Thursday, June 11, 2015

Christopher Lee, RIP

The world of cinema is a little poorer today with word that Sir Christopher Lee, a legitimate movie icon if ever there was one, had passed away this past Sunday at age 93 after several years of declining health. With a career stretching back to the 1940s, Lee has been a constant presence on screens for several generations. For many, their first exposure to the iconic star was through his work with England's Hammer Films in the late '50s. Lee first played the Frankenstein monster for the horror factory in 1957's Curse of Frankenstein before transitioning to The Horror of Dracula in 1958.

He reprised the suave Count Dracula nine more times from 1958 to 1976, and his portrayal remains one of the definitive screen versions of the character. Of course, he did more than just Hammer horror, with his face and voice gracing all manner of productions over the next few decades. A mere glance at his filmography is to see the history of film in the modern era. In addition to playing the villainous Scaramanga in 1975's 007 flick The Man With the Golden Gun (playing one of the series' best villains, even while stuck in one of its worst entries). He also clocked a fun cameo in 1990's Gremlins 2, directed by Joe Dante.

For modern audiences, of course, Lee will likely be best remembered for his contributions to two iconic franchises. In 2001, he made the first of five appearances as Saruman the Wise, one of the main characters of author J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth saga. At the time the first Lord of the Rings entry, The Fellowship of the Ring, I remember an interview where the actor, then 79, said his fondest wish was to stay alive long enough to see all three films in the trilogy released. Well, he not only lived long enough for that, but also to play another villainous Count, Dooku, in two of the Star Wars prequels, in 2002 and 2005, and reprise Saruman in two Hobbit films beginning in 2012.

Throughout his lengthy career, in big roles and small, Lee had the unswerving ability add credibility to any production he appeared in with the mere fact of his presence. His face conveyed dignity, his voice conveyed gravity, and by all accounts he was a classy and kind gentleman, remaining gregarious and congenial even as health concerns limited his mobility near the end. At 93 years, you sure can't say Christopher Lee didn't get the most out of his time on this plane, but he had such an outsized persona that a part of me started to think he was just as immortal as the characters he'd spent a lifetime playing.

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