Christopher Lee Biography

Christopher Lee Biography on Monsters and Critics


"Christopher Frank Carandini Lee" CBE, CStJ (born 27 May 1922) is a two-time Screen Actors Guild Award-nominated, Saturn Award-winning English actor. He initially portrayed villains and became famous for his role as Count Dracula in a string of Hammer Horror films. Other notable roles include Lord Summerisle in "The Wicker Man," Francisco Scaramanga in "The Man with the Golden Gun", as well as Saruman in the "Lord of the Rings" film trilogy. Lee's most important role, according to him, was his portrayal of Pakistan's founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah in the biopic "Jinnah". His most recent film is "The Golden Compass", where he plays the Magisterium's First High Counselor. Despite a critically acclaimed career that spans over seven decades, Lee has never been nominated for an Academy Award.


Early life

Lee was born in Belgravia, England, the son of Contessa Estelle Marie (née Carandini di Sarzano) and Lieutenant-Colonel Geoffrey Trollope Lee of the 60th King's Royal Rifle Corps. Lee's mother was a famous Edwardian beauty who was painted by Sir John Lavery, as well as Oswald Birley and Olive Snell, and was sculpted by Clare F. Sheridan, a cousin of Sir Winston Churchill. Lee's maternal great-grandfather had been an Italian political refugee who sought refuge in Australia.

His parents separated when he was very young and his mother took him and his sister to Switzerland. After enrolling in Miss Fisher's Academy in Wengen, he played his first villainous role as Rumpelstiltskin. The family returned to London where Christopher attended Wagner's private school. His mother then married Harcourt 'Ingle' Rose, a banker and uncle of the James Bond author Ian Fleming. Lee then attended Wellington College where he won scholarships in classics. Lee witnessed the execution of Eugen Weidmann, the last person to be publically executed in France, in June 1939. He volunteered to fight for the Finnish forces during the Winter War against the Soviet Union in 1939; however, as Lee admits in his autobiography, he and his fellow British volunteers were in Finland only a fortnight and kept well away from the Russian forces the whole time. He went on to serve in the Royal Air Force and intelligence services during World War II including serving as an Intelligence officer with the Long Range Desert Group. He trained in South Africa as a pilot but eyesight problems forced him to drop out. He eventually ended up in North Africa as Cipher Officer for No. 260 Squadron RAF and was with it through Sicily and Italy. Additionally, he has mentioned serving in Special Operations Executive, though all details of actions undertaken by members of the SOE are still classified. Lee retired from the RAF after the end of the War with the rank of Flight Lieutenant.

Career as an actor

In 1946, Lee gained a seven-year contract with Rank Organisation after discussing his interest in acting with his mother's second cousin Nicolò Carandini, the Italian Ambassador. Carandini related to Lee that performance was in his blood as his great-grandmother Marie Carandini had been a successful opera singer in Australia, a fact of which Lee was unaware. He made his film debut in Terence Young's Gothic romance, "Corridor of Mirrors", in 1948.

In 1948, Lee made an uncredited appearance in Laurence Olivier's film of "Hamlet" as a spear carrier (marking his first film with frequent costar Peter Cushing, who played Osric). Throughout the next decade, he made nearly thirty films, playing mostly stock action characters.

Lee's first film for Hammer, made in 1957 with his close friend Peter Cushing, was "The Curse of Frankenstein" in which he played Frankenstein's monster. That led to his first appearance as the infamous Transylvanian bloodsucker in the 1958 film "Dracula" (known as "Horror of Dracula" in the US). Stories vary as to why Lee did not feature in the 1960 sequel "The Brides of Dracula". Some state Hammer were unwilling to pay Lee his current fee but most tend to believe that he simply did not wish to be typecast. Lee did, however, return to the role in Hammer's "Dracula: Prince of Darkness" in 1965. Lee's performance is notable in that he has no lines, merely hissing his way through the film. Again, stories vary as to the reason for this: Lee states he refused to speak the poor dialogue he was given, but writer Jimmy Sangster claims that the script did not contain any lines for the character. This film set the standard for most of the Dracula sequels in the sense that half the film's running time was spent on telling the story of Dracula's resurrection and the character's appearances were brief. Lee has gone on record to state that he was virtually 'blackmailed' by Hammer into starring in the subsequent films; unable or unwilling to pay him his going rate, they would resort to reminding him of how many people he would put out of work if he did not take part.

His performances in the following three films (1968's "Dracula Has Risen from the Grave", 1969's "Taste the Blood of Dracula" and 1970's "Scars of Dracula") all gave the character very little to do but were each commercially successful. Although Lee may not have liked what Hammer were doing with the character, worldwide audiences embraced the films which are now considered classics of the genre. Lee starred in two further Dracula films for Hammer in the early 70's, both of which attempted to bring the character into the modern day era. Neither was commercially successful. Lee's other work for Hammer included performances as "The Mummy" (1959), Rasputin in "Rasputin, the Mad Monk" (Lee apparently met Rasputin's assassin Felix Yussupov when he was a child), and Sir Henry Baskerville to Cushing's Sherlock Holmes in "The Hound of the Baskervilles". He was also responsible for bringing acclaimed occult author Denis Wheatley to Hammer. The company made two films from Wheatley's novels, both starring Lee. The first, 1967's "The Devil Rides Out", is generally considered to be one of Hammer's crowning achievements. According to Lee, Wheatley was so pleased with it that he offered the actor the film rights to his remaining black magic novels free of charge. However, the second, 1976's "To the Devil a Daughter", was fraught with production difficulties, and was disowned by its author. Although financially successful, it was Hammer's last horror film, and marked the end of Lee's long association with the studio that brought him fame.

Lee also co-starred with Boris Karloff in the 1958 film "Corridors of Blood". Like Cushing, he also appeared in horror films for other companies during the 20 year period from 1957 to 1977. Notable performances included the Jekyll and Hyde roles in "I, Monster" (1971), "The Creeping Flesh" (1972) and Lee's personal favourite "The Wicker Man". Lee was attracted to the latter role by screenwriter Antony Schaffer and apparently gave his services for free as the budget was so small.

Since the mid 70s Lee has eschewed horror roles almost entirely, proving himself to be an extremely able and versatile actor. He played in the well-known James Bond series. Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond spy novels, had offered him the role of the title character in the first official Bond film "Dr. No". Lee enthusiastically accepted, but the producers had already chosen Joseph Wiseman for the part. In 1974, Lee finally got to play a James Bond villain when he was cast as the deadly assassin Francisco Scaramanga in "The Man with the Golden Gun".

Because of his filming schedule in Bangkok, film director Ken Russell was unable to sign Lee to play The Specialist in "Tommy" (1975). That role was eventually given to Jack Nicholson. According to an AMC documentary on "Halloween", John Carpenter states that he offered the role of Sam Loomis to Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee before Donald Pleasance took the role. Years later, Lee would meet Carpenter and tell him that the biggest regret of his career was not taking the role of Dr. Loomis. In 1978, Lee surprised many people with his deft comedy timing and willingness to go along with a joke as guest host on NBC's "Saturday Night Live".

Lee also appeared in the series of Fu Manchu films from 1965 to 1969, starring as the eponymous villain in heavy oriental make-up. In 1998, Lee starred in the role of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, founder of modern Pakistan, in the film "Jinnah".

He auditioned for a role in "The Longest Day" but was turned down as he did not look like a military man (despite having served in the RAF during World War II). Lee acted in the 1970 movie "Eugenie" unaware that it was softcore pornography, because the sex scenes were shot separately and edited in with his own appearances afterwards. Lee has played roles in over 220 films since 1948. He has had many notable television roles, including that of Flay in the BBC television miniseries, based on Mervyn Peake's novels, "Gormenghast", and Stefan Cardinal Wyszy?ski in the 2005 CBS film "John Paul the Second". He played Lucas de Beaumanoir, the Grand Master of the Templar Order, in the 1990s BBC/A&E co-production of Sir Walter Scott's 'Ivanhoe.'

Lee starred as Saruman in the "Lord of the Rings" movie trilogy. (In the commentary he states he was approached to play Gandalf, but said he was too old. Gandalf was then given to Ian McKellen and Lee played Saruman.) Lee had met Tolkien once (making him the only person in the Lord of the Rings film trilogy to have done so), and makes a habit of reading the novels at least once a year. In addition, he performed for the album "The Lord of the Rings: Songs and Poems by J. R. R. Tolkien" in 2003. Lee had his appearance in the third film's theatrical release cut, resulting in a frosty friendship with Peter Jackson, however, it was reinstated in the extended edition.

The "Lord of the Rings" marked the beginning of a small revival of his career that continued in "Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones" and "Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith" in which he played Count Dooku, a name allegedly chosen to reflect his fame playing Count Dracula. His autobiography states that he did much of the swordplay himself, though a double was required for the more vigorous footwork. His good friend and frequent co-star, Peter Cushing, portrayed the equally icy Grand Moff Tarkin in "Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope". In the fantasy movie "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory", Lee played the role of Dr. Wilbur Wonka, the strict father of the star character Willy Wonka.

He was slated to appear as a ballad soloist called The Gentleman Ghost in Tim Burton's film version of the Stephen Sondheim musical, "Sweeney Todd". However, shortly after filming began Tim Burton made the decision to omit all chorus singing, as it did not work in the context of a film. As a result, his character, as well as the characters of eight other actors, were cut before they were filmed. However, according to Tim Burton, Lee, as well as the rest of the ballad soloists, were present for the recording session and did, in fact, record their musical numbers.

A rare appearance with his head shaved to look bald can be seen in 1970 film "The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes", directed by Billy Wilder. According to the "Oracle of Bacon" website at the University of Virginia, Lee is ranked second (just behind Rod Steiger) as the 'Center of the Hollywood Universe' due to his large number of films with a correspondingly large number of different castmates.

In addition to more than a dozen feature films together for Hammer Films, Amicus Productions and other companies, Lee and Peter Cushing both appeared in "Hamlet" (1948) and "Moulin Rouge" (1952) albeit in separate scenes; and in separate installments of the "Star Wars" films, Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin in the original film, Lee years later as Count Dooku. The last project which united them in person was a documentary, "Flesh and Blood, the Hammer Heritage of Horror," which they jointly narrated. It was the last time they saw each other as Cushing died two months later. While they frequently played off each other as mortal enemies onscreen - Lee's Count Dracula to Cushing's Professor Van Helsing - they were close friends in real life.

Lee appeared on the cover of the Wings album "Band on the Run" along with other people, including chat show host Michael Parkinson, movie actor James Coburn, world boxing champion John Conteh and broadcaster Clement Freud.

Lee is also one of the favorite actors of Tim Burton and has became a regular in many of Burton's films, in 1999 he had a short appearance as a judge in the film 'Sleepy Hollow'.

In 2005, he played Stefan Wyszy?ski in the TV miniseries Pope John Paul II.

Voice work

Lee sings on the "The Wicker Man" soundtrack, performing Paul Giovanni's psych folk composition, 'The Tinker of Rye'. He also sings the closing credits song of the 1994 horror movie Funny Man. His most notable musical work on film, however, appears in the strange superhero comedy/rock musical The Return of Captain Invincible (1983) which Lee steals with a raucous song and dance number called 'Name Your Poison', written by Richard O'Brien.

Lee provided the off-camera voice of 'U.N. Owen,' the mysterious host who brings disparate characters together in Agatha Christie's "Ten Little Indians" (1965). The film was produced by Harry Alan Towers, for whom Lee had worked repeatedly in the 1960s. Even though he is not credited on the film, the voice is unmistakable.

Lee appears on Peter Knight and Bob Johnson's (of Steeleye Span) 1970s concept album "The King of Elfland's Daughter". Lee also provided the voices for the roles of DiZ (Ansem the Wise) in the video game "Kingdom Hearts II" and of Pastor Galswells in Tim Burton's Corpse Bride, then again as the narrator on The Nightmare Before Christmas's poem written by Tim Burton as well.

He contributed his voice, as Death, in the animated versions of Terry Pratchett's "Soul Music" and "Wyrd Sisters" and reprised the role in the Sky1 live action adaptation The Colour of Magic, taking over the role from the late Ian Richardson.

He is fluent in English, Italian, French, Spanish and German, and moderately proficient in Swedish, Russian and Greek. He was the original voice of Thor in the German dubs in the Danish 1986 animated movie "Valhalla", and of King Haggard in the 1982 animated adaptation of "The Last Unicorn".

Lee bridged two disparate genres of music by performing a heavy metal variation of the "Toreador Song" from the opera "Carmen" with the band Inner Terrestrials. Lee narrated and sang for the Danish musical group The Tolkien Ensemble, taking the role of Treebeard, King Théoden and others in the readings or singing of their respective poems or songs. Lee also appeared as a narrator for Italian symphonic fantasy power metal band Rhapsody of Fire, playing the Wizard King in the latest two albums, "Symphony of Enchanted Lands II: The Dark Secret" and "Triumph or Agony". He narrates several tracks in the two albums, as well as singing a duet with lead vocalist Fabio Lione in the single 'The Magic of the Wizard's Dream' from the "Symphony of Enchanted Lands II" album.Lee was the voice of Lucan D'Lere in the trailers for "Everquest II".

Some thirty years after playing Francisco Scaramanga in "The Man with the Golden Gun", Lee provided the voice of Scaramanga in the video game "GoldenEye: Rogue Agent".

In 2007, Lee voiced the transcript of The Children of Húrin, by J.R.R. Tolkien for the audiobook version of the novel.

Lee reprised his role of Count Dooku in the animated film "Star Wars: The Clone Wars" but did not appear in the "TV series".


In 2001, Lee was appointed Commander of The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE) by Queen Elizabeth II. Lee was named 2005's 'most marketable star in the world' in a "USA Today" newspaper poll, after three of the films he appeared in grossed US$640 million.


The Carandinis, Lee's maternal ancestors, were given the right to bear the coat of arms of the Holy Roman Empire by the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. Cinemareview cites: 'Cardinal Consalvi was Papal Secretary of State at the time of Napoleon and is buried at the Pantheon in Rome next to the painter Raphael. His painting, by Lawrence, hangs in Windsor Castle'. Lee's great-grandparents formed Australia's first opera company, performing before miners in towns in the outback.

Lee is a step-cousin of Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond spy novels. He has been married to the Danish model Birgit Kroencke (also known as Gitte Lee) since 1961. They have a daughter named Christina (born 23 November 1963). He is also the uncle of the British actress Harriet Walter.


Lee is a known cigar aficionado with a love for the Cuban cigar brand Montecristo. He once said 'What are these? I do not smoke cigars such as these, I only smoke Montecristo!' as an answer to an offer to smoke a different kind of cigar. His Montecristo of choice is the No 1, a Lonsdale.

Lee also has a longstanding personal interest in the occult, maintaining a library of over 12,000 books which is largely devoted to the topic. This is discussed in his autobiography, "Tall, Dark and Gruesome".

Books by Christopher Lee

"Christopher Lee's Treasury of Terror", Pyramid Publications, 1966

"Christopher Lee's New Chamber of Horrors", Souvenir Press, 1974

"Christopher Lee's Archives of Terror", Warner Books, Volume I, 1975; Volume 2, 1976

"Tall, Dark and Gruesome" (autobiography), W. H. Allen, 1977 and 1999

"Lord of Misrule" (autobiography, a revised and expanded edition of "Tall, Dark and Gruesome"), Orion Publishing Group Ltd., 2004

Books contributed to

"The Gospel of Filth" (Reference of the dark influences behind gothic metal artists, Cradle of Filth), Gavin Baddeley & Dani Filth, Date TBC (Estimated 10/31/07), FAB Press


Video games

"Ghosts" - Dr. Marcus Grimalkin/Himself (1994)

"The Rocky Interactive Horror Show" - Narrator (1999)

"Conquest: Frontier Wars" - Anvil/Headquarters (2001)

"The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" - Saruman The White (2002)

"Freelancer" (2003)

"The Lord of the Rings: The Return of The King" - Saruman The White (2003)

"EverQuest II" - Lucan D'Lere (2004)

"GoldenEye: Rogue Agent" - Francisco Scaramanga (2004)

"The Lord of the Rings: The Third Age" - Saruman The White (2004)

"The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-earth" - Saruman The White (2004)

"Lego Star Wars: The Video Game" - Count Dooku (2005)

"Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (video game)" - Count Dooku (2005)

"Kingdom Hearts II" - DiZ/Ansem the Wise (2006)

"The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-earth II: The Rise of the Witch-king" - Saruman The White (2006)

"Kingdom Hearts Re: Chain Of Memories" -DiZ/Ansem the Wise (2008)


The Wicker Man soundtrack (1973)

"Annie Get Your Gun" (1995) (JAY Records recording of Annie Get Your Gun)

"The Rocky Horror Show" (1995) (JAY Records recording of The Rocky Horror Show)

"Devils, Rogues & Other Villains" (1998)

"The King and I" (1998) (JAY Records recording of The King and I)

"Musicality of Lerner and Loewe" (2002) Christopher Lee sings Wandering Star on this recording (Musicality of Lerner and Loewe)

"Symphony of Enchanted Lands II: The Dark Secret (2004)

"Lord of the Rings: Songs and Poems by J. R. R. Tolkien" (2003)

"Triumph or Agony" (2006)

"Revelation" (2006)

External links

(Official Christopher Lee web site)

(Christopher Lee on the making of legends and Jinnah)

(Bizarre Magazine interview)

(Concerning his role in "The Lord of the Rings" movies)

(Guardian Unlimited Profile)

( interview in which he mentions work with SOE)

(Christopher Lee Community)

(Christopher Lee interview 2007)


This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article about Christopher Lee.