Christopher Lee --Alive And Loving It

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Christopher Lee --
alive and loving it


by James Leavey, editor, The FOREST Guide to Smoking in London
and The FOREST Guide to Smoking in Scotland


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James Leavey
The man behind some of the cinema's most terrifying villains and creatures of the dark was prematurely buried in Baseline's Encyclopedia of Film, which dated his demise at 31 March 1993.So it was with some trepidation that I shook hands with Christopher Lee, biting my tongue to avoid blurting out something obvious like, "Well, I see the sun's gone down, then."

In fact, Christopher Lee looked remarkably undead for a 77-year-old who is in the Guinness Book of Movie Facts & Feats as Britain's most prolific actor - over 254 credits in film and television, and still counting.He plays the leading role in the millennium TV production of Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast.Then there's his umpteen radio credits, talking books, and musical recordings (he can and does sing everything from Broadway to Bayreuth).

The highlight of his TV career was as guest host of Saturday Night Live with John Belushi, Dan Ackroyd and Bill Murray. He is also the only actor who has portrayed Sherlock Holmes and his brother, Mycroft, and he has appeared in more sword fights in front of the camera than probably any other actor in history; Lee did all his own stunts and is an honourary member of three stuntsmens' unions.

In person, Lee is 6' 4 inches tall, bearded, trim, elegant, courteous and loquacious.He had just arrived at JJ Fox at 19 St James's Street, one of his favourite cigar shops, with all his marbles and the aid of the free pensioner's bus pass which he had used to travel from his Knightsbridge home, just behind Harrods.

Lee was born in London in 27 May 1922, the son of a Colonel and an Italian Contessa. He took a scholarship at Eton College (whose Provost at the time was M. R. James, the author of some of the finest ghost stories ever written) and Wellington College, where he was a classical scholar in Greek and Latin.

After World War II, which he spent in intelligence (i.e. as a spy) and special forces, he chanced upon acting, a career he relishes still.

The first thing the last surviving icon of horror did as he sat down was to present me with a cigar cutter and ask me what it resembled.I gave him the right answer, "A guillotine."

CL: I got a call here in London from my cousin, in 1989, and he said, "Are you doing anything in May""He was a Russian film producer and his name was Sarnia.He said, "I'm doing The French Revolution." And I said, "DONE!I know the part you're going to offer me - Sanson, the executioner.I suppose it's obvious but I'll play him the way he really was." He said, " What do you mean""And I said, "He wasn't a blood-stained madman or anything like that, he was a highly skilled artiste and very proud of his job." Anyway I spent every day for two weeks - it's got nothing to do with cigars but I was reminded of it by this cutter - on a disused airfield outside France where they built a scaffold, terminating people. I got them all, the King, the Queen, Robespierre... I actually saw the last public execution in France so I knew exactly how it's done.

JL: Didn't you also meet one of the assassins of Rasputin"

CL: Two.There were five. When I was a small boy I was hauled out of bed by my mother in our home in Kensington saying come downstairs and I'll introduce you to two men who are here for dinner.You probably won't remember what they looked like but one day you'll remember that you met them.

JL: On a different note, I believe you are a frustrated singer"

CL: Oh very, yes. My greatest regret is that I never became an opera singer.I could have been, there's no question about it.

JL: So why didn't you"

CL: When I was 25 I was asked if I would join the Swedish opera company, they would teach me and train me, and eventually after some years I would start singing major roles. But the problem was that I had to pay for my board and lodging and food. And I couldn't afford it.I greatly regretted it and I still do. If you're given something, no matter what it is, you should use it.

JL: After 11 years of small parts in British films of the 1940s and 1950s, your acting career blossomed with Hammer's second horror feature, Dracula, in 1958.Would you ever contemplate playing that character again"

CL: Dracula was certainly the one that made the difference.It brought me a name, a fan club and a second-hand car, for all of which I was grateful.The simple explanation of why I was chosen as the noble leech of Transylvania was that I'd done a competent job the year before as the Creature in The Curse of Frankenstein. Since then, I've played Dracula, 5-6 times. Once, I played it in a Spanish version, El Conde Dracula -it was a dreadful film - but in all these years, and God knows how many times it has been done, it is the only time where Bram Stoker's character appears exactly as he described him - as an old man with white hair and a long drooping moustache dressed entirely in black, getting younger during the film.And to this day in spite of what you may read or see, Stoker's book has never been done exactly as he wrote it, ever.So when people say to me would I do it again, I say well yes I'd consider it but only if it was faithful to the book that Stoker wrote.

JL:You inherited the mantle of cinematic horror from Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff.

CL: I'm the only one who played Dracula, Frankenstein's Creature, the Mummy and Fu Manchu.None of the others did all those. When I first met Karloff, at Southall Studios, he was in his mid-sixties and had been famous for a quarter of a century.It didn't bother him that he had become typecast."Types", he once told me, "are continually in work.If they weren't types they wouldn't be popular."I wasn't myself desirous of being a type, though I could see the force of his argument. I liked Boris from the first, and in thelast years of his life, when we were neighbours in a London square, became deeply attached to him.He was a fine actor with enormous versatility, which he was seldom given a chance to show.Oddly enough, we shared the same birthday, May 27.

JL: You were also great friends with Peter Cushing..

CL: Oh yes.He would have made a wonderful priest….

JL: He looked ascetic….

CL:He was a man full of love and kindness.That ascetic look came after the death of his wife, when he literally became so gaunt it was alarming.

JL: When did you first meet Cushing"

CL: On the set of The Curse of Frankenstein at Bray.Our very first encounter began with me storming into his dressing-room and announcing in petulant tones, "I haven't got any lines!" He looked up, his mouth twitched, and he said drily, "You're lucky.I've read the script."Boris Karloff said to me one day, "Find something other actors cannot do or will not do.If you do it, and it's successful, you'll make your mark, forever."Dracula wasn't the way I expected to do it and for a while I did have a problem with typecasting.Everyone thought I only made horror films - which wasn't true - but this happened for about 12 years.Then I did a picture with Billy Wilder, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, and the question of typecasting simply just went.

JL: Of all the films you've made, which are your favourites"

CL: The films that have been most important to me, aside from those I am about to make, and with a nod to the three fantasy monsters which made me what I am not - the Mummy, the Creature, and the Vampire - were all imperfect, but each enhanced my feeling that I would not trade my occupation for any other.The ones that really mattered to me include Rasputin, the Mad Monk, not only because it was such a good part based on an extraordinary historicalphenomenon, but because of the eerie sense of contact with it through my childhood meeting with his assassin; The Man with the Golden Gun because a lead role in a Bond film is the most public way to go public; The Wicker Man, written by Anthony Shaffer, was the best-scripted film I ever took part in, and it turned out in the end to be a flawed masterpiece. The Devil Rides Out, remains in my head as an ongoing project.Here is a case for the special effects that were beyond anybody's scope at the time.And the case for employing me again, in the same role of the Duc de Dichleau, is that he is in his seventies, and I am now the right age.


Copyright James Leavey, 1999.All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from the Author.

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