “Count Dracula and His Vampire Bride” (1973), which brought the character into a contemporary setting. (Lee also starred in “Count Dracula,” a film by cult exploitation director Jess Franco that was made in 1970 and released in 1973; in 1976, the multilingual Lee appeared as Dracula in a French film called “Dracula and Son.”)
Lee made horror films for Hammer that were not vampire-centered. He was the title character in 1959’s “The Mummy” and 1966’s “Rasputin, the Mad Monk.” He also brought Dennis Wheatley, an acclaimed author of occult thrillers, to Hammer, where two adaptations were produced, both starring Lee: “The Devil Rides Out” (1967) and “To the Devil a Daughter” (1976). The first is considered among Hammer’s best work. The second, although financially successful, was something of a disaster, with the author disowning the film, which was the studio’s last horror pic.
He also appeared in a number of non-Hammer horror films, including the “Fu Manchu” series of the late 1960s; “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” adaptation “I, Monster” (1970); “The Creeping Flesh,” with Cushing; and Lee’s favorite thriller effort, “The Wicker Man,” in which he played Lord Summerisle.
After 1977’s wretched “Meatcleaver Massacre,” for which, Lee claimed, the filmmakers had slapped on voiceover narration the actor had recorded for an entirely different movie, he largely steered clear of horror films, though Lee did appear, along with Cushing and Vincent Price, in 1983’s “House of the Long Shadows,” an American-produced horror comedy that in many ways brought the era of British horror pics to an end.
Christopher Frank Carandini Lee was born in Belgravia, Westminster, England, the son of a career military man and his wife, a famous beauty and contessa who was part Italian. They separated when Lee and his sister were still young, and their mother took the children to live in Switzerland.
Lee volunteered to serve with Finnish forces against the Soviet Union in 1939 and then served with the RAF and British intelligence during WWII.
After the war, Lee secured a seven-year contract with the Rank Organization.
His film debut came in Terence Young’s 1947 Gothic romance “Corridor of Mirrors”; the same year he had a brief uncredited role in Laurence Olivier’s film adaptation of “Hamlet.” Lee appeared in nearly 30 films, mostly forgettable adventure pics, over the next decade, although he did have an uncredited role in John Huston’s “Moulin Rouge” (1952) playing the painter Georges Seurat.
The prolific actor — IMDb lists 281 credits — appeared in many films outside the horror genre even during his Hammer years.
Lee appeared in the studio’s 1959 “The Hound of the Baskervilles” as Lord Henry Baskerville; Cushing played Sherlock Holmes. (Lee later played Holmes in the non-Hammer “Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace,” then played the detective’s brother Mycroft in Billy Wilder’s 1970 film “The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes” and played Sherlock Holmes in a pair of British telepics in the 1990s.)
He appeared in a terrible 1970 adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” that starred Charlton Heston, Jason Robards and John Gielgud and played a gunsmith in the British-produced Raquel Welch Western “Hannie Caulder.”
Even outside the horror genre, however, Lee’s characters were rarely virtuous, even if it was all too easy to root for them.
As the assassin Francisco Scaramanga in 1974 Bond pic “The Man With the Golden Gun,” he was a singular villain in the 007 pantheon — not a mad scientist or a megalomaniacal industrialist but an effortlessly sexy enemy who is perhaps James Bond’s dark reflection. (Ian Fleming is said to have offered Lee the part of Dr. No in the first Bond film, not knowing that the part had already been cast.)
He played Rochefort, chief henchman to Charlton Heston’s villainous Cardinal Richelieu, in Richard Lester’s highly successful “The Three Musketeers” and “The Four Musketeers” films; he didn’t have much to say but skillfully tackled the semi-comical swordplay. (Lee returned to the role in Lester’s 1989 “The Return of the Musketeers.”)
Lee did some American TV work, appearing in the miniseries “How the West Was Won” and Harold Robbins adaptation “The Pirate,” but largely appeared in adventure films. He showed a comedic side as guest host on “Saturday Night Live” in 1978 and in Steven Spielberg’s “1941,” in which he played a German officer.
He had a character arc on the British children’s sci-fi show “The Tomorrow People” in 1995 and was a series regular on the brief CBS drama “Street Gear” the same year. In 1998 Lee starred in the film “Jinnah” in the title role as the founder of modern Pakistan — his best performance, the actor declared at one point. He also appeared in a number of British or American miniseries, including “Ivanhoe” and “Gormenghast,” and had a small role in Tim Burton’s “Sleepy Hollow.” (Lee later did voice work for several Burton projects, including 2010’s “Alice in Wonderland,” and appeared in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”)
Burton presented a BAFTA Fellowship, a life achievement award, to Lee at the 2011 BAFTA ceremonies. Lee was knighted in 2009 and received a BFI Fellowship as well.
There was no reason to suspect, in short, that Lee would have his profile raised substantially during the 2000s, in his 80s. Lee was, however, the only actor to make substantial appearances in both the “Lord of the Rings” and “Stars Wars” film franchises. In the trilogy based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s books (Lee’s appearance in the third film was cut from the theatrical version but restored for DVD), he played the duplicitous and ultimately villainous wizard Saruman; he repeated the role in the three “Hobbit” movies.
In the “Star Wars” pics “Episode II — Attack of the Clones” and “Episode III — Revenge of the Sith,” he played Count Dooku (the name chosen almost certainly in tribute to Lee’s most famous character), who becomes the evil Darth Tyranus. The highlight of Lee’s appearance in the “Star Wars” films was the six-foot-five actor’s lightsaber duel with a fully digitized and diminutive Yoda.
In the 2009 film “Triage,” Lee had an interesting and effective supporting turn as a Spanish psychiatrist with a dark past who helps a war photographer, played by Colin Farrell, suffering from survivor’s guilt.
Lee’s autobiography “Tall, Dark and Gruesome” was published in 1977 and republished in 1999; a revised and expanded edition called “Lord of Misrule” was issued in 2004.
Lee was a step-cousin of Ian Fleming. He is survived by wife, Birgit “Gitte” Kroencke Lee, whom he married in 1961; a daughter; and a niece, British actress Harriet Walter.