Turner Classic Movies: Star of the Month
Renaissance Man Sir Christopher Lee
Singing. Dancing. Acting. When a person has mastered all three skills it’s known as a Triple Threat. Some people even go beyond that and master the art of directing, producing, writing, etc. But what do you call a person who, not only acts, but is also an accomplished opera singer, World War II hero, intelligence office for the British, heavy metal musician and master of six different languages? Well, you would call that person Turner Classic Movie’s Star of the Month: Sir Christopher Lee.
Yes, Christopher Lee. Although at this point he is best remembered for his role as Saruman in the The Lord of the Rings trilogy, his resume extends far beyond the white wizard. Lee began his first career not as an actor but as a military man, enlisting with the Finnish Army during the Winter Wars and then, when that mission was over, going to work for the United States lines. He eventually decided to join the Royal Air Force and was well on his way towards becoming a dog fighter, but before his training was completed, Lee experienced dizziness and blurred sight. He was diagnosed with optic nerve failure and was deemed unfit to fly.
A man of perpetual motion, Lee then decided to join the Intelligence division of the Royal Air Force in 1941. He took part in the North African Campaign, helping Allied powers to defeat the Nazis throughout Northern Africa. After the Axis powers surrendered North Africa in 1943, Lee’s squadron was then tasked with the Allied Invasion of Sicily. After the campaign was completed and Sicily was in Allied hands, Lee was hospitalized with his 6th case of malaria. He survived, of course, because surviving and being a badass seems to be the Christopher Lee way of life.
During his final stint in the Second Great War, Lee joined the wartime intelligence agency known as the Special Operations Executive. The informal name of the division was called The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare. To this very day, all of their missions are still classified but we do know they were “conducting espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance in occupied Europe against the Axis powers.” And all of this happened, might I add, before Lee even reached the age of 25.
After the war ended and Lee was a bonafide war hero, he decided to give his former childhood hobby a go and enter the world of acting.
And it is here we have the Christopher Lee most people are familiar with: the actor. Upon entering the world of acting in 1947, he was met with a rocky start. Some of the first casting agents he met stated that the former secret service spy was simply “too tall” to be a successful actor. Although he was eventually signed to the British entertainment conglomerate, The Rank Organization, Lee spent most of his time there learning camera acting techniques via osmosis: simply watching and listening. When he did have a chance to actually act, he was given mostly uncredited and small background roles. In 1957 Lee signed on with Hammer Film Productions where he would build his reputation of a horror film legend by playing the character of Count Dracula 10 times over a roughly 20 year period. Lee eventually left England, out of fear of becoming typecast in horror films like his good friends Peter Cushing and Vincent Price.
From the late 1970s all the way to the turn of the century and beyond, Lee continued to have an incredibly prolific career. In 2007 he entered the Guinness Book of World Records for having the most screen credits for a living actor, having appeared in over 240 film and TV movies. Two years later he received the Knighthood not only for his acting, but for his charity work as well. And while most actors would have slipped into the background in the twilight of their careers, content with taking it easy with minor roles or cameo appearances, the height of Lee’s fame came towards the end his life.
In the early 2000’s Lee played the second major antagonist in two blockbuster franchises: The Lord of The Rings and Star Wars. His roles as the corrupt Wizard Saruman and the jaded Jedi-Knight turned Sith Leader, Count Dooku, introduced the octogenarian to an entirely new generation of film fanatics. And if that wasn’t cool enough, at the age of 88 he added yet another title to his long list of occupations: Heavy Metal singer.
Yes, that’s right. Heavy Metal singer. In 2010 Lee released the symphonic metal concept album Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross. The record tells the story of Charlemagne, the First Holy Roman Emperor, who, by the way, Lee is descended from…because of course he is. He released another Charlemagne concept album in 2013 titled Charlemagne: The Omens of Death at the of 91.
So, let us celebrate this most modern of Renaissance men, a man who lived everyday to its fullest up until his death at age 93, by tuning into Turner Classic Movies every Monday night in October. Whether you want to see horror, fantasy, mystery, drama, comedy, or even some heavy metal, there no doubt that Sir Christopher Lee will have something to offer because, well, it seems that he just does everything, and does it like a boss.
Minoo Allen for Classic Movie Hub