Screen legend and all around renaissance man Christopher Lee passed away on June 7 at 93 years old. Lee had already been a legend in Hollywood long before I was born. Playing an assortment of stock characters for a decade during the post war period he had his big breakthrough in 1957’s “The Curse of Frankenstein” playing Frankenstein’s monster. From there he played the title role in 1958’s Dracula and reprised the role multiple times throughout the years. Other notable roles include Rasputin, Sherlock Holmes, and James Bond villain Francisco Scaramanga.
Despite numerous accolades and leading roles I didn’t have any awareness of Christopher Lee until I was in high school. My introduction to Lee was his amazing portrayal as Count Dooku in 2002’s Star Wars Attack of the Clones. The movie has gained a reputation for having poor acting and wooden dialogue, but the always professional Lee played the antagonist to perfection. His presence and imposing stature dwarfed the other characters in the film both literally and figuratively. I was a Lee fan when I left the theater with Count Dooku becoming my favorite character in the movie.
Of course with every Star Wars movie there’s a marketing blitz. Hasbro never had a reputation for releasing quality 12″ Star Wars figures. Usually the figures had a passing resemblance to the actor’s at best or were totally butchered in some cases. For instance, take a look at the 12″ figure of Qui-Gon Jinn:
Sure they got the “basics” right. The clothes, the color of the lightsaber, long hair. However I’m not sure many people would look at that and say “yeah that looks just like Liam Neeson”. Heck I’d contend that the figure looks more like Diamond Dallas Page than anyone.
When Hasbro released their 12″ Count Dooku figure it made waves as a result. For once the likeness was spot on. It looked like a miniature Christopher Lee dressed as Count Dooku was standing on a shelf in your room! I owned a bunch of Star Wars stuff through the years but the 12″ Count Dooku became one of my favorites.
Coincidentally it was around the time Attack of the Clones was released in theaters that I began getting into the backlog of James Bond films. With Lee’s performance as Count Dooku still fresh in my mind it was a real treat to see that he was the nemesis of James Bond in 1974’s The Man with the Golden Gun. Playing the role of Francisco Scaramanga he was the perfect mirror to the Bond character. After watching all the Bond movies I felt that Lee’s role as Scaramanga was easily the best villain of all the Roger Moore films.
Lee was a big fan of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy stating that he tried to read the novels at least once a year. Therefore it must have been a thrill for him to play the role of Saruman in the movie trilogy released in the early 2000’s. I remember being very impressed that a man in his late 70’s could make an impact in so many blockbuster films this late in his career. Not only did he play a part in the movies but he often stole the scenes he was in. It was at this point that I became intrigued with the man.
Lee was a renaissance man in every sense. He volunteered to fight in WWII eventually becoming a part of special forces. He spoke fluent French, Italian, Spanish, and German as well as “adequate” Swedish, Russian, Greek, and Latin. Lee was a champion fencer and utilized those skills in his movies. A lot of the lightsaber dueling from his Star Wars films was actually him rather than a stunt man (despite being in his 70’s at the time). When he was 88 years old he released a heavy metal album about Charlemagne. When he was 90 he released a single titled “Let Legend Mark me as the King”. He was appointed a Commander of the Venerable Order of Saint John, Commander of the Order of the British Empire, and Knight Bachelor. He was indeed a remarkable person.
I’ll end this little tribute with a quote from Christopher Lee himself. Nobody can convey how much of a badass this man really was as well as he could. “I’ve seen many men die right in front of me – so many in fact that I’ve become almost hardened to it. Having seen the worst that human beings can do to each other, the results of turture, mutilation, and seeing someone blown to pieces by a bomb, you develop a kind of shell. But you had to. You had to. Otherwise we would never have won.“