Christopher Lee: An Unexpected Giant of Cinema (Christopher Lee Biography)

Christopher Lee: An Unexpected Giant of Cinema (Christopher Lee Biography)


Christopher Lee is most familiar to the world
as a consummate actor with a deep, rich voice and a towering presence. In ten hammer Studios films he became the
embodiment of evil, inhabiting the character of Count von Dracula with a sinister charm. Then, breaking the mould, he went on to play
some of the most iconic characters in cinematic history. Yet, who would have known that the great character
actor was a former WW2 RAF Intelligence Officer and Nazi hunter who had been witness to unspeakable
atrocities. In this week’s Biographics we pierce the
celluloid to discover the real Christopher Lee. Early Life
Christopher Frank Carandini Lee was born on May 27th, 1922 in Belgravia, London. His father, Geoffrey, was a hero of the First
World War, having been decorated for gallantry at the Battle of the Somme. At the time of his son’s birth he was a
Lieutenant Colonel on the King’s Royal Rifle Corps. Geoffrey was married to an Italian countess
by the name of Estelle Marie. Blessed with great beauty, Estelle’s heritage
traced all the way back to Emperor Charlemagne. As a result, the Lee household was frequently
visited by high ranking figures of European nobility, and the young Christopher came into
contact with some very interesting and important people. Christopher was the Lee’s second child,
with a sister, Xandra, having been born in 1917. However, the marriage was not a happy one
and, when the boy was just four-years-old his parents separated. For the next two years, the children lived
with Estelle in Wengen, Switzerland, while their father remained in the Belgravia house. After two years the marriage was officially
ended. While in Switzerland, Estelle enrolled her
son in a preschool called Miss Fischer’s Academy, which was located in Territet. It was here that Christopher was given his
first acting role, appearing as the lead character in the play Rumpelstiltskin. In 1928, Estelle and the children returned
to England. Christopher was put into Wagner’s private
school in Queen’s Gate, London. In 1929, Estelle married a banker by the name
of Harcourt George-St-Croix Rose. Lee’s step-father happened to be the uncle
of a young writer by the name of Ian Fleming, who would go on to create, not only James
Bond, but also Bond’s arch enemy, Scaramanga or The Man With the Golden Gun, who Lee would
famously play on film a half century later. Following the marriage, the family moved to
Fulham. At the age of nine Christopher was enrolled
at Summer Fields, a boarding school in Oxford. Lee enjoyed his time at Summer Fields. He made friends quickly and proved himself
to be a gifted and studious pupil. Among his closest friends at Summer fields
was Patrick MacNee, who would also carve a career as an actor and find fame as secret
agent John Steed in The Avengers. Lee and MacNee both enjoyed acting and appeared
together in a number of school plays. Summer Fields was a feeding school to Eton
College, and in 1935, Christopher sat the scholarship exam and was interviewed by the
school provost. However, his maths ability let him down and
he missed out on a scholarship by one place. If he was to attend Eton, his family would
have to pay his way. Despite his mother’s urgings, his step-father
was unwilling to foot the bill, so he ended up at Wellington College in Berkshire. It was at Wellington that Lee proved himself
to be a brilliant linguist. He mastered French, Spanish, Italian and German
and gained a passing knowledge of Swedish, Greek and Russian. Yet, despite his academic prowess, he chafed
under the harsh discipline that was meted out at the school. He hated the regular parades and weapons training
that became more and more regular as talk of war became more frequent in political circles. So, it was with some relief that he had to
leave Wellington when his step-father went bankrupt in 1939. Making a Living
The seventeen-year-old’s education was over. He was now expected to make his own way in
the world. But he entered the job market just as the
summer holidays were beginning and there were no prospects. After a month of fruitless job hunting he
was allowed to join his sister who was on holiday on the French Riviera. While there, Lee heard news that the last
public execution in France was to take place in Paris. Along with thousands of others he took the
trip to witness the gruesome event. From Paris, he travelled to Menton in southern
France. There he stayed with an exiled Russian princely
family with ties to his mother. He enjoyed his time there and wanted to stay,
but, with Europe about to erupt into warfare, it was decided that he would be better off
back in the relative safety of London. For a short time, he worked as a clerk in
a shipping line office. When war broke out in September, 1939, Lee
was eager to do his part. Too young to join up in the regular army,
he teamed up with some friends and travelled to Finland with plans to fight aside the Finns
in their struggle against Russia. The British teens may have had a lot of fighting
spirit, but none of them knew how to ski, which rendered them virtually useless in the
snow-covered battle terrain. They were politely thanked for their assistance
and then strongly encouraged to return to England. Back in London, Lee resumed his work as an
office clerk. In 1940, aged 18, he joined the Home Guard. It was around this time that his father, Geoffrey,
died. Though he had great respect for his father’s
wartime endeavours, Christopher had no desire to follow his footsteps into the regular army. Knowing that conscription was not far away,
he decided to enter the armed services on his terms. Consequently, he volunteered to the Royal
Air Force. The War Years
Following his training at the Initial Training Wing at Paignton, Lee was stationed to Southern
Rhodesia. On the brink of his first solo flying mission
he complained of blackouts and blurred vision. He was diagnosed with a failed optic nerve
and told that he would never fly again. For a number of months, he was transferred
around the RAF service in Africa, but given nothing meaningful to do. Then, out of frustration, he applied to the
RAF Intelligence Service. Gaining entry to the service, he was posted
as a warder to the Salisbury Prison in Rhodesia. From there he was moved to the Suez Canal
Zone, where he was put to work in intelligence gathering activities. During the North African Campaign, he was
deeply involved as part of No. 260 Squadron RAF, nearly losing his life when an airfield
was destroyed by a German bombing raid. Throughout 1943 and ’44 he was constantly
struck down by malaria, finally being sent to Carthage for treatment. In the winter of 1943, Lee was part of an
officer’s swap, and he was seconded to the army. He spent the next year serving with the Gurkhas
of the 8th Indian Infantry Division. He saw action in the Battle of Monte Cassino,
almost losing his life when a plane crashed on take-off. Towards the end of 1944, Lee was promoted
to flight lieutenant and posted to Air Force HQ. When the end of hostilities finally came in
April, 1945, he was given a position in the Central Registry of War Criminals of Security
Suspects. He now became a Nazi hunter. The work was top secret and we have few specifics
about what he did. In a later interview however he did say this
. . . “We were given dossiers of what they’d
done and told to find them, interrogate them as much as we could and hand them over to
the appropriate authority . . . We saw these concentration camps. Some had been cleaned up. Some had not.” A New Career Beckons
Lee left the army in 1946. After what he had experienced over the previous
few years, he could no longer bring himself to working in an office. He had the opportunity to teach classics at
University, but didn’t fancy that prospect either. Unsure what to make of his post-military life,
the twenty-four-year old found himself dining at the Italian Embassy in London with his
cousin, the Italian ambassador to England, Nicolo Carandini. Out of the blue, Carandini looked at Lee and
said, ‘Have you ever thought of being an actor?’ Taken a little off guard, Lee replied, ‘No,
I don’t think so.’ Carandini then replied, ‘Perhaps, when you
go away, you might want to think about it.’ Think about he did. He decided that he quite liked the idea and
mentioned it to his mother. The countess, however, was vehemently opposed. A career in acting was beneath their status
she implored and, besides, at 6 feet five he was too tall, he was too foreign looking
and it was hardly a steady line of work. But the more she railed against the acting
idea, the more her son became determined to make a success of it. Towards the end of 1946, he joined the Rank
Company of Youth. For the next few years he busied himself learning
the craft of acting. He swept the theatre stage, held prompt cards
for the actors on stage and eventually got tiny parts himself. Then came small roles in films. His height did, indeed work against him, with
casting directors struggling to find a place for him. However, the roles did come. Directors managed to find creative ways to
hide his height, such as having him sit during his scenes. Some of his roles in these early years were
uncredited, while others ended up on the cutting room floor, but they all added to the skills
that he would display when the big roles eventually came his way. Hammer Horror
In 1957, Lee was hired by Hammer Film Productions for his biggest part yet. He was to play the monster created by Baron
von Frankenstein, who was to be played by his good friend Peter Cushing. The movie, called The Curse of Frankenstein,
found an immediate audience among lovers of horror, who clamoured for more. Hammer decided to satisfy the demand with
a cinematic take on the Bram Stoker classic Dracula, with Lee in the lead role. The movie, released in 1958, was a huge hit,
with Lee’s sinister yet charming take on the fanged count forever embedding itself
in the public consciousness. Dracula was the movie that turned the struggling
36-year-old journeyman actor into a star. He later recalled, ‘It brought me a name,
a fan club and a second-hand car, for all of which I was grateful.’ The Dracula role was both a blessing and a
curse for Lee. It inevitably type cast him – and it tied
him to appear in a succession of sequels, each one worse than the last. When he tried to bring the series to an end
he was, in his own words, ‘blackmailed’ by Hammer executives, who would remind him
how many people he would put out on the street if the next movie was not made. Lee played the part of Dracula ten times,
and increasingly grew tired of the shadow that it cast over his career. It took eight years for the second Dracula
to be released, by which time the first movie had made a tremendous impact all over the
world. Yet, when Lee was handed the script for the
sequel, he was horrified, not by the murderous things that his character was asked to do,
but by the terrible dialogue that he had been given. As a result, he refused to do the lines, which
is why Dracula does not say a word in 1965’s Dracula: Prince of Darkness. Lee was also concerned that the character
of Dracula was getting further and further away from what Bram Stoker had in mind when
he wrote the book. Serious Acting
According to the man himself, Lee’s real career as a serious actor started when he
was cast as the Marquis de Sade in A Tale of Two Cities in 1958. This was, in fact, his 43rd movie. Other serious roles followed, but he was unable
to escape the horror genre for over a decade, appearing in a slew of largely forgettable
blood and guts flicks, both for Hammer Studios and other production companies. In 1962, Lee auditioned for a role in the
World War Two classic The Longest Day. It is ironic that, despite his distinguished
service for his country during the actual war, he was turned down because it was felt
that audiences wouldn’t accept him as a military type. From 1965 until 1969, Lee, despite his obvious
English bearing, starred in a series of movies in which he played the villainous oriental
Fu Manchu. His skill as an actor, along with long hours
in the makeup chair, allowed him to breathe life into the role of the criminal mastermind. In 1970, Lee picked up a single day’s work
as the narrator in a film about the Marquis De Sade entitled Eugenie. It was only when the movie was released that
he realized that he was appearing in a soft porn film, loaded with sex scenes that were
shot when he wasn’t around. He was embarrassed and angry, but he could
do nothing about it. Lee credits his role as Sherlock Holmes’
smarter older brother, Mycroft, in 1970’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes as the
role that allowed him to finally break free from being typecast as the ‘horror’ guy. Three years later he played Lord Summerisle
in what he considered the best movie he ever made, The Wicker Man. Lee was so taken with the book Ritual upon
which the movie is based that he offered his services free of charge. The film has become a cult classic and is
considered one of the best British movies ever made. In the mid-70’s, Lee appeared as Comte de
Rochefort in The Three Musketeers, and its sequel The Four Musketeers. During a fight scene he received a knee injury,
which would plague him for the rest of his life. Back in the early ‘60’s, Lee’s step-cousin
Ian Fleming, who had made it big as an author, had offered him the role of the villainous
title character in the movie adaptation of his James Bond novel, Dr. No. Lee accepted on the spot. However, Fleming hadn’t cleared Lee with
the producers and they had already chosen their man. A dozen years later, Lee finally got his chance
when he landed the role of Francisco Scaramanga in the tenth Bond flick, The Man With The
Golden Gun. Lee breathed life into the character, who
Fleming had written as a rather bland bad guy lacking real depth. The writer was delighted with the portrayal,
claiming that Lee had created the sinister counterpart to James Bond. Coming to America
By 1977, Lee had established a reputation as a fine actor who could take on any role
and make it his own. Still, he was concerned that, if he remained
in England, he would eventually be lured back into the dark tunnel of horror movies. Avoiding that fate was the prime motivation
for his move to the United States in 1977. His first American role was a departure from
anything that had gone before – the modern-day disaster Airport ’77. The following year he went even further beyond
his comfort zone by appearing as the guest host on the NBC live comedy Saturday Night
Live. He remembered the experience as the most terrifying
hour and a half of his life. That night he impressed many people, including
budding director Steven Spielberg, who promptly signed him up for his next project, the period
comedy 1941. Lee had the chance to follow up with another
comedy, a spoof of Airport ’77 called Airplane! But he turned the role down and it went to
Leslie Nielsen, who made it his own. Lee would refer to this decision as ‘a big
mistake.’ Through the 80’s and ‘90’s, Lee appeared
in a broad spectrum of movie genres from dramas to comedies and even musicals. He also made regular appearances on the small
screen, for both British and American TV audiences. In 1998, Lee was controversially cast as Muhammad
Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan in the movie Jinnah. It was to be his most demanding role, and
the one that carried the most responsibility. For ten weeks, he acted the part of the father
of the Pakistani nation on location, as thousands of locals scrutinized his every move. The vast majority of them were won over by
the consummate actor, amazed and delighted with his ability to ‘become’ Jinnah. The movie was hugely important to Lee but
it did not achieve widespread commercial success. A Lifelong Dream Fulfilled
Lee had been a lifelong fan of the J.R.R. Tolkien Lord of the Rings series of books,
reading them annually. He had once actually met Tolkien and for decades
he had harbored the desire to play the role of Gandalf. What he was offered, and immediately accepted,
was the part of Saruman in a trilogy to be directed by New Zealand director Peter Jackson. The role brought him to a new generation of
fans, who were enthralled with his commanding performance. Those who were privileged to work with him
on the set were also captivated by the Christopher Lee aura. In one scene, Saruman was to be stabbed in
the back and director Jackson coached Lee to scream as the blade entered his body. Lee turned to Jackson and asked him if he’d
ever actually seen a man get stabbed in the back. Jackson admitted that he hadn’t, to which
Lee said, ‘Well, I have, and I know what to do.’ He went on to explain that such a wound would
puncture the lungs, preventing the person from screaming. At best they would let out a quiet groan. With this revelation, the set went quiet. All present knew that they were in the presence
of a man who had lived through things that they could only imagine. The success of the Lord of Rings movies led
to Lee’s insertion into the Star Wars franchise, where he played the evil Count Dooku. Throughout the 2000’s he also appeared in
a string of Tim Burton movies, including Sleepy Hollow and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber
of Fleet Street. The Waning Years
In 2011, Lee embraced his roots by appearing in his first Hammer film in 35 years, The
Resident, alongside Hilary Swank. While filming in Mexico, he suffered a back
injury and had to undergo surgery. As a result, he was unable to play a leading
role in the long awaited sequel to The Wicker Man, entitled The Wicker Tree. However, he was determined to appear in the
film and was given a small role as the mentor of the character he was meant to play. Although in his late 80’s, Lee was insistent
that he had no intentions of retiring from acting. He often said that making movies had never
been a job to him – it was his life, it gave him meaning and purpose. With respiratory problems and a dodgy heart
he couldn’t accept as many roles as in earlier times. Still he kept busy with voice-over and narration
work and at least one major production each year. His final movie was an independent production
called Angels of Notting Hill. Christopher Lee died on June 27th, 2015, at
the age of 93. The official cause of death was heart failure. In the tributes that flowed he was recognized
as appearing in 208 films, more than anyone else in history. Those myriad roles allow him to live on, enabling
his millions of fans, both old and new to experience the presence of a true giant of the cinema.

100 thoughts on “Christopher Lee: An Unexpected Giant of Cinema (Christopher Lee Biography)

  1. Dracula and Neagan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) did a film together, It makes sense now when Negan said, "Lucille is a vampire bat!"

  2. You didn't mention the film that I worked with him on, Gremlins 2; The New Batch. His role was that of a genetic scientist. Back in those days, photos on a movie set were real events, since only the script supervisor and property people were the only ones allowed to take pictures, mainly with a Polaroid. I have a photo of myself shaking the hand of Christopher Lee…

  3. The story of how he met Tolkien is kind of hilarious: randomly, in a pub, and he was so surprised he could barely speak.

  4. I'm a big admirer of Ian Fleming but this admiration went through the roof when I learned in this biog that he praised Lee's performance in The Man With The Golden Gun 10m years after he died.

  5. Each movie he acted in IMO is a classic and that includes the Hammer Horror House series. Every movie he acted in has a cult following, he was too deep for too many.

  6. Your video stated that Sir Christopher Lee died on 27th June.! Not so, this is quite sloppy informatiom. He actually died on 7th June at 8.30 am. God bless his soul. R I P Sir Christopher.

  7. Berkshire pronounced Bark shire and you know it. Please. However Christopher Lee great choice as always

  8. Another well written history. I am wondering how many pairs of glasses you have Mr. Whistler. I like them all. You have a glasses sort of face

  9. I'd have included two more pieces in THE WANING YEARS:  #1. At age 89, he reprised his role as Sauromon in the Hobbit trilogy, and again showed his immense prescense as a super-fan of Tolkien, and #2. in 2011's Hugo, he was the only cast member to have actually been to the train station (as a youth) where the events of the movie took place.

  10. Great info. Usually you guys choose great music but Yankee doodle and banjo instrumental was a miss for me.

  11. He was a prolific actor, I remember him being in a movie called your sister's a werewolf I think?.

  12. This is a great video on Christopher, was able to meet him a couple of times and found that he was a distant cousin and like myself is related to Robert E Lee, and the founding fathers of the US Richard H Lee and Francis Lightfoot Lee

  13. A very interesting overview of Sir Christopher' life and work. I enjoyed it a lot. One piece of advice. Dump that horrific banjo music!

  14. This was excellent. I learned new stuff about one of my favorite actors. Now, how about that Peter Cushing bio? He was another exceptionally gifted actor who led a remarkable life as well. Seems like a nice follow-up.

  15. These mini bios are very interesting. Thank you for posting them. Would you consider doing a bio on Phineas Parkhurst Quimby?

  16. Ok, I already had a working knowledge of the pure unrelenting awesomeness that was Christopher Lee, but…my brain can't process the Ian Fleming connection. Awesome work guys

  17. Error at 13:23 : "The writer was delighted …" Unlikely. Ian Fleming died in 1964, about 10 years before TMWTGG & Lee's portrayal of Scaramanga, probably the most sympathetic villain in the series.

  18. @8:45 I caught one of the early acting roles. He played a German officer in an episode of One Step Beyond called The Sorcerer.

  19. photo at 8:10 – Catherine Deneuve, Lee, Rachel Welch (?), Woody Allen, Ursula Andress (?), Dirk Bogarde, Julie Christie, don't know the last two.

  20. Antonio is correct (see below – "1 year ago"), what's with banjo music? Was Lee a Hillbilly and I just never knew it!?! The music is just horrible and so wrong for the subject (Lee) you're covering. The editor needs to be fired.

  21. Dad was a world war 1 hero, mom was an Italian countess, also a direct descendant of Charlemagne, talk about good genes

  22. Pretty accurate…except my grandmother never said my father was too tall and foreign looking to be an actor (that was a film producer at the time in the 1940s/1950s….I don't recall the name). What she did say was "think of the awful people you are going to meet". And Ian Fleming had died in 1964. My father played Scaramanga in 1974, so it would have been impossible for Ian Fleming to make such a remark.

  23. This video was great due to two reasons. 1) I also am a descendent of Charlemagne 2) Now I am also related to both Christopher Lee and Ian Fleming! Awesome!

  24. You forgot to mention his heavy metal albums, along with how he and Peter Cushing were always having fun, and getting into trouble with their love for Looney Toons.
    You also forgot to mention that he was knighted in 2009.

  25. I'll have to correct you on the date that Sir Christopher Lee died; it wasn't June 27, 2015, but June 07, 2015.

  26. I bet every one has a different favorite C.L. movie, too. Hands down, mine is Three Musketeers. No, Four Musketeers. No, Three Musketeers, because it has that hilarious introduction to his character when he refuses to take D'Artagnan seriously. Yeah. 3.

    Although, 4 does have the swordfight on the icy river AND the final one in the cathedral…

  27. As I saw it so eloquently put (and saved the pic, though it isn't credited – props to whoever wrote this):
    He was Dracula and a Bond villain. He was Sherlock AND Mycroft Holmes. He was Death. He was Lucifer. He was Count Dooku. He was Saruman. He was Lord Summerisle. He recorded a heavy metal concept album about Charlemagne. He hunted Nazis in WW2. He was part of a secret agent unit called the "Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare" and when told by Peter Jackson to imagine how a man being stabbed in the back would sound, he told Jackson he didn't have to imagine it. He was fluent in English, Italian, French, German, and Spanish, "moderately proficient" in Swedish, Russian, and Greek, and conversational in Mandarin Chinese. He was Lord Badass.

    He also holds (or at least did for a long time) the record for most number of film roles, in a career of over 60 years. In short, Christopher Lee was cooler and more badass than most people could ever dream of being.

  28. ARRRGH WHY THAT DREADFUL MUSIC? It bore no relation to the subject matter whatsoever and spoiled an otherwise good documentary

  29. Really. This guy was awesome personified. A truly unique dude who lived it his way. And yes..he even did heavy metal. One of the few who did that actually lived some of the lyrics. Great vid guys. Love me some Biographics.

  30. Did you know that the ratio of likes and dislikes in this episodes is the greatest of all your episodes? Just saying, a fitting tribute to the great man that Christopher Lee was.:)

  31. My favorite Christopher Lee appearance has to be as DiZ from Kingdom Hearts. His voice was just so awesome for the role. I loved his voice.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *