[9 January 2008]
McClatchy-Tribune News Service (MCT)
It’s difficult to believe that it’s been 50 years since Christopher Lee thrilled horror fans with his portrayals of the Frankenstein monster, Dracula and the Mummy in a memorable series of Hammer Films.
“Yes, it has been a long time,” Lee said. “To think, I didn’t say a word in “The (Curse of) Frankenstein” film. I’ve always thought of Frankenstein’s creation as a creature rather than a monster.”
Although the success of those films caused Lee to be typecast for a number of years, he eventually left them behind by taking on a variety of roles and has been one of the cinema’s most prolific actors. He has nearly 300 credits to his acting resume.
In recent years, he has scored with his roles of Saruman in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and Count Dooku/Darth Tyranus in the “Star Wars” films.
“I list those - `The Lord of the Rings’ and `Star Wars’ - among my favorite films that I have been a part of,” Lee said from London during a recent telephone conversation. “Those films introduced me to new generations of fans, many of whom never heard of me as Dracula or the (Frankenstein) creature.”
Television or motion pictures - it doesn’t matter to Lee as long as he finds the script appealing. That was the case with “Adventures in the Secret Service,” one of the eight feature-length episodes on the 9-disc “The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones, Volume Two: The War Years” (Paramount, 1992-96, $129.99) recently released on DVD.
Young Indy (Sean Patrick Flannery) finds himself involved in an effort to convince Austria to break ties with Germany and make peace with France and Germany during World War II. Lee plays Count Ottokar Graf Czernin, who attempts to influence the Austrian emperor’s decision.
“It appealed to me because I was playing a real person who actually lived,” Lee said. “He was something of a devious figure and I played him that way. The story is based on historic fact with Young Indy thrown in there for dramatic purposes. These Indy films are like real history lessons.”
Also available is “Young Indiana Jones, Volume One: The Early Years.” Volume Three is scheduled to be released on DVD sometimes this spring.
“I’m told that the part in the Indy story was the reason George Lucas offered me the role in the `Star Wars’ films,” Lee said. “I’m not sure how true that is, but it makes for a good story.”
Lee, who will turn 85 in May, shows no signs of slowing down. He appeared in “The Golden Compass” (2007) and has already completed work on “The Heavy” and “Boogie Woogie,” two films scheduled to be released this year.
“I still enjoy it and am in pretty good health,” Lee said. “I have a back problem but I’ve had that for years. As long as I’m able to get on the golf course, I’m happy.”
Count Dracula playing golf? You bet.
Lee is practically a walking encyclopedia when it comes to the history of the game. He enthusiastically will tell you that he has played several rounds with such notables as Byron Nelson, Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer.
When told some people might think he was bragging, Lee laughed. “Yes, I am,” he said. “I’m afraid, though, I haven’t had the pleasure of playing with Mr. (Tiger) Woods and I’m not sure that will ever happen.”
As remarkable as his knowledge of golf is, it doesn’t match the remarkable longevity of Lee’s acting career. After serving as a pilot in the Royal Air Force during World War II, Lee was discharged in 1946. He no idea what he wanted to do until a friend suggested he try acting.
“I didn’t want to go back working in an office for a few pounds which is what I was doing before the war,” Lee said. “So I decided to give acting a try. Besides, it sort of ran in the family.”
His great grandparents founded the Austrian Opera Company and he said his mother was the greatest actress who never appeared onstage.
“She wasn’t a professional actress,” Lee said with a laugh, “but she could be so dramatic about so many things in life.”
Lee joined the Rank Organization in 1947 and for the next 10 years appeared in a variety of movie and television roles. Some of the roles were very brief.
“I was dreadful at first,” Lee said. “I knew absolutely nothing about what I was doing. I had never appeared in front of a camera before. But I was determined to work at it and spent those years learning my craft.”
His big breakthrough came in 1957 when he was cast as the creature in “The Curse of Frankenstein.” After that came Dracula, the Mummy and numerous other Technicolor horror roles for Hammer.
“I will always be grateful for the Hammer years,” Lee said. “That really boosted my career.”
The Hammer films also brought him into contact with another horror-icon-to-be, Peter Cushing, and the two formed a lifelong friendship.
“Peter was a superb actor who, I think, never got the credit he deserved,” Lee said. “He could do so more in one scene than some actors do during an entire movie.”
Cushing died in1994. “He was such a wonderful friend and I still miss him.”
Lee said he is also grateful for the 10 years he worked in the “trenches.” He credits that with helping him polish his work and being ready when stardom finally came. He frets that many of today’s current actors and actresses don’t have the benefit of such training.
“They take so many inexperienced young people today, cast them in a role and try to make them immediate stars in what are very expensive films” Lee said. “It’s not fair to them. You can’t help but wonder how long they will last.”
One of Lee’s most cherished memories is being the neighbor of Boris Karloff, arguably the first major horror icon during the sound era with his own portrayals of the Frankenstein creature and the Mummy. The two often got together with their wives for dinner.
“I’m sure Boris knew that I had also played those parts, but he never mentioned it,” Lee said. “The only time he said anything about Frankenstein was when he told me about how tough it was to wear that heavy costume and makeup for so many hours each day.
“I once asked him about Bela Lugosi (who also played Dracula and co-starred with Karloff in several films) and Boris would only shake his head and say `Poor Bela. Poor Bela.’ I’m sure he was referring to Lugosi’s drug addiction and other problems he had during his career.”
While Lee enjoys playing in films, he is also has a great appreciation for film history. He named as his favorite movie of all time “The Night of the Hunter” (1955) starring Robert Mitchum and directed by Charles Laughton (“Absolutely brilliant”). His other favorites are Stanley Kramer’s “Path of Glory” (1957) starring Kirk Douglas and “The Devil and Daniel Webster” (1941): “It’s a chance to see Walter Huston at his best.”
Lee not only has impressive knowledge of golf and film, he also in something of an expert on the work of J.R.R. Tolkien.
“I remember first reading `The Lord of the Rings’ back in the 1950s,” Lee said. “I thought they would make great movies, but technically it couldn’t be done back then. I envisioned myself playing Gandolf (eventually played by Ian McKellen) but I did end up getting the part of Saruman.”
Noting that it was recently announced that Peter Jackson had agreed to film a couple of prequels about “The Hobbit,” Lee said he hoped that “Mr. Jackson” might found a place for him in those movies.
“I don’t know if that will happen but I would certainly be interested in doing it,” Lee said.
It would be surprising if Jackson couldn’t find a part for Christopher Lee, a man who has been a movie icon for more than 50 years and is still going strong.