One of the most iconic horror actors of all time – and one of the most memorable actors of his generation by any standards – has passed away at the age of 93. Christopher Lee seemed nearly as immortal as a character out of one of his movies: he never really slowed down or stopped acting, even well into his 90s. In addition to reprising his role as Saruman in the Hobbit trilogy, he recently completed work on the fantastical indie comedy/drama Angels in Notting Hill, and had recently signed on to the upcoming 9/11 ensemble drama The 11th. While we should all be so lucky to have had such an extraordinary life, his death is a great loss to the world of cinema.
Lee is, of course, best remembered as one of the kings of Gothic horror, reigning alongside his frequent co-stars Peter Cushing and Vincent Price. While he had been a successful character actor in British film and television for about a decade, he truly arrived as a ghoulish star of cinema with 1958's Horror of Dracula. In the long-running franchise that followed, he arguably dethroned Bela Lugosi as the definitive portrayal of The Count, and made a lasting impression as one of the greatest movie villains of all time. In the subsequent years he was called upon to bring this same gravitas to numerous villain roles, from The Lord of the Rings' Saruman to the Star Wars prequel's Count Dooku (and it speaks to his caliber as an actor that he was one of the few in those prequels who maintained their dignity and gave a good performance). In addition to Horror of Dracula and its sequels, he spent the better part of two decades as one of the key members of the Hammer and Amicus studios stable of actors, starring in many of the finest British horror films of the late-1950s, '60s, and '70s. He was the creature in Hammer's Curse of Frankenstein, Kharis the mummy in their The Mummy, the title character in the Fu Manchu films, and one of the regulars in the series of Amicus horror anthologies that followed the success of 1972's Tales from the Crypt.
But he was far from just a horror actor, and was sometimes frustrated with being typecast in that genre. During his Hammer/Amicus years he also broke away from the genre to co-star in dramas like the Charlton Heston Julius Caesar and Billy Wilder's hard-fought dream project The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, as well as getting to play a Bond villain in The Man with the Golden Gun. He got the chance to play Sherlock Holmes himself in Horror of Dracula director Terence Fisher's Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace, taking over the role from frequent screen partner Peter Cushing, who he co-starred with (playing supporting character Sir Henry) in Fisher's previous Hound of the Baskervilles. But his great bid to be taken seriously as a dramatic actor, as well as one of his favorite projects of his whole career, was Robin Hardy's The Wicker Man. Severely misunderstood at the time, and mis-marketed as a horror film despite actually being a brooding drama about the nature of belief and the fine line between religions and cults, The Wicker Man was not successful at launching Lee into more serious roles – although it eventually became a well-loved cult classic and one of his most iconic non-Dracula films.
His talent as a dramatic actor was appreciated as his career went on, though, and while horror remained his specialty he became a frequent co-star in pretty much everything Tim Burton has done, as well as dramas like Martin Scorsese's love letter to cinema, Hugo. He also lent his deep, ominous voice to some heavy metal albums, and wrote an original metal concept album about Roman Emperor Charlemagne, which was released in 2010. Several more albums of his original music followed. That he never stopped creating art – and kept expanding into new mediums – right up until the time of his death is pretty inspiring. His unique presence and gravitas will be missed.
- Christopher S. Jordan