Mostly, I write about people who are long dead. But today I am writing about a person who is, for the first time, not around to celebrate his birthday. So I’m also feeling sad for his family and friends who must be missing of him. After writing such a long post about vampires yesterday, It was lovely to find out that today is the birthday of Sir Christopher Lee who played the part of Count Dracula for Hammer Films, for a little bit longer than he would have really liked. I have a bit of a soft spot for Hammer Horror. They were the films my friends and I dared each other to watch back in the 1970s. Their first Dracula film was well received by both audience and critics, but after that, things went rapidly down hill. The sequel, ‘Dracula: Prince of Darkness’ had such an awful script that Lee refused to speak. He hissed his way through the whole part. The film’s script editor insisted that he had never written any lines for the Count in the first place, but this seems unlikely. Lee appeared in a total of seven films for Hammer in the role of Dracula. He knew they were awful, but he kept doing it because they kept reminding him how many people would be put out of work if he didn’t do it. He begged to be allowed to speak a few lines from Stoker’s original story and sometimes he even managed to sneak a few in.
Christopher Lee was born in 1922 in Belgravia, London. Through his mother, he could trace his ancestry back to the first Holy Roman Emperor, Charlemagne. Take a look at this portrait of him, you can really see a family resemblance. Lee’s early life was packed with genuine horror. When he was only seventeen, he witnessed the last public execution by guillotine in France. During World War II, he was attached to both the Long Range Desert Group and the Special Operations Executive, otherwise known as ‘The Ministry for Ungentlemanly Warfare’. Both were forerunners of the present day SAS. He, quite rightly, never spoke specifically about anything he had done, but his work would have included espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance. It would have been dangerous and it would have been horrifying. He did all this before he was twenty-five.
After his experiences during the war, he couldn’t really see himself in an office job and he took up acting instead. For a long time, he found it difficult to get cast in major roles because, at 6′ 5”, people thought he was too tell to be an actor. He thought that was stupid: ‘It’s like saying you’re too short to play the piano.’ But, in 1952, he got a break when he appeared in several films for a series called ‘Douglas Fairbanks Presents’ which was filmed at Elstree and where he played alongside Buster Keaton.
It was at Hammer, between 1957 and 1976 that he really became typecast as a villain. Their films might seem very dated and terribly camp now, but I defy you not to enjoy his ‘Sir Henry Baskerville’ in ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ or his ‘Nicholas, Duc de Richleau’ in ‘The Devil Rides Out’. One of his favourite roles, and probably mine too, was not for Hammer at all, but for British Lion Films when he played the part of Lord Summerisle in ‘The Wicker Man’.
Feeling typecast in horror films, he moved to Hollywood in 1977 but never really got away from playing villains. But he was really good at it and they are the best parts. He has played the James Bond villain ‘Scaramanga’ he has been the Devil, he has even played the part of Death himself.
Lee was a huge Tolkein fan. In fact, he once ran into the author in a bar and managed to persuade him that if ‘The Lord of the Rings’ was ever filmed, he’d be a great Gandalf. When he heard that it was going to be made by Peter Jackson, he deliberately accepted a part as a wizard in a terrible television series about Robin Hood, just to prove that he would make a good wizard. Then he sent a personal letter to the director, along with a picture of himself, dressed as a wizard. But, because he was a natural villain, the part of Gandalf eluded him, but he did make a brilliant Saruman.
I cannot let today go by without telling you that today is also the birthday of one of his co-stars in the horror genre. Vincent Price was also born on May 27th, in 1911. Vincent was cast in some very over-the-top films such as ‘The Abominable Dr Phibes’ and ‘Theatre of Blood’. If you haven’t seen it, I truly recommend ‘The Tingler’ from 1959. It still feel a little disturbing, even now. Its director, William Castle, was a master of the cinema gimmick. If you’d gone to see it when it was released you would have found a nurse at the cinema, ready to treat anyone who fainted with terror. You might also have found you were sitting on a seat that vibrated suddenly and unexpectedly, to make you jump out of it.
Vincent loved a practical joke. He once stood in for his own wax dummy at a museum. He suddenly moved and squirted the visitors with a syringe filled with water. As they shared a birthday, he, Christopher Lee and also Peter Cushing, who celebrated his birthday the day before on May 26th, all hired out the Chamber of Horrors at Madame Tussaud’s for a party. He said: “It was wonderful fun. You couldn’t tell who were the actors.”