By DAVE KEHR NY Times
Don’t try to stump Christopher Lee. The towering,
aristocratic British actor, best known for his epicurean interpretation of Count Dracula in the Hammer horror films of the 1960’s, has appeared in well over 200 feature films. Mr. Lee is unsure of the exact figure, though he says he remembers something about each of them.
“In England, they brought out a book called `Christopher Lee: The Authorized Screen History’ by a man named Jonathan Rigby,” Mr. Lee said in his room at the Carlyle Hotel. “And I think the poor man – I really sympathize with him – had to look at nearly every film I’ve been in, which is a ghastly thought.”
O.K., how about “Babes in Bagdad,” a film he made in Spain in 1952? “Oh, God,” Mr. Lee sighed, “heavens above! Paulette Goddard, Richard Ney, Gypsy Rose Lee and John Boles, who in fact played the doctor’s younger brother in the 1931 `Frankenstein.’ I played some sort of awful slave trader in a black silk dress, or that’s what it looked like. The director was Edgar G. Ulmer, and we had a shared passion for opera. We went to see `Tristan’ in Barcelona, and he kept making comments about how little he thought of it all the way through. I said, `Shhh!’ ”
Resplendent in a light brown tweed jacket and a canary yellow vest, Mr. Lee was visiting New York to help with the Oscar push for “Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,” in which he plays the wizard Saruman the White. Mr. Lee appears in the next two episodes of the “Rings,” as well as in “Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones,” to be released on May 16, a week before Mr. Lee’s 80th birthday.
He seems destined to be linked to horror and fantasy films, despite appearances in films like Billy Wilder’s “Private Life of Sherlock Holmes” and Steven Spielberg’s “1941.” It’s an identification he protests. “It’s the media that keep on saying `horror veteran,’ ” he said, “but by my own estimation I don’t think I appeared in more than 15 films that could be called horror movies. But everyone gets labeled.”
Mr. Lee made his screen debut as an uncredited spear carrier in Laurence Olivier’s 1948 “Hamlet.” After 54 years in the movies, is the work still fun? “Not always,” he said. “Sometimes I ask myself, why am I doing this? Why do I bother? There’s so much fear in this business now. They won’t go for anything new. If it’s different, they’re frightened of it.”