An Actor So Prolific, It’s Downright Scary
From: The New York Times
LONDON IN “Star Wars: Episode II Attack of the Clones,” Christopher Lee portrays Count Dooku, a former Jedi knight with possibly lethal separatist tendencies. Dooku might or might not be the movie’s No. 1 bad guy. But the film’s director, George Lucas, admitted that the character’s name is a teasing nod to Mr. Lee’s association with the role of Count Dracula (We have heard from Chris Lee himself that this is NOT the case – Xo). He wanted, he said, an actor whose steely menace would be artfully concealed by elegance a bogyman less bald than Darths Vader or Maul.
“Christopher has a certain persona,” Mr. Lucas said by telephone from Northern California. “Most people who see him say, `Ooooh’ ” here he gives a gasp suggesting fear and awe. “You wouldn’t cast him in a remake of `Father Knows Best.’ He’s formidable.”
Asked about Count Dooku, Mr. Lee, who turns 80 at the end of this month, is formidably coy. Happy to abide by a contractual demand for secrecy, he will scarcely admit to sharing the screen with Yoda. Not that he’s certain he does: actors in special-effects-laden movies often work in front of blue screens and don’t see their computer-generated co-stars until the movie is finished.
“It was blue screen, almost all of it, and nothing was coming to me from behind the camera,” he says. “Mind you, that’s an experience I’ve had with a lot of my colleagues through the years.”
He did relish working with one of the movies’ most autonomous moguls. “When I accepted the role George Lucas rang me up and said: `I’m very glad you’re going to play it. We’ll have fun.’ That one word did it for me. Most films are made with four-letter words, and here was a three-letter one.”
With his prominent roles in the new “Star Wars” (opening Thursday) and the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, in which he plays the power-mad wizard Saruman, Mr. Lee has heard the word “comeback” a lot of late. “I have never been away!” he protests over lunch at a favorite restaurant, one of London’s most august. “This is a new phase of my career a foot on the accelerator. Public awareness is growing.”
A different kind of public, it should be said. Since the 1950’s, Mr. Lee has been an idol of genre aficionados who regard him as the last living English-language horror star in a line that began with Lon Chaney and continued through Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Vincent Price and Mr. Lee’s frequent co-star, Peter Cushing the one who gave orders to Darth Vader in the first “Star Wars.” In all, Mr. Lee has appeared in more than 200 features and scores of television movies and series episodes each of them evoked in Jonathan Rigby’s dauntingly thorough book “Christopher Lee: The Authorized Screen History.” “I felt badly for the poor fellow,” Mr. Lee says. “Can you imagine having to watch all my movies? I haven’t seen most of them; I can think of few prospects more horrifying.”
This is one of the few occasions Mr. Lee voluntarily invokes the concept of “horror,” which he regards as a pejorative: “It implies something nauseating, revolting, disgusting which one sees too often these days. I prefer the word `fantasy’ ” Mention Dracula or Hammer Films and you’ll precipitate an oft-repeated ritual of denial and acceptance. First Mr. Lee will tell you that he hasn’t made a “pure horror” film since 1975. Then he will add that the genre was a “tremendous platform” and that he will always be “immensely grateful” for its legion of fans among them such directors as Joe Dante, Tim Burton, Steven Spielberg and Mr. Lucas, all of whom were weaned on Hammer horror and have cast Mr. Lee, in part, out of happy memories of that work. Finally, he will build to the declaration that just as Sean Connery should not forever be associated with 007, he longs to be regarded as an actor.
All this is rather discouraging if you believe that some of his monsters especially his Dracula are astonishing creations, and that there’s no reason the terms “horror icon” and “powerful actor” should be mutually exclusive.
Mr. Lee weighs this for an instant, then admits: “I don’t like the label because it’s used to my disadvantage. People say, `He can’t be funny, he does horror movies.’ Well, I have been funny. I played a gay American motorcyclist in `Serial.’ I did one of the highest-rated `Saturday Night Live’ programs ever. Most casting directors are blinkered and overcautious: time and again they have flatly refused to accept my versatility. And time and again I have proven them wrong.
“My whole life,” he adds pointedly, as if dictating the opening of an article, “has been about proving people wrong.”
There is something more than professional pride at stake: Mr. Lee’s struggle to shed the role of “alien other.” Born Christopher Frank Carandini Lee in London’s upscale Belgravia, he led the life of a privileged Englishman until the age of 13, when his stepfather went bankrupt and as if to cement his sudden outsider status he shot up to a then-freakish 6-foot-5. After a long stint in the Royal Air Force during the war, he decided to become an actor but was discouraged by directors and casting agents on the grounds that he was “too tall and foreign-looking” to portray Englishmen. What followed were years playing Nazis, Slavs, Asians, Arabs, swarthy buccaneers and finally, in 1957, Frankenstein’s monster opposite Mr. Cushing’s fanatical scientist.
A spastic agglomeration of mismatched limbs, Mr. Lee’s monster was both frightening and hideously poignant. But it was his Dracula alternately totemlike and bestial, with a penchant for nuzzling his buxom female victims that made him an international sex symbol. Many monsters followed, both in England and in the rest of Europe, where Mr. Lee’s exotic handsomeness and facility with languages proved an asset.
On his scores of protracted death scenes, he writes, in his engaging 1977 autobiography, “Tall, Dark and Gruesome” (revised in 1997), “I could only hope that they would serve some purpose, and that perhaps a reputation might come in the same way as a coral formation, which is made up of a deposit of countless tiny corpses.”
That is, more or less, what happened. And for good reason: often coldly imperious on screen, Mr. Lee was never so animated or so poetically vulnerable as when attempting to extricate himself from a stake or sword or shaft of sunlight. As a character in “Macbeth” puts it, nothing in his life became him like the leaving of it.
It was not until 1970, when Billy Wilder cast him as Sherlock Holmes’s haughty brother, Mycroft, in “The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes,” that Mr. Lee had a taste of life outside the low-budget genre ghetto. It agreed with him and he still admires Mr. Wilder above all other directors. He had another shot as the cardinal’s swashbuckling assassin, Rochefort, in Richard Lester’s “Three Musketeers” (1974); and that same year he brought unnerving childlike glee to the assassin Scaramanga in “The Man With the Golden Gun” one of the most charismatic Bond villains in what was, unfortunately, one of the most maladroit Bond movies.
Hoping to capitalize on such high-profile projects, he left London for Los Angeles in the mid-70’s and found himself largely ignored. After six fish-out-of-water years he returned to his flat in Chelsea, not far from his birthplace, where he lives with Birgit, his wife of 41 years.
MR. LEE appears remarkably hale for a man on the threshold of his ninth decade, and in “Attack of the Clones” he brings a touch of wry insouciance to such B-movie dialogue as “You have interfered in our affairs for the last time.” He wields a light saber as if to the Force born. (One suppresses the urge to ask if his vitality is due to all the human blood that he has consumed.) He has the barest hint of catarrh in a voice that has dropped from baritone to a cavernous bass, of equal proportions oil and flint. (An enthusiastic vocalist, he has recorded a CD of arias and show tunes.) His hair is white and meticulously combed back, his manner formal he tends to hold forth on such subjects as the importance of discipline but with injections of drollery. He does myriad accents and knockout impressions of other actors.
“I’d been told he was pompous and had no sense of humor,” said Joe Dante, who cast Mr. Lee as a zealous scientist in “Gremlins 2” (1990) and plans to direct him again in a big-budget remake of the 1967 Hammer occult thriller “The Devil Rides Out.” “When I met him I couldn’t believe this was the guy they were talking about. He was so funny and self-deprecating and such a big Warner Brothers cartoon fan the polar opposite of the cold cad he usually plays.”
One can understand why Mr. Dante is eager to work with his childhood hero again. Mr. Lee is at the peak of his abilities, with age having removed some starch and added emotional gravity. He gave one of his most eloquent performances as the haggard, lumbering manservant Flay in the 1999 BBC mini-series “Gormenghast.” And he is extremely affecting as the dying founder of Pakistan in the handsome, earnest but fatally didactic “Jinnah” (1998) a performance he often cites, along with his hearty pagan lord in “The Wicker Man” (1972), as his favorite. He lobbies for “Jinnah,” largely undistributed, at every opportunity.
Then, of course, there is his towering Saruman the White in Peter Jackson’s “Fellowship of the Ring” a film that as a lifelong J. R. R. Tolkien buff he strove to be a part of. With a snow-white mane and a beak like a fishhook, he hurls mighty imprecations in a voice that sounds credible commanding his foul minions to rrrrrrip the trees out of the earth a voice that led his co-star, Ian McKellen, to comment that Mr. Lee’s avoidance of the theater (after some dire experiences in his youth) meant the world had lost a great Shakespearean actor.
“In front of the camera he has this wonderful ability to do something to his eyes,” said Mr. Jackson, now editing the second of the three “Rings” installments. “They suddenly glaze over and then gleam in a very chilling way; it’s as if he turns on an internal light. When you’ve got your shot he turns it off and he’s back to being his warm self.”
Mr. Lucas will direct Mr. Lee in the next “Star Wars” installment. In the meantime, Mr. Lee finds himself with more offers than in any of his 56 years as an actor. “I’m getting flooded,” he reports. “I say no to them all. They’re all variations, and usually very bad ones, on pictures that I’ve already done.” He does not add, “The horror, the horror.” This is clearly the stuff of fantasy.Posted in Old Special Reports on May 14, 2002 by xoanon