Star Wars’ Count Dooku, The Lord of the Rings’ Saruman and, of course, Dracula: Christopher Lee has portrayed some of the most iconic villains in cinema history. But there was much more to the late actor’s talents than dramatic flair. That’s right: before his rise to fame, the British film legend had quite the career in the military, too.
Lee first caught the public’s attention in the 1950s, an era when Hammer established itself as the ultimate scarefest studio. With his imposing 6’4” frame and deep baritone voice, the Brit became a no-brainer when it came to casting baddies. Lee played Frankenstein’s monster, The Mummy and, perhaps most famously, Count Dracula.
But Lee was just as menacing away from the horror genre. In the 1960s he took center stage as the criminal genius Fu Manchu in no fewer than five adaptations of Sax Rohmer’s novels. And in 1974 the star played Roger Moore’s nemesis Francisco Scaramanga in James Bond flick The Man with the Golden Gun.
Even as an octogenarian, Lee was still very much a harbinger of doom. He appeared as Count Dooku in two of George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels. And for those who immersed themselves in the Middle Earth world of The Lord of the Rings, Lee will always be the malevolent force known as Saruman.
Yet Lee truly believed that his finest ever on-screen performance came in a little-known 1998 film called Jinnah. The British thespian portrayed the titular founder of Pakistan in the low-budget biopic. Unfortunately, the controversy surrounding his casting as Muhammad Ali Jinnah meant that most movie theaters gave it the cold shoulder.
So how did Lee get into the film industry in the first place? Well, he was encouraged by Nicolò Carandini, an Italian relative who, as the president of a major airline, had friends in high places. Despite having no previous acting experience, Lee was offered a seven-year deal with the Rank Organisation. Mind you, their faith in the untested Brit didn’t immediately pay off.
Yes, Lee struggled with his method-acting training with the organization. There was also a disastrous stage appearance in which he was laughed at for putting his hand through part of the set that was supposed to represent a “glass” window. The star subsequently vowed never to grace theaters again. Yet he proved to be much more comfortable in front of a camera.
Lee was given his film break by Terence Young with a small role in 1948’s Corridor of Mirrors. During the following decade, the Brit essentially accepted any part he was offered. And his prolific work ethic eventually reaped its rewards when he was cast as the titular vampire in the iconic 1958 Hammer horror feature Dracula. Mind you, while the movie raked in over $30 million at the box office, Lee was paid a little less than a grand.
Following his launch to global fame, Lee would portray the blood-sucking monster in numerous other Hammer horror vehicles. As a result, he joined Peter Cushing, Vincent Price and Boris Karloff as one of the kings of mid-20th-century horror. Yet the actor would later admit that he should have vacated the role much earlier than he did.
Despite his household-name status, Lee continued to take any work that he could find. When the parts dried up in his homeland, he simply looked to the continent. Lee’s impressive multi-lingual abilities made him an attractive proposition for filmmakers in the likes of Germany, Spain, Italy and France.
In 1973 Lee got critics on board with his menacing performance in The Wicker Man. The star terrified audiences as Lord Summerisle, the pagan leader responsible for – spoiler alert – the nightmarish demise of Edward Woodward’s cop. Although the film was made for a relative pittance, it’s widely regarded as one of the most effective horrors of the decade.
A year later Lee delivered another memorable performance as Francisco Scaramanga in The Man with the Golden Gun. The star walked away with the biggest paycheck of his career at that point, approximately $50,000. He was later quoted by The Guardian newspaper as saying, “The Bonds get the big money, and they save on the heavies.”
Soon after, Lee headed for the bright lights of Hollywood. There, he starred in disaster flick Airport and hosted a memorable episode of Saturday Night Live when the show was in its prime, faced by stars Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi. By the end of the decade, the actor had added a further 40 films to his already-packed resume.
And Lee could have added another iconic horror film to that list had he not become uncharacteristically choosy. Yes, the actor renowned for saying ‘yes’ to everything once said ‘no’ to a role in John Carpenter’s pioneering slasher movie Halloween. Lee later cited this as one of his biggest career regrets.
Lee remained just as much a workaholic throughout the ’80s and ’90s. Toward the end of the latter decade he would appear in Sleepy Hollow, the first of five collaborations with Tim Burton. And the star broadened his acting horizons even further, making films in Russia, the Baltics, New Zealand, the Balkans and Pakistan.
In the 21st century, an entire new generation of cinemagoers would be introduced to Lee’s many considerable talents. In 2001 he played villainous wizard Saruman in The Lord of the Rings. The actor would reprise the role in The Two Towers, The Return of the King and The Hobbit series, too. And in 2002 he ventured into another iconic fantasy universe with the role of Count Dooku in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones.
Lee’s status as a British national treasure was confirmed in 2009 when he was knighted by the Queen. Within a few years he’d also been given a Lifetime Achievement Award by the BAFTAs and a Fellowship by the British Film Institute (BFI). But Lee was just as revered elsewhere, as evidenced when France honored him with the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. He was similarly celebrated with an award in Germany, landing the Deutscher Videopreis Lifetime Achievement Award in Munich in 2001.
But what about Christopher Lee the man? Well, he had one of the most stable relationships in all of Hollywood. In 1961 the legendary actor walked down the aisle with Birgit Kroencke, a one-time model who hailed from Denmark and with whom he would spend the rest of his life. And two years after becoming husband and wife, the pair welcomed daughter Christina into the world.
According to reports, though, Lee wasn’t always the most sociable person. Unlike fellow horror legends Price and Cushing, Lee appreciated neither being stopped in the street by fans, nor jokes about his Hammer Horror roles. And Roger Moore reportedly enjoyed making fun of his deadly seriousness while filming The Man with the Golden Gun.
Lee also seemed to be wary of the press. Although he enjoyed talking about himself in interviews, he was often left dissatisfied with what made it to print. The star took particular umbrage whenever an article referred to his Hammer background. Lee was also told to give reporters a wide berth by one of his acting heroes, Burt Lancaster.
Of course, some believe that Lee’s stand-offish nature stemmed from his experiences in the military. That’s right: long before he made the iconic character of Dracula his own, the actor spent time in both the Special Air Service (SAS) and the Special Operations Executive (SOE). And he’d regularly have to make life-or-death choices, too.
Lee was perhaps always destined to serve in the military. His dad Geoffrey was an army colonel who had served in World War I. A year after volunteering for Finland during their 1939 Winter War against Russia, Lee signed up to the Royal Air Force aged just 18 years old.
Sadly for Lee, his fighter pilot ambitions were soon quashed thanks to a medical issue. A routine examination discovered a damaged optic nerve that instantly ruled him out from taking to the cockpit. Instead, Lee was appointed as a field agent, serving in Rhodesia – and its later incarnation of Zimbabwe – as well as South Africa as part of various undercover operations.
Lee was initially deployed to the LRDG, aka the Long Range Desert Group that later became the SAS. The future Hollywood star spent 1941 helping to destroy Luftwaffe airplanes while moving behind enemy lines. Lee traveled across Egypt and to the Libyan cities of Tobruk and Benghazi during his stint as a saboteur.
Following the surrender of some Axis powers in 1943, the British Army assigned Lee to a Gurkha regiment as part of a swap scheme. The Londoner was tasked with officiating the 8th Indian Infantry Division while The Battle of Monte Cassino raged on. But you’re out of luck if you want to know much more about this particular time.
In 2011 Lee told The Daily Telegraph newspaper, “I was attached to the SAS from time to time but we are forbidden – former, present or future – to discuss any specific operations. Let’s just say I was in Special Forces and leave it at that. People can read into that what they like.”
Lee reportedly often promised to reveal further details in other interviews. But this was just an example of his sense of humor. Whenever he was asked about his experiences in the SAS, the Hammer star replied, “Can you keep a secret?” When the journalist answered, “Yes,” a mischievous Lee responded, “So can I.”
But we do also know that Lee prevented an uprising while serving as an intelligence offer with the No.260 Squadron RAF. Yes, the actor managed to calm down troops who’d threatened to defy orders after becoming increasingly disillusioned with the lack of information regarding the eastern front. And his efforts didn’t go unnoticed.
Lee was soon transferred to the SOE due to both his negotiation skills and multilingual abilities. There, he helped to track down war criminals as part of a reconnaissance mission in occupied Europe. In 2015 Lee explained to The Independent newspaper, “We were given dossiers of what they’d done and told to find them, interrogate them as much as we could and hand them over to the appropriate authority.”
As you would expect, Lee witnessed myriad horrors during this period, many of which left a long-lasting impact. In 2009 he told The Times newspaper, “We saw these concentration camps. Some had been cleaned up. Some had not.” According to The Independent, the star also once stated that his real-life experiences in the war left him immune to any of the fictional horror on screen.
Lee explained, “I’ve seen many men die right in front of me – so many in fact that I’ve become almost hardened to it. Having seen the worst that human beings can do to each other, the results of torture, mutilation and seeing someone blown to pieces by a bomb, you develop a kind of shell. But you had to. You had to. Otherwise we would never have won.”
Although Lee was often reluctant to talk about his time in the war, he wasn’t averse to drawing upon his experiences on the film set. While shooting – spoiler alert – his death scene in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the star was instructed by Peter Jackson to make a particular noise. But Lee soon put him straight.
Lee reportedly told Jackson, “See, it’s not ‘argh’ when you’re stabbed in the back, it’s actually more of a ‘uh’ because the breath is driven out of your body.” Sitting alongside Barrie M. Osbourne, the films’ producer, Jackson later acknowledged that Lee knew more about such experiences. And that’s why you don’t hear Saruman scream.
Following his retirement from the military in 1946, Lee’s bravery was recognized by several different countries. Governments in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and, of course, his British homeland all decorated the actor with various medals for his services. He also became friends with the Partisan resistance movement leader Josip Broz Tito.
Several of these honors were put up for auction in 2017. The Defence Medal and the Africa Star awarded to Lee for his heroics in World War II were part of the set that fetched more than $10,000 at a London auction. Also included was the CBE that the The Wicker Man star was given at the turn of the century.
Lee very nearly lost his own life twice during his traumatic experiences in World War II. But in the end, the Fu Manchu star managed to make it to the grand old age of 93. Yes, Lee passed away in a London hospital from heart failure in 2015. And unsurprisingly, a whole host of famous faces lined up to pay tribute.
Director Tim Burton, who had cast Lee in five of his movies, was quoted by The Guardian as saying, “Christopher has been an enormous inspiration to me my entire life… He was the last of his kind – a true legend – who I’m fortunate to have called a friend. He will continue to inspire me and I’m sure countless others for generations to come.”
Several of Lee’s The Lord of the Rings co-stars took to Twitter following the news. Elijah Wood posted, “An extraordinary man and life led, Sir Christopher Lee. You were an icon, and a towering human being with stories for days. We’ll miss you.” Dominic Monaghan tweeted, “So sorry to hear that Christopher Lee has passed away. He was a fascinating person.”
The British Prime Minister at the time, David Cameron, tweeted, “Saddened to hear of Sir Christopher Lee’s death, a titan of Golden Age of Cinema and distinguished World War II veteran who’ll be greatly missed.” The then-mayor of London Boris Johnson also took to Twitter to pay his respects. Alongside a picture of himself and the late actor, the future Prime Minister described Lee as “one of the greatest British actors and a master of the macabre.”
Some would say it’s ironic that the last of Lee’s many acting credits came from a film set during the period that he served in the military. That’s right: the veteran actor was cast as the narrator for Neil Johnson’s sci-fi The Time War. The movie questions what would have happened had the Germans discovered time travel during World War II.