Sir Christopher Lee: ‘I’m softer than people think’
Upstairs at the Bafta building on Piccadilly there is a wall lined with black-and-white stills from David Lean films, mostly from the Forties and Fifties. As he walks past them, Sir Christopher Lee, the 88-year-old screen legend, takes them in with knowing nods and says, almost under his breath: “And here’s Charles and Trevor and John.” (Laughton, Howard and Mills, for the record).
He’s worked with them all; in fact the record books show that Lee has worked with more Hollywood greats and been in more films than any other actor alive, some 350. When people come up to him and say they have seen him in all his films, he likes to say: “No you haven’t.” Even he hasn’t seen all his films.
The game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, indeed, would have worked just as well if it had been called Six Degrees of Christopher Lee (if Lee had rhymed with separation). He gets to Bacon in two, by the way, having starred in the 1977 film Starship Invasions, which also starred Sean McCann, who starred with Bacon in The Air Up There (1994). According to the online Oracle of Bacon, Lee is ranked second only to Rod Steiger as the centre of “the Hollywood galaxy”.
Lee is here at Bafta because his contribution to the film industry is about to be honoured with a Bafta Fellowship. “It means a lot to me,” he says, “because it is a pat on the back from the profession. I shall probably have tears on the night of the ceremony. I’m much softer than people think. I don’t present to the world an emotional face. I’m pretty good at self-control, but I am easily moved.”
He adds that when you have been through five years of war you tend to save tears for reality, rather than the make believe of the cinema. “That is real horror and blood. When the Second World War finished I was 23 and already I had seen enough horror to last me a lifetime. I’d seen dreadful, dreadful things, without saying a word. So seeing horror depicted on film doesn’t affect me much.”
Golden Gun 1974
Christopher Lee played Scaramanga opposite Roger Moore’s James Bond in The Man with the Golden Gun REX FEATURES
The only time you see tears from a soldier, he reckons, is at a military funeral. “Very difficult to keep them back. So many of my comrades from the war have died lately. And from the acting profession. Susannah York. John Barry. I turn to the Telegraph’s obituaries page with trepidation.” His best friend was the actor Peter Cushing and when he died in 1994, he felt there was no one left to have “remember when?” conversations with.
On the subject of his war record, Lee is like a man wrestling with a secret he longs to tell, metaphorically wincing in order to draw attention to an old war wound, only to say that he doesn’t want to talk about it. He will allude, for example, to his time with the Special Operations Executive, but when you ask him to expand he will look affronted.
“I was attached to the SAS from time to time but we are forbidden – former, present, or future – to discuss any specific operations.” Later he raises the subject again and says: “Let’s just say I was in Special Forces and leave it at that. People can read in to that what they like.”
When I ask whether his Bafta Fellowship means more to him than his knighthood last year, he raises the cane playfully at me and says that the two honours are very different and that if I say otherwise “I shall unsheathe my sword stick!” Is it really a sword stick? “Wish it was. But I do know how to fight with a sword. I did all my own fight scenes and have the scars to prove it.”
Lee isn’t as tall as he once was, having, he thinks, lost about an inch from his full height of 6ft 5in, but he doesn’t stoop. Today he is wearing cords and a polo neck. He has a long, angular face, still piercing eyes and a white beard. As for his hair, let’s just say it fits.
His voice, meanwhile, is still deep and his recall is excellent. He never hesitates over a name. The keen intellect that enabled him to become multilingual – he is fluent in French, German, Spanish and Italian, and can also get by in Swedish, Greek and Russian – is still, it seems, in evidence.
Even at the grand age of 88 he has no intention of slowing down. He recently had a cameo in a yet-to-be-released sequel to his best film, The Wicker Man. He is also in negotiation to appear in The Hobbit, the prequel to The Lord of the Rings, in which he also starred. That is the thing about Lee: he is the king of the franchise, the only common denominator between the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Star Wars series, the Hammer horrors and the Bond films (he played Scaramanga, Bond’s nemesis in The Man With The Golden Gun).
We shall come to those. For now I ask what he has against retirement. “It’s not for me. I hate being idle. As dear Boris used to say, when I die I want to die with my boots on. Which he did. As did Vincent. And Peter.” (He is referring to Karloff, Price and Cushing, of course.)
As we talk I notice he cannot bring himself to utter the D-word. Although he was very good as Dracula, it did cast a long shadow over his career. And now, for him, mentioning the count is almost a taboo, as mentioning Macbeth is for other actors. The most he will do is allude to him, when pushed. And he recalls with a shudder that when he was knighted last year the tabloids ran punning headlines such as “Fangs for the honour”.
Dracula cast a shadow over Christopher Lee’s career
“Pathetic,” he says with a solemn shake of his head. “Pathetic.” He suits his knighthood because he is a man who carries himself with great dignity. And he not only votes Conservative but believes in the sanctity of marriage. He and his wife Gitte, a one-time Chanel model, married in 1961. They have one daughter. “The secret to a long marriage in the film industry? Marry someone wonderful, as I did. And always have her come along on location.”
His knighthood, also suits him and it is in keeping with the gentility of his upbringing. He attended Wellington College, his father was a colonel in the King’s Royal Rifles, his cousin was Ian Fleming, his mother was a Contessa. When he told her he wanted to be an actor she was mortified. “She did a real Bernhardt, saying: ‘The shame of it! Think of the shame you are bringing to the family!’ Then she said something which to this day I cannot argue with. ‘Think of all the frightful people you will meet!’”
The 1958 film Dracula Has Risen From The Grave made him a star. Van Helsing was played by Peter Cushing and it had a huge international impact, in part because colour was still a novelty and there was so much blood in it. It was also partly because Lee brought out the dark, brooding sexuality of Dracula, something that his predecessor Bela Lugosi had never managed.
Three more Dracula films at the end of the Sixties consolidated his success. And all are considered classics of the genre to this day. Was it a problem that he was simply too good as Dracula? “I think there is a lot…” Long pause. “There is a lot of misunderstanding about me in that role. It had never been played properly before that. With me it was all about the power of suggestion to make the unbelievable believable.”
We have come to the other word that makes him shudder, typecasting. “The same happened to Peter and Vincent. They made some wonderful serious movies but are only known for horror. That was why I went to America. I couldn’t see anything happening here except a continuation of what had gone before. A couple of friends, Dick Widmark and Billy Wilder, told me I had to get away from London otherwise I would always be typecast.”
Christopher Lee in The Mummy, 1959 REX FEATURES
His first film upon arriving in Hollywood was Airplane 77 and he came close to actual death in that, having to act dead under water without breathing apparatus. “The stunt men made me an honorary member of their guild after that. I did all sorts of genres in America, some of which I don’t care to remember.”
Is he referring to the soft porn film, or is that an urban myth? “No that was long before, in 1970. But it is true I was in a soft porn film, though I had no idea that was what it was when I agreed to the role. I was told it was about the Marquis de Sade. I flew out to Spain for one day’s work playing the part of a narrator. I had to wear a crimson dinner jacket. There were lots of people behind me. They all had their clothes on. There didn’t seem to be anything peculiar or strange.”
He forgot about the film then one day, well, he tells it better. “A friend said: ‘Do you know you are in a film in Old Compton Street?’ In those days that was where the mackintosh brigade watched their films. ‘Very funny,’ I said. So I crept along there heavily disguised in dark glasses and scarf, and found the cinema and there was my name. I was furious! There was a huge row. When I had left Spain that day everyone behind me had taken their clothes off!”
Lee remained in Hollywood for a decade, playing in many genres including westerns. Anything, in fact, but horror. When he felt it was safe to return to Britain he was invited to appear on Wogan. Much to his chagrin, the producers thought it would be a good idea to open the show with Terry coming out of a coffin wrapped in a cape.
Christopher Lee as Count Dooku in the Star Wars prequel trilogy 2002-2005
Christopher Lee as Count Dooku in the Star Wars prequel trilogy 2002-2005
When I watched that clip on YouTube as part of my research, I did feel sorry for Sir Christopher. The trouble is, combined with the sheer quantity of horror films that Lee made, there is also the inconvenient fact that he is obsessed with the occult in real life. He has a library of 12,000 books on the subject.
“Yes, it’s true,” he says, “ever since I read Aleister Crowley. It was my friend Dennis Wheatley who got me interested in the occult.” Wheatley also wrote the novel upon which one of Christopher Lee’s best films was based, The Devil Rides Out.
But the film of which Lee is most proud is Jinnah, about the founder of Pakistan, where he plays the title role. It was made in 1998 and James Fox plays opposite him as Mountbatten. He also has great affection for the four films he has made with Tim Burton. There is only one great director he would love to work with, and that is Clint Eastwood.
Lee has an old man’s tendency to dismiss whole generations with a sweep. “I’ve never looked on myself as a star,” he says. “Never. To me a star is a giant and where are the giants today? The Tracys, the Coopers, the Flynns?”
Who does he rate today, then? There must be someone. He thinks for a moment. “Leonardo DiCaprio. And my good friend Johnny Depp.”
As we part company, he has only one request. “Please don’t describe me in your article as a ‘horror legend’. I moved on from that.” Fair enough, Sir Christopher. Fair enough.