Absolute Immortality: Christopher Lee (1922-2015)

Actor Christopher Lee. 

Actor Christopher Lee. 

“I always ask myself "well, what else could I do?". Making films has never just been a job to me, it is my life. I have some interests outside of acting – I sing and I've written books, for instance – but acting is what keeps me going, it's what I do, it gives life purpose... I'm realistic about the amount of work I can get at my age, but I take what I can, even voice-overs and narration.” 

-Christopher Lee 

Way to go, science. You had one job. 

One.

Goddamn.

Job.

I realize you have a lot of things on your plate, such as saving the planet, or making smartphones that can launch small space shuttles, but I think we can all agree what your real purpose was. You were supposed to make sure Christopher Lee lived for several more centuries. You have failed, and we are very disappointed in you. 

The funny thing is that I’m far from the only person who feels that way. Even as he lived to the extremely old age of ninety-three, the passing of one of the greatest actors of the past seventy years still feels sudden and unreasonable. This might be due to the fact that Lee never stopped working. While iconic contemporaries like Vincent Price and Peter Cushing passed away, and while other actors of his generation eventually settled into a sporadic or permanent retirement, Lee maintained the pace of a young man well into his ninth decade of living. He continued to appear in movies, many of which were commercial blockbusters. He continued to show up on television. He even found the time to release heavy metal albums. He sang opera, wrote books, and traveled the world.

Lee also wrote a couple of excellent autobiographies. I would certainly recommend Lord of Misrule, and I would instruct you to read every single line with Lee’s unmistakable, legendary voice in your head. However, we read that book, and we enjoy it, but we understand that Lee is essentially giving us the Reader’s Digest version of his life and career. Part of that is because a truly comprehensive look at his life would eat up several hundred, if not a couple thousand, pages of a volume. Also, there are things from his adventures in the world that he simply cannot tell us. That’s what happens when you hunt and kill Nazis as a secret agent during World War II. You take shit to the grave. Lee did. None of us can begin to imagine the experiences Lee never told a single soul about. We can imagine. Our imaginations can add to the legend of the man, which can only become more elaborate, more extraordinary as time goes on.

After all, this is the man who very politely (I can hear him very patiently saying “Peter…” in my head) explained to Peter Jackson the proper way to react when someone stabs you in the back with a knife. I don’t think he was exaggerating his knowledge in this area.

His career and life are difficult things to grasp fully. This isn’t just because he lived so long. Lee also maintained a breathless pace of a career, acting in hundreds of films, all the while traveling the world, and apparently meeting every significant human being of the past several decades. Keep in mind that he was the only person who worked on the Lord of the Rings or Hobbit films to have actually met J.R.R. Tolkien.

His staggering body of work as an actor will never be equaled. This is why the death of a man who truly lived a life many of us should aspire to feels like a cheat, as though he was barely with us at all. No one will ever have a career that includes playing Dracula, a Bond villain (one of the best), a Star Wars villain (arguably, the only shining point in Attack of the Clones), a Lord of the Rings villain, Frankenstein’s Monster, The Mummy, Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock Holmes’ freaking brother, Sir Henry Baskerville, Mohammed Ali Jinnah (which Lee considered to be his best role), Death, Willy Wonka’s father, and do we really need to go on? He worked with filmmakers like Tim Burton, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, Joe Dante, Peter Jackson, and dozens more. His career includes blockbusters and Z-grade monstrosities in equal amounts. 

No one will ever build a resume like that. No one. It’s important to also realize that Lee was great in all of the films mentioned above. As one of the founding figures of the glory days of Hammer Films, he will always be Count Dracula to a great many people. He never really had a shot at being in a truly excellent Sherlock Holmes film, but he was flawless in his turns as the character nonetheless. He was a towering presence, combining his height with his natural handsomeness, and the kind of voice that defines words like “dread.” He leaned on these things slightly in projects that were very obviously beneath him, but he never came across as someone who felt that The Howling II or The Stupids were beneath him. He treated everything he did very seriously. At least, he gave that impression, which is a notable talent for an actor to have in the first place. 

In the 2010s alone, until his death, he appeared in fifteen films. Obviously, if you want to celebrate his life and career with a movie marathon, you’re not going to find yourself lacking in choices. 

Nonetheless, his best film performances emphasize that he was much more than just physical traits and a menacing voice. He was a phenomenal actor, and there are quite simply dozens and dozens of examples of his greatness and his range. Any of the roles I mentioned above would make for what I would consider essential viewing. You may also want to look into another of Lee’s favorites The Wicker Man. That one in particular is a frightening, pitch-perfect horror film across the board. At the center of its greatness is Lee, absolutely horrifying and truly chilling in the role of Lord Summerisle. You should probably also make some time for his stellar voice-acting work in The Last Unicorn. 

The list really can go on. We haven’t even covered television, although I will at least mention that his appearance on Saturday Night Live is a must-see. It would take several more paragraphs and pages to truly explain and appreciate his unparalleled career. I’m going to focus on the movies he did with the great Peter Cushing, who was also one of his very best friends. That will certainly include films like 1958’s Dracula (which also has Michael Gough), the underrated gem The Horror Express (dear god, you absolutely have to see Lee and Cushing play bickering-yet-almost-friendly contemporaries), The Hound of the Baskervilles, the excellent Hammer Films documentary Flesh and Blood. Their friendship made for one of the great film collaborations. Watching Christopher Lee get choked up while recounting their work together is not something that is terribly easy to watch. If you believe in the concept of people getting together in the next life, let’s hope they have already met up for a drink.