Christopher Lee sinks into a chintzy armchair, sparks up a faintly obscene Havana cigar and fires off an extraordinary rant about the state of the nation. Glaring through the curling smoke, he’s a one-man Tory party political broadcast, spitting out phrases like “zero tolerance” and laying down a solemn promise to poke muggers in the eye with his umbrella. You fear that if Tony Blair were to walk in, Lee would slip into character and go for his neck.
Total Film is chatting to Lee amid the fuss and fluster of London’s Dorchester Hotel. It’s not a style thing. Lee doesn’t normally stay at places like this (the Lucasfilm pay cheques aren’t that fat). He just lives nearby and famously refuses to let media types anywhere near his home or private life. This is not a man who subscribes to Heat magazine. The fleeting voyeurism of today’s celebrity culture must feel absurd to a seasoned 83-year-old with a muscular body of work, who’s survived nearly 60 years in the fickle old movie biz. Lee has long since gone beyond being a ‘film star’ to stake a genuine claim on legendary status.
Speaking of stakes… From Dracula to Saruman, it’s ironic that this charming, old-school English gent has so often been cast as the epitome of evil – in everything from daft penny dreadfuls, like the Fu Manchu series and the Hammer horrors, to none-bigger blockbuster like Star Wars and The Lord Of The Rings. But dig a little deeper and Lee’s career is revealed as one of the most varied and colourful of any actor alive, encompassing horror, Westerns, costume epics, comedies, disaster movies and even musicals.
It all began with a barely visible role in 1948’s weirdy reincarnation thriller Corridor Of Mirrors. A 10-year slog through a mire of rent-paying bit-parts followed and was eventually rewarded with a monster breakthrough in The Curse Of Frankenstein, the film that would forge his longstanding relationship with the very British pulp horror of Hammer. In the ’70s, he shook off the Dracula cape and branched out with Bond, swashbuckled through The Three Musketeers and delivered a stand-out turn in The Wicker Man. After a move to Hollywood, he even discovered a taste for comedy, hosting an episode of Saturday Night Live that remains an all-time fan favourite.
So, once his political outrage has subsided, Lee turns on the urbane charm and kicks back for a chat about a career that’s seen him work with John Huston, Orson Welles, Billy Wilder, Michael Powell, Steven Spielberg, Mario Bava, Tim Burton and, more recently, Mr Lucas and Mr Jackson…
Are you amazed that you’re still making films at 83?
It’s great good fortune and a privilege. How many actors of my age get offered jobs? People say, “Aren’t you lucky?” I quote the golfer Gary Player when he won a tournament and someone said, “Gary, you were lucky.” His retort was, “The better I play, the luckier I get.”
Other than in Star Wars – Episode III, the next time we’ll see you is in Charlie And The Chocolate Factory...
With Johnny Depp, yes. Who, as far as I’m concerned, is Number One. Of his generation, there’s no one who can touch him. Some performers today, it’s like looking at holes in the air. You get these young, over-hyped stars with very little experience, pitched into big-budget movies in major roles and they can’t begin to handle them. It’s extremely dangerous because it means they’re not going to last long. You know who they are.
It was the complete opposite for you, wasn’t it? You had a long apprenticeship in minor movies before your break with Hammer.
I was around a long time – nearly ten years. Initially, I was told I was too tall to be an actor [Lee is 6ft 5in]. That’s a quite fatuous remark to make. It’s like saying you’re too short to play the piano. I thought, “Right, I’ll show you…” At the beginning I didn’t know anything about the technique of working in front of a camera, but during those 10 years, I did the one thing that’s so vitally important today – I watched, I listened and I learned. So when the time came I was ready... Oddly enough, to play a character who said nothing.
The monster in The Curse Of Frankenstein...
When I was in full make-up as the Creature – which was pretty unattractive – somebody said I looked like a road accident. For a character who’s put together from bits and pieces of other people, that’s a very good description.
You first met Peter Cushing on Curse and went on to make many films together.
He was a wonderful human being and a brilliant actor. He did things other people simply couldn’t do. And I loved him, I really did. I remember something Boris Karloff said to me, which does apply to Peter and myself. He said, “Find something that other actors can’t do, or won’t do, and if you make an impact doing that you’ll never be forgotten.”
Is it true that you’re reluctant to talk about your work in the Hammer films?
Well, people have this impression that I don’t want anything to do with the Hammer period, that I don’t even want to admit that I ever played Dracula. Totally wrong. In 1956, the success of the Hammer films kick-started my career. That immediately gave me a name and a face to go with it. I will always be grateful to Hammer for that. But it’s all so long ago it barely seems relevant any more. That’s what I said.
How was your relationship with Hammer over the years?
Very good. I liked working for them. Bray [Hammer’s Windsor-based studio] was lovely. It was fun! And the only time recently I’ve had fun working in films was with directors like George Lucas and Tim Burton.
You played Dracula seven times for Hammer. Didn’t you ever think, “Oh, no. Not this again...”?
I did have a big problem after the first two. I said to my agent, “I don’t want to do this part again.” Because all they do is write a story and try and fit the character in somewhere, which is very clear when you see the films. They gave me nothing to do! I pleaded with Hammer to let me use some of the lines that Bram Stoker had written. Occasionally, I sneaked one in. Eventually I told them that I wasn’t going to play Dracula any more. All hell broke loose. I got frantic telephone calls from [Hammer honcho] Jimmy Carreras saying, “I’m begging you! I’m on my knees. You’ve got to do this film!” I asked why and he said, “I’ve already sold it to the American distributor with you playing the part.” Then he said something I’ve never forgotten because it was sheer blackmail: “Think of the people you’re putting out of work.” That’s the only reason I did the last few Draculas. I didn’t want to be the reason for a hundred people not working.
Did you worry about typecasting during the Hammer years in the ’60s?
Yes. But that period of typecasting stopped when I did The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes for Billy Wilder. I’ve never been typecast since. Sure, I’ve played plenty of heavies, but as Anthony Hopkins says, “I don’t play villains, I play people.”
Is The Wicker Man the film you’re still asked about more than any other?
It was. It’s The Lord Of The Rings now. But I’m still asked a great deal about The Wicker Man because it’s become one of the great cult movies of all time. That’s the story of my career really, making cult movies. And I’ve always said it’s the best film I’ve ever made, even in its butchered form, which it is. Even the DVD is butchered. What happened to that film I still don’t know. The negative disappeared from that day to this.
If The Wicker Man is your best film, what do you regard as your greatest performance?
I played Muhammed Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan [1998’s DVD-only release, Jinnah]. That’s the best thing I’ve ever done. And the greatest responsibility I’ve ever had as an actor because quite a few of his relatives came to watch and they were wonderfully supportive.
As Scaramanga in The Man With The Golden Gun, you were one of the most famous Bond baddies. Is it true you were nearly cast as Dr No?
Ian Fleming was my cousin and he wanted me to play Dr No, but by the time he got around to remembering to tell the producers, they’d already cast someone else. Spilt milk! And unfortunately Ian wasn’t with us when I did Scaramanga, who is not remotely like the character in the book. In Fleming’s novel he’s just a West Indian thug, but in the film he’s charming, elegant, amusing, lethal… I played him like the dark side of Bond.
Did you ever talk to Fleming about Bond?
I know who Ian thought was the best person to play Bond: James Mason, who would have been marvellous. He had all the right qualities. I don’t think anyone has ever succeeded in putting Ian Fleming’s James Bond up on the screen. The closest in my opinion is Pierce Brosnan.
You’ve starred in plenty of action movies. Did you like doing your own stunts?
There are certain things producers ask you to do and when I was starting out I said yes to everything. I was asked, for Quo Vadis, to drive a chariot. I said, “Oh yes. I’m licenced for all vehicles.” Two days later, I was sitting in this dustbin with two very aggressive horses. I didn’t stay in it for long. Still, I’ve seldom been doubled. In The Three Musketeers, I was wounded in the left knee – I can still feel it today. At the time, I was strapped up and on painkillers for 23 weeks. In some long shots, my character had to run, so I was doubled for that. But we did all the swordfights ourselves and they were bloody dangerous because we were using real rapiers. In Star Wars, for the lightsaber fights, everything from the waist up is me, but I was doubled for long shots – I couldn’t do the running. I was 80! I said to George Lucas, “I can do the swordfighting, but I can’t run!”
What prompted your decision to move to America in the late ’70s?
I became totally disillusioned with the British film industry. Richard Widmark told me, “You’re wasting your time here. They’ll always be asking you to play the same sort of characters, you’ll get bored and so will the audience. You must come to the States.” So I did, and my life changed. I hosted Saturday Night Live, which was without doubt the most hilarious experience I’ve ever had, because I was working with Belushi, Murray and Aykroyd at the height of their powers. I’ve got a photograph, of which I’m very proud, of me and John Belushi, who signed it, “To Chris, you are the best in the biz, from John Belushi – second best.” SNL was also the most important thing I’ve ever done in my career, because people like Steven Spielberg were in the audience, thinking, “Hang on. This man can be funny!” As a result, Spielberg asked me to do 1941. I was asked to appear in Airplane! at the same time, as the doctor that Leslie Nielsen eventually played. But people said, “Don’t touch it, you’re already making the greatest comedy of all time.” So I said no. That was a big mistake.
Any other career regrets?
Joe Dante and myself tried for years to remake Hammer’s The Devil Rides Out, but we couldn’t get the rights. Now with CGI the effects would be terrifying, like the scene where the Angel of Death appears.
Do you think people like Lucas and Peter Jackson rely on CGI a bit too much?
Well, they couldn’t have made The Lord Of The Rings without today’s technical expertise. I always dreamed that it would one day be made and I always dreamed I’d be in it. Sometimes dreams do come true.
Did you always want to play Saruman?
At the time I read it, I wanted to play Gandalf. Who wouldn’t? But they thought I was too old. So I played Saruman, which is in many ways immensely important because Sauron is just an eye, so Saruman is the one and only total adversary of the Fellowship. Everything that happens he’s responsible for. And that’s why it was so extraordinary that they didn’t have me in the third film – although I am in the extended DVD, of course.
Do you know why your scenes were cut?
No. And when it came out, millions of others were confused, too. The reaction of the public was quite extraordinary. My point was not that, as an actor, I’d had my scenes taken out. It was the story. You can’t have a man looking frantic on a balcony while everything is being destroyed and then never see him again! The audience would demand, as they did, to know what happened to him.
Did you feel betrayed by Peter Jackson?
No. Not betrayed. I just didn’t understand it. I was given plenty of reasons why I was cut out, none of which made sense.
Were you surprised at how popular the films became?
I remember when I was making the first one, most of the executives from New Line visited the set and one of the biggest cheeses sat next to me and asked me what I thought of the film. I’d seen a very rough assembly and I said to him, “You’re going to make motion picture history.” He never forgot it. And I’ve never let him forget it. Nothing will ever surpass these films.
With the Hammer films and now Star Wars and The Lord Of The Rings, you must get recognised all over the world.
Yes, but the reaction I get from people is always the same. They say, “You’re Christopher Lee, aren’t you?” I say, “Yes.” Then they say, “I do so enjoy your films. Thanks for the pleasure you’ve given me.” Nobody says, “You’ve scared the living daylights out of me!” Nobody comes up to me and makes the sign of the cross before backing away.
Is it true Muhammad Ali once dedicated a fight to you?
It is. I was promoting a film in Cleveland in 1975 and this PR man said, “Muhammad Ali is in town promoting a title fight [the Thrilla In Manila clash with Joe Frazier]. He’s a big fan and would love to meet you.” We went to this hotel, we had a long chat and I promised to watch the fight back in LA. I actually went to [Playboy founder] Hugh Hefner’s mansion to watch it, along with a bunch of celebrities and a few boxers. At the end of the fight – which Ali won – this reporter shoved a mike under Ali’s face… “Do you have anything to say to your fans?” Ali says, “Yes. I just want to say that I won this fight for Christopher Lee, who’s out there watching me now.” I couldn’t believe it, because that’s a million dollars’ worth of publicity. And when the lights came up, people were looking at me, stunned. And this black boxer said, “How did you do that?” I said, “Magic. Black magic.” Thank God he laughed!