It didn’t take a stake in the heart, nor a bullet from 007, but the sunset after a day lasting ninety-three years. The great Sir Christopher Lee has died.
He became late on June 7, and the news was released late so that the widow could contact the rest of the family before the obituaries started rolling out.
To say he was a screen legend is to badly understate things. He had a massive body of work. It was massive twenty years ago, and his status was secure with his portrayals of Count Dracula, Scaramanga in The Man with the Golden Gun, and widely praised part in The Wicker Man. In the last twenty years he has gained new generations of fans with his roles in the Star Wars prequels, several Tim Burton pictures, and most famously The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.
His deep voice was used in films, and on various tracks of Heavy Metal music. Looking over the things he put into his ninety-three years one can be drowned in the swelling digital ocean. He spoke five languages fluently, and was proficient in many more. He was once engaged to the daughter of Swedish Count Fritz von Rosen, and had to get permission from the King to marry her. They ended their engagement after he had decided that the financial insecurity of the shabby world of acting would be an insufficient support for such a noble woman.
Before acting, Christopher Lee had a shadowy role in the Second World War in RAF Intelligence, and was in the precursor to the SAS. He took his secrets with him, and his participation in Special Operations remains highly classified to this day. Sir Peter Jackson said that Lee was oddly specific about the behaviour of someone being stabbed in the back, when he was rehersing for the death scene of Saruman on the top of Orthanc in Return of the King. The scene was deleted from the theatrical film to his immense sadness. It was restored for the extended DVD, thus making the four hour version of the film the only one worth re-watching.
It is difficult to try and summarise a life of such complexity, and if one can’t do it right it is better not to do it at all. So I shall simply say what Sir Christopher Lee meant to me, in the hope that is might bear some resemblance to what he meant to others. A sinister man, with a voice belonging to a gothic cathedral on a stormy night, and a truly imposing stature (at 6ft 5inches he is tied with Vince Vaughn as the tallest leading man). And yet he could fit his characteristic style into a plethora of characters, some real and many literary; not always villainous, and be the stern cinematic grandfather of many generations.
The Hobbit trilogy, for all its faults in scrambling for a place in the shadow of The Lord of the Rings, was at its best for including Saruman, and giving Christopher Lee an appropriately magical send off. Despite his age he did not have the gradual winding down we have seen from other elderly ‘stars’, like Richard Attenborough. Lee was active until shortly before his death, and only a month ago signed on to make another film. He did slowdown of course, but the marvel of our time is that just as you can email, skype, check online banking etc. without raising your head from the pillow, the infirmities of age a getting less restrictive. Lee was clear that he couldn’t manage a journey to New Zealand to be in The Hobbit, so Peter Jackson took a crew to London and shot his scenes there. All the parts with Saruman taking part in the White Council (see the film, I’m not going to spell it out) were done first in NZ with the other cast, then Lee’s bits were put in with him before a green-screen. The technology for putting the face of one actor on the body of another is so seamless you wouldn’t know unless you were told.
Perhaps that should be regarded as part of Lee’s legacy, that he lived right up until he died. Bravo I say; now if you will excuse me, I have to catch up on the two-hundred or so films of his I haven’t seen yet.