LONDON — Christopher Lee, an actor who brought dramatic gravitas and aristocratic bearing to screen villains from Dracula to James Bond enemy Scaramanga, has died at age 93.
Lee appeared in more than 250 movies, including memorable roles as the wicked wizard Saruman in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy and the evil Count Dooku in two of George Lucas’ “Star Wars” prequels. But for many he will forever be known as the vampire Count Dracula in a slew of “Hammer Horror” movies — the gory, gothic thrillers churned out by the British studio in the 1950s and 1960s that became hugely popular. He railed against the typecasting, however, and ultimately the sheer number and range of his roles — from Sherlock Holmes to the founder of Pakistan — secured his place in film history.
“I didn’t have dreams of being a romantic leading man,” Lee told The Associated Press in 2002. “But I dreamed of being a character actor, which I am.”
Lee’s acting career followed his World War II service as an intelligence officer and, briefly, a Nazi-hunter. A fluent French- and German-speaker, he spent the final months of WWII with the UN’s Central Registry of War Criminals and Security Suspects, which assisted the UN’s War Crimes Commission and Allied governments in tracing Nazi war crimes suspects, a post which also involved him visiting concentration camps.
An official for the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea in London on Thursday confirmed a death certificate was issued for Lee on June 8.
Christopher Frank Carandini Lee was born in London on May 27, 1922. His father was a British army officer who had served in the Boer War, his mother was Contessa Estelle Marie Carandini di Sarzano, an Edwardian beauty of Italian descent. His parents separated when he was young, and his mother later remarried Harcourt Rose, the uncle of James Bond creator Ian Fleming.
He attended Wellington College, an elite boarding school, and joined the Royal Air Force during World War II. Poor eyesight prevented him becoming a pilot, and he served as an intelligence officer in North Africa and Italy.
He described the last months of his military service, seeking out Nazi war criminals on behalf of the UN’s Central Registry, in a 2009 interview with The Times of London: “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.”
Lee retired from the RAF in 1946 with the rank of flight lieutenant.
After the war, the 6 foot 4 (1.83-meter), sepulchral-looking Lee was signed to a contract with Britain’s Rank studio, and spent the next decade playing minor roles in a series of formulaic pictures. He also appeared briefly in Laurence Olivier’s “Hamlet” in 1948 — as did his future Hammer co-star, Peter Cushing.
He launched his horror career in 1957, starring as the monster in Hammer’s “The Curse of Frankenstein.” In 1958 Lee made his first appearance as the famous vampire in “Dracula,” opposite Cushing’s Van Helsing.
In 1958 Lee made his first appearance as the famous vampire in “Dracula,” opposite Cushing’s Van Helsing.
Film critic Matthew Sweet said Lee brought a sensuality to the role that chimed with the newly permissive times. While Bela Lugosi, the definitive 1930s Dracula, “postures and glides, Lee is rough and muscular,” Sweet wrote in 2007.
“Lee’s performance convinced a generation of scholars that Dracula was a book about sex, and not about vampires,” Sweet said.
Lee went on to play the Transylvanian vampire in sequels including “Dracula: Prince of Darkness,” ”Dracula Has Risen From the Grave,” ”Taste the Blood of Dracula,” ”Scars of Dracula” and “Dracula A.D. 1972” — an ill-advised attempt to update the series to 1970s London.
Lee was wary of being typecast, and later said the studio practically blackmailed him into continuing to appear as Dracula.
He held out for eight years after the first Dracula film before appearing in “Dracula: Prince of Darkness” — in which he stars but has no lines.
In 2006, Lee told the BBC that his reaction to reading the script for the film was, “I’m not saying any of these lines. It’s impossible. They’re ridiculous.”
“That’s why I don’t speak in the film,” he said.
During this period, Lee played non-vampiric roles in Hammer’s “The Devil Rides Out,” ”The Mummy,” ”Rasputin, the Mad Monk” and “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” and starred as mustachioed master criminal Fu Manchu in a series of low-budget thrillers. His last film for Hammer was “To the Devil a Daughter” in 1976.
Starting in the 1970s, Lee tried to shake off the Hammer mantle. He played a Bond villain — Scaramanga in “The Man With the Golden Gun” — and appeared in non-Hammer horror films. The most distinguished of these was 1973’s “The Wicker Man,” a cult classic in which Lee plays the lord of a Scottish pagan community troubled by the appearance of an inquisitive police officer.
Lee appeared in so many movies that he acknowledged he couldn’t remember them all.
“And certainly some of them you want to forget,” he said in 2002.
An energetic man who listed his hobbies in “Who’s Who” as “travel, opera, golf, cricket,” Lee never retired. His career flourished late in life, with roles in some of the best-loved of film franchises, including “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy and two of George Lucas’ “Star Wars” prequels.
He became Sir Christopher Lee when he was knighted in October 2009, receiving the honor from Prince Charles at Buckingham Palace.
Lee said at that time that “although I’ve played a lot of bad guys, there’s more scope than being the man in the white hat.”
Lee also appeared in several films by Tim Burton, including “Sleepy Hollow” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” and was proud of his turn as Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, in “Jinnah.”
Lee felt his gift for comedy was under-appreciated. He was proud to have hosted the popular U.S. sketch show “Saturday Night Live” in 1978 and told the BBC that his greatest regret was turning down the part that went to Leslie Nielsen in the slapstick comedy “Airplane.”
“A lot of people, including the casting directors, have no idea that when I lived in America half of the films I did were comedies,” he said in 2006. “They have no idea that I hosted ‘Saturday Night Live.’ They don’t seem to be interested.”
Lee married Birgit Kroencke in 1961. Their daughter, Christina, was born in 1963.