Sunday, June 21, 2015

“A Man of an Honourable Stock” (SHOS): Sir Christopher Lee

For those of you who have been following this blog for a long time (And have I thanked you for sticking with me? Thank you for sticking with me.), you know that I am not usually given to memorial tributes. This is primarily because I have always found it beyond my meager skills to encapsulate the whole of one person’s life – all its wonders and accomplishments – with just a few words. I have always worried that whatever I wrote would come across as, at best, inadequate, and, at worst, completely disingenuous.

However, on the morning of June 11 when I learned of Sir Christopher Lee’s death (Lee actually passed away earlier on June 7, with the knowledge only becoming public on June 11), I immediately went to share the news with my fellow “geek” colleague – a co-worker with whom I share some mutual interests and with whom I had commiserated over Leonard Nimoy’s death earlier this year. After a few moments of some subdued sadness, my co-worker admitted that, beyond the Lord of the Rings series, she knew little of Lee’s career. “Is that terrible?” she asked.

I didn’t answer at first. Of course, it wasn’t terrible. There’s nothing terrible about not having an investment in a particular actor’s filmography. However, I wanted to tell her about my Christopher Lee.

Christopher Lee with his friends Vincent Price and Peter Cushing

“A Man of Some Substance” (LION)

My Christopher Lee was Dracula. And in his embodiment of the iconic vampire, he was perhaps only second to one other actor. He was as synonymous with the role as Basil Rathbone with Sherlock Holmes, or Nigel Bruce with Dr. Watson. Although his Dracula films would sometimes take ridiculous turns (Dracula A.D. 1972, anyone?), the role would still cast a villainous pall over his career and indeed, my Christopher Lee was also the Mummy, Frankenstein’s monster, and Fu Manchu.

“A Man of Remarkable Appearance” (BLAC)

My Christopher Lee was even Count Dooku (or Darth Tyranus, if you are so inclined), unfortunately, in Star Wars: Attack of the Clones and Star Wars: The Revenge of the Sith. Typically an anathema to true Star Wars fans, the films are worth remembering, if only as a testament to Lee’s villainous character acting.

“A Man of Iron Nerve” (EMPT)

My Christopher Lee was also Francisco Scaramanga in the 1974 film, The Man with the Golden Gun, opposite Roger Moore’s sometimes ludicrous turn as James Bond. Lee was a relative of Bond creator Ian Fleming, and rather perfectly cast as the erudite assassin. Despite the fact that Fleming had originally wanted Lee for Dr. No, he was nonetheless able to channel all his leanness, elegance and his unique razor-sharp keenness to embody Scaramanga.

“A Grave and Taciturn Gentleman of Iron-gray Aspect” (BLAN)

My Christopher Lee was DEATH, voicing the late Sir Terry Pratchett’s (who also passed away earlier this year) characterization in several dramatizations, including The Color of Magic (2008). Tapping into the famous depth and timbre of his voice, his performance was equal turns unlimited cosmic power and affable approachability, just as Pratchett wrote him.

“A Man of Dreams” (GOLD)

And of course my Christopher Lee was Saruman the White in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings series, a masterpiece of film. How could he not be? In addition to providing a vehicle for Lee’s unsurpassed ability to portray malevolence and subtle deviousness, it also gave rise to what might be one of my favorite Christopher Lee anecdotes. Peter Jackson was preparing to shoot a scene in which Saruman is stabbed in the back. Jackson provided Lee with a long, detailed explanation of how he wanted the scene to go. To which Lee replied, “Have you any idea what kind of noise happens when somebody’s stabbed in the back? Because I do.”

“A Man of Energy and Character” (MISS)

But perhaps, more than anything, my Christopher Lee was Sir Henry Baskerville in the 1959 Hammer Film adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles, starring opposite Lee's dear friend Peter Cushing as Sherlock Holmes. As the terrorized Sir Henry, Lee had to call upon no acting skills at all to show real fear:

Now there is one thing I’m really scared of…spiders. In particular these ghastly bird-eating spiders from South America, with big, huge hairy legs as thick as my fingers. I hate these things, and there was a sequence in the film in which one of spiders comes out of a boot. I refused to let them place it on my neck, but I did have it on one of my shoulders and I was in such a state that I virtually went green, and sweat poured off my face. Everybody said what a brilliant performance I gave. All I can say was that it wasn’t acting at all. I was nearly sick with nausea and fear.

And my Christopher Lee was Mycroft Holmes in the 1970 film The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, starring opposite Robert Stephens as Sherlock Holmes and Colin Blakely as Dr. John Watson. Lee was perhaps one of the more sinister and uncanonically lean Mycrofts on record. Until Mark Gatiss’s Mycroft in the BBC’s Sherlock, that is. Gatiss has admitted to using Lee’s interpretation of the elder Holmes brother as the template for his own, calling him “cold” and “disdainful.”

And my Christopher Lee was Sherlock Holmes. First in the 1962 German film, Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace, in which Lee’s performance was inexplicably dubbed over. And then later in Sherlock Holmes and the Leading Lady (1991) and Sherlock Holmes and the Incident at Victoria Falls (1992), in which Lee plays a somewhat older, retired Great Detective. Of his performance as Sherlock Holmes, Lee said:

My portrayal of Holmes is, I think, one of the best things I’ve ever done because I tried to play him really as he was written – as a very intolerant, argumentative, difficult man – and I looked extraordinarily like him with the make-up on…Everyone who’s seen it said I was as like Holmes as any actor they’ve ever seen – both in appearance and interpretation.

“A Man of Deep Character, a Man with an Alert Mind, Grim, Ascetic, Self-Contained, Formidable” (MISS)

I wanted to say all these things. I wanted to share my experience of Christopher Lee and who my Christopher Lee was. But he also wasn’t my Christopher Lee, no matter how many times I say it. He wasn’t mine, because he belonged to everyone. He was everyone’s Christopher Lee. And he was also no one’s. For how can a person such as Christopher Lee belong to anyone but himself?

But I didn’t tell say any of those things, of course. Who could? Instead, I simply said, “I know Christopher Lee from a lot of things.”