The career of Christopher Lee, the veteran screen actor who has received a knighthood in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list, has lasted 60 years and includes roles in more than 250 films.
It is for his long line of memorable villains that he is best known – a distinguished lineage that includes Bond bad guy Scaramanga and evil wizard Saruman in The Lord of the Rings.
The Rings trilogy, coupled with the Star Wars prequels in which he played the nefarious Count Dooku, were the most successful films of his career from a commercial standpoint.
For all that, the 87-year-old will always be associated with Count Dracula, a malevolent hero he invested with a demonic charisma and a dash of sex appeal.
Born into affluence, the imposing actor can trace his lineage to Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman Emperor. After public school he served in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve during the Second World War, where he was mentioned in dispatches.
His screen career began when he joined the Rank Organisation in 1947, training as an actor in their so-called “charm school”. Yet it was his association with British studio Hammer that made him a household name, playing such iconic characters as Frankenstein’s Monster, The Mummy and, of course, Dracula.
Critics said Hammer’s movies were films to disgust the mind and repel the senses, but audiences lapped up their ghoulish, blood-soaked excesses.
Lee would go on to reprise his trademark role in a number of sequels before finally laying him to rest in the 1970s. A move to Hollywood offered a wider range of characters to sink his teeth into – among them a gay Hell’s Angel in 1980 film Serial. A measure of his popularity came when he hosted Saturday Night Live, a comedy show watched by 35 million Americans.
Among hundreds of films, Lee’s personal favourite is cult thriller The Wicker Man. He also cites Jinnah, a biopic of Pakistan’s founder, as his most important work.
“It had the best reviews I’ve ever had in my entire career – as a film and as a performance,” he told the BBC News website in 2004. A distant cousin and golfing partner of James Bond creator Ian Fleming, Lee was in the frame to play Doctor No in the first Bond movie.
Joseph Wiseman won the part, but Christopher Lee would later appear opposite Roger Moore’s 007 in 1974′s The Man With The Golden Gun.
In 2000 he was seen as Flay, the loyal yet verbally challenged manservant in the BBC adaptation of Gormenghast. In recent years he has also been seen in a number of Tim Burton movies, among them Sleepy Hollow and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
In the flesh, the tall and authoritative actor is nothing like the larger-than-life grotesques who chilled generations of moviegoers.
His knighthood for services to drama and charity reflects the esteem with which he is held and his unique ability to make screen villainy devilishly attractive.
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