Christopher Lee is not an “I can’t believe it took me this long” entry. He died several months before I started Celebrating the Living, and the anniversary of that column is next month; we will just reach the point where “I should have gotten to them sooner” people become eligible, and Christopher Lee has been dead for five years as of June. I knew I would want to write about him for October, and this is the first October in which he is eligible for the column. Even though I haven’t watched most of the movies that make him an obvious choice for the month.
I used the Return From Witch Mountain still in part because, to me, I don’t picture him first. I hear him first. I would imagine that isn’t just me, either. He has literally hundreds of credits, most of which do in fact show his face, but let’s be real, here. One of the first adjectives by which you’d describe Christopher Lee is “sonorous.” At least if that’s the sort of word you’d use. “Resonant,” perhaps. Anyway something about his voice. Even now, I can hear it.
Which is not to say he wasn’t a fine actor just in general. He’s not doing his best work in Witch Mountain, goodness knows, but goodness knows that’s also the fault of the material, not the actor. Bette Davis is not at her best in that movie, either. (Disney has long had a history of weirdly quality casting that way.) But Lee is, as he often did, doing his best with the material that’s in front of him. There are a lot of his movies that I haven’t seen that are almost certainly worse, and at least the role of Victor isn’t yellowface?
Of course, people would be very mad at me if I didn’t talk about roles like Dracula and Lord Summerisle. Indeed, he considered The Wicker Man the best of his movies, which is an interesting choice. Still, he did so many roles that I’m not sure I could fit all the important ones in. He played both Mycroft and Sherlock Holmes. Fu Manchu, alas. Count Dooku and Saruman. Five roles in Tim Burton movies of varying quality. (My favourite is Corpse Bride.) King Haggard—in both English and German. Rochefort. Rasputin and the Mummy and the Marquis St. Evremonde. Ramses and Seurat and the Creature. And the voice of Death, because who else would you cast?
And of course there’s how fascinating he was as a person, too; his war history was . . . actually something he wasn’t really supposed to talk about, in places. But he was able to tell Peter Jackson what sound it makes when a human is stabbed, which was probably a little alarming. He was a step-cousin of Ian Fleming. He met Rasputin’s assassins. He missed a scholarship to Eton due to poor math scores. He witnessed the last public assassination in France. He is literally a spear-carrier in the Olivier Hamlet. He was told, repeatedly, that he was too tall to be an actor. And, of course, he recorded heavy metal albums.