Christopher Lee: The Greatest Actor of Them All

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Andy Markham pays tribute the the late Sir Christopher Lee.

Today has been a very sad and upsetting day for cinema-lovers everywhere, with the news that Sir Christopher Lee has passed away at the age of 93. The news has made a profound impact around the world and across generations, and it is clear that throughout his long, eventful lifetime, Sir Christopher made an impression on cinema-goers far beyond that of simply being a marvellous actor. Join me for a look back at Sir Christopher Lee's life, as I explain why for me, he is quite simply the greatest actor who has ever lived.

For an older generation of film fans, the name Christopher Lee will immediately conjure up the terrifying, striking image of Count Dracula. Lee played Dracula several times for the legendary Hammer Horror studio, alongside fellow stalwart Peter Cushing. Although the character of Dracula was very well-loved long before Christopher turned his eye to the part, his performance and appearance is without doubt the most iconic and oft-imitated incarnation of the Count. It is with this role that Lee quickly established himself as a singularly gifted villainous presence, that could strike fear into the heart of even the most hardy viewers.

And it is this trait of Lee's that so many will most readily recall. Gradually carving out a niche for himself and fully embracing the typecasting that ensued, Christopher Lee managed to reign for many years as the go-to actor for sinister, chilling villains. But it's not this achievement that is noteworthy - it's rather that Lee so often imbued his characters with a charm, humanity and depth that elevated them beyond standard villain fare, and enabled him to steal the show in dozens if not scores of films of the 1960s and 70s. Most memorable for many is his stunning performance as Scaramanga in 1974 Bond flick The Man with the Golden Gun. Wilfully ignoring the megalomaniac archetype of most Bond villains, Lee masterfully realised the character as the most likeable, endearing and utterly charming of all the Bond villains - and was consequently by far the best thing about the film. With a temperament so friendly and warm that the viewer almost supported him, Lee switches to his cold, calculating persona in an instant, as the film approaches his climax, and suddenly he is more terrifying than ever before. With this role, Lee gives us a window into the true skill of his work.

Nevertheless, this is not to say that Lee's career can be characterised as one of unending villainy - and he showed his versatility to an astonishing degree in Jinnah (1998). With this role, Lee was careful to never simplify or magnify any aspects of the titular founder of Pakistan, deftly playing the ambiguities and complexities of Jinnah's story with a level of detail that truly proves that Lee was an actor who always deeply understood and was fully in control of his character. It is not surprising that Lee himself labelled this role as his proudest achievement.

As the decades wore on and the 20th century passed into the 21st, Christopher Lee, approaching 80, was well within his rights to have a well-earned rest and take his place as a revered icon of 20th century cinema. However, Lee set an admirable example for all as he secured the roles of The Lord of the Rings (2001-3) dastardly Saruman the White and lead villain Count Dooku in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones' (2002), which together catapulted Lee back to the heights of celebrity and thoroughly secured his place as one of the most famous and enduringly popular actors in the business. This began a highly unexpected and almost uniquely late career revival for Lee, who went on to become a regular figure in Tim Burton's works, and a firm favourite of Peter Jackson, who went out of his way to accommodate a return to Middle-Earth for Saruman in The Hobbit trilogy (2012-2014).

It's also easy to forget that in 93 years, there was quite a lot to Chrstopher Lee other than his acting work. Outside of the silver screen, Christopher Lee was a truly fascinating figure. During World War II, a young Lee was involved in highly secretive work, dispatching Nazi agents and apparently revealing very little on the subject in his later life. Amongst other notable anecdotes involving Lee are that he released two heavy metal albums in recent years, which received critical acclaim and won plaudits within the industry, that he was the only cast member of The Lord of the Rings to have met J.R.R. Tolkien himself, and he was also cousin of James Bond creator Ian Fleming. An intriguing background indeed.

It's also widely believed that Lee had a great fascination for the occult, stemming right back to his genre-defining performance in The Wicker Man (1973). Although he quite clearly had an interest in the black arts, to what extent is unclear. He disputed claims that he had an enormous library full of old books about black magic, but those metal albums...

Sadly, nothing lasts forever, and despite his truly epic return to prominence in later life, age finally caught up with the now-knighted Sir Christopher by the time he appeared in The Hobbit trilogy, struggling to provide much for the films beyond dialogue scenes. No amount of camera trickery could disguise how upsettingly frail and tired he looked. Deep down, it was clear to most movie-goers that Christopher Lee's long and illustrious career was coming to an end. But as such an iconic, eternal figure, it was something of a struggle for his many, many fans to imagine how he could ever leave the world permanently. For Lee-lovers everywhere, this is a day we all deeply hoped would never come.

For we have not just lost a wonderful actor today - we have lost a cinematic figure of such skill, majesty and lust for life that something of cinema itself feels like it has been lost. Sir Christopher Lee brought such an enthusiasm, dedication and towering presence to every film he touched, that few can ever hope to have such an impact on the screen. He will be truly irreplaceable, and leaves behind a legacy that is utterly staggering, and filled with a wild abundance of dazzling memories. Today, we have lost the greatest actor of them all, and he will be missed so very much.

Rest in peace, Sir Christopher Lee - King of Cinema.

Andy is a writer, musician, graduate, and super-geek. Ginger glasses-wearer. Star Wars obsessive and Doctor Who enthusiast. Specialises in film music and currently writing his first book on the subject.

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