Christopher Lee (Saruman) is still going strong
When Christopher Lee first appeared in The Horror of Dracula, he definitely made a strong impression.
Imposingly tall, Lee first came off like a British gentleman, but when his eyes turned bloodshot red and he bared his fangs, it scared young viewers out of their wits.
Ted Newsom, who made several documentaries about the British Hammer horror films, told me he was nine years old when he saw his first Hammer film with Christopher Lee.
"Everyone knows Bela Lugsi is Draulca," he says. "But that weekend I was proved wrong."
As Martin Scorsese recalled in the book Scorsese on Scorsese, "When I went along to the cinema as a teenager with groups of friends, if we saw the logo of Hammer Films we knew it would be a very special picture.
"There's nothing like the introduction of Dracula in that picture, in which Christopher Lee just walked down the stairs, and said, 'Hello, I'm Dracula.' Having been reared on Bela Lugosi, with whome you knew you were in trouble, Lee seemed like a very sensible, sophisticated gentleman. So [when] Dracula turns up, eyes bloodshot, in an extreme close-up, it was absolutely terrifying."
In Britain, Christopher Lee was indeed a major star in the world of horror, similar to Karloff and Lugosi here, and like many in the horror world, he was typecast because of his height. (Lee is 6'5 and he was reportedly the tallest actor in England at the time.) Actors like Lee and Peter Cushing would have loved to do Shakespeare, but horror paid the bills, and they both became icons in horror playing Dracula, the Frankenstein monster, and Dr. Frankenstein.
As Lee explained in his autobiography, "I hesitated only briefly" about playing the Frankenstein monster. "It was self-evident that this was not the path to glory, but I'd seen the 1931 Karloff film, and it was equally obvious that purely technically it was a tremendous challenge. Besides, my visions of glamour in the business were now totally blown."
With his characteristic dry wit, Lee joked about the heavy make-up he had to wear: "I wasn't getting anywhere looking like myself, so I thought that perhaps people would take a little more notice of me if I looked like nothing on earth." Lee also thought, If I disguise myself to the point where I'm completely unrecognizable, and it works, people will say, "I wonder what he really looks like," which is actually what happened.
Although they were shot fast and furious on tight budgets, the Hammer films had much more class and production value than the usual scare flicks of the time, and where they were once considered the scourge of British society, today they are revered classics.
Lee will turn 90 this May, and he's been acting like crazy in the last decade plus. Filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Peter Jackson and Tim Burton grew up loving the Hammer films, and were more than happy to give Lee parts in Lord of the Rings, Sleepy Hollow, Dark Shadows, and Hugo. (Lee also played Count Dooku in Attack of the Clones, Revenge of the Sith). Lee is also back as Saruman for the next two Hobbit movies.
As reported on Collider, Lee said that these days he doesn't play long parts because he doesn't have the energy, but even with short parts, "They've got to be parts that mean something, that matter, where people will notice when I'm on the screen and people will remember the character after they've seen the film."
That should be easy enough, because Lee's certainly made a strong impression since playing Dracula and Frankenstein way back in the fifties.