Thursday, June 18, 2015

Good night, Sweet Prince (of Darkness)

Christopher Lee as Lord Summerisle in 1973's "The Wicker Man."
When you live to the ripe old age of 93, you collect a lot of stories — both the ones you tell and the ones others tell about you.

In the week since news of his death became public, people who knew him, and many who didn’t, have told a lot of stories about Sir Christopher Lee. Lee appeared in roughly 250 films yet never quite escaped his earliest starring role as Dracula in Hammer Films’ 1958 movie “Horror of Dracula.”

My favorite Christopher Lee story goes like this: Asked by an interviewer about his still-classified exploits during World War II, Lee sat forward conspiratorially and asked, “Can you keep a secret?”

Excitedly, the interviewer said, “Yes,” to which Lee, sitting back in his chair and smiling as only he could, with a combination of menace and charm, replied, “So can I.”

Lee’s wartime exploits, some reportedly involving Winston Churchill’s clandestine special ops force, nicknamed “the Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare,” and his postwar Nazi-hunting activities would be enough for most men. You could call that a job well done, a life well lived, and write your memoirs. But Lee was only in his early 20s when the war ended. He was just getting started.

It’s for his second act — as an actor — that we will remember him. It’s not the stories he told — no matter how well — nor the war stories he lived that will endure, but the stories he helped bring to life on the screen. In a movie career that spanned nearly 70 years, he went from “uncredited spear carrier” in Sir Laurence Olivier’s “Hamlet” to Saruman the White in Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” trilogies. In between he was Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the Mummy and Fu Manchu (all roles also played by Boris Karloff), as well as Bond villain Scaramanga in “The Man with the Golden Gun,” “Three Musketeers” antagonist Rochefort, lecherous Russian holy man Rasputin, and countless other silver screen adversaries.

While somewhat resenting his villainous typecasting, Lee also realized early on that the bad guys got all the good lines — except when they didn’t get any lines at all.

Lee claimed he played the part of Dracula mute in the 1966 sequel “Dracula: Prince of Darkness” because the lines he was given were terrible. (For his part, screenwriter Jimmy Sangster claimed not to recall having written Dracula any lines in the first place.)

The true mark of a great actor isn’t how good he is with great material, or even good material, but how good he is with lousy material. By that standard, Lee was one of the greatest who ever lived.

Even without lines in “Dracula: Princess of Darkness,” Lee hisses and snarls and dominates the screen. Just as his dear friend and frequent co-star Peter Cushing did for the original “Star Wars,” Lee brings menace and gravitas to its prequels, which need all the menace and gravitas they can get. He took his roles, however outlandish, seriously, and when he is on-screen, so do audiences.

Occasionally, Lee’s perseverance paid off and he’d get a great role, such as his own favorite, Lord Summerisle in the 1973 version of “The Wicker Man,” or Mycroft Holmes in Billy Wilder’s “The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.” But great role or not, he was a professional, bringing to his craft the same discipline that must have kept him alive during World War II.

Lee may not have won any Oscars, but he racked up the Guinness world records: most screen credits for a living actor (in 2007), tallest actor in a leading role (tied with Vince Vaughn), actor in most films featuring a sword fight, oldest video game voice actor, and most connected living actor (meaning Six Degrees of Christopher Lee is a lot easier to play than Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon).

The man of many roles was also a man of many contrasts. He was a British aristocrat often cast as the shadowy foreigner. He was prickly and reserved, yet warm and generous with those who got to know him. He sang opera, then later, in his 80s, recorded a heavy metal concept album. And he was a serious man who could become a babbling fanboy upon meeting his hero, J.R.R. Tolkien.

For most of the world, though, Christopher Lee was an unforgettable actor who often made even the most forgettable movies worth watching. And for an actor, there’s probably no better life story.

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