It could feasibly be argued that Sir Christopher Lee is responsible for causing more nightmares than any other actor.
The actor, known Master of the Macabre, has starred in some of the most memorable horror films of our time, playing the roles of Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster in the celebrated Hammer horror films. Or Lord Summerisle in hugely unsettling The Wicker Man and many other nefarious characters.
He is one of the most famous James Bond baddies (Scaramanga in The Man With The Golden Gun), and has played evil characters (what else?!) in The Hobbit / Lord of The Ring and Star Wars franchises.
But Lee was more than just a horror actor. Indeed he was more than an actor.
Born in London in 1922, it was not until 1948 that his acting career began in earnest, when he made an uncredited appearance in Laurence Olivier’s film version of Hamlet. Over the next 60 years he would star in around 250 films and become a big screen icon.
However, before his acting career took off he served in the Second World War. He served in the Special Operations Executive, also known as Churchill’s Secret Army, and his battlefield bravery saw him decorated by the Polish, Yugoslavian and Czech governments.
He saw unimaginable horrors which would remain with him for life: “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.”
And at the end of the conflict found himself working for the Central Registry of War Crimes, tasked with finding and prosecuting Nazis.
It was work which exposed him the worst that mankind could do, and took him to concentrations camps all over Europe, including Dachau. “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.
Even as an actor he was full of surprises. Sir Christopher was entered into the Guinness Book of World Records in 2007 for most screen credits, having appeared in 244 film and TV movies by that point in his career. He acknowledged there were a few duds among them – “Every actor has to make terrible films from time to time, but the trick is never to be terrible in them” – but said the art-house film on the Pakistan founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah was his most important work: “The most important film I made, in terms of its subject and the great responsibility I had as an actor was a film I did about the founder of Pakistan, called Jinnah. “It had the best reviews I’ve ever had in my entire career – as a film and as a performance.”
And then there was his ‘other’ career – a heavy metal singer.
He marked his 92nd birthday by releasing an album of heavy metal cover versions
Lee had a longstanding fascination with metal, which he channelled into his own music late in his life. He became a fan of metal in the early Seventies when he first heard Black Sabbath. After the actor praised the band, Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Lommi said “But you’re the one that started it, really, because we used to go watch Dracula and the horror films you did and that’s what influenced us.”
After dabbling in the genre his first complete metal album was Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross, which was critically acclaimed and awarded with the “Spirit of Metal” award from the 2010 Metal Hammer Golden Gods ceremony.
On his 90th birthday in 2012 he announced the release of his new single “Let Legend Mark Me as the King” and he marked his 92nd birthday by releasing an album of heavy metal cover versions.
It resulted in him entering the record books again, this time as the oldest performer in the history of heavy metal.
There are other records to his name too. Lee duelled in 17 films with foils, swords, light sabres and even billiard cues on his way to setting the record for most films with a swordfight by an actor over the course of his illustrious career.
And software mapping the working relationship between 1,250,000 actors and actresses found he was most connected person at the “centre of the Hollywood Universe”.
Beside him all the time was his wife Birgit, who he wed in 1961. The relationship bucked the trend of short-lived Hollywood romances, and Lee had a simple explanation why. When asked what the secret to a long marriage in the film industry was he said: “Marry someone wonderful, as I did. And always have her come along on location.”
His popularity and appeal was there for all to see when, following his death in 2015 aged 93, tributes flooded in from around the world, and not just the world of film.
It really is impossible to pigeon-hole Lee. He was the King of Horror whose favourite role was portraying the founder of Pakistan; a real-life war hero and Nazi hunter; a heavy metal rock star; a devoted and loving husband and family man.
He was more than the Master of the Macabre.