Yesterday brought the unfortunate news that legendary actor Sir Christopher Lee had passed away at the age of 93 after being hospitalized for respiratory problems and heart failure. Following the announcement of his passing, his friends and collaborators Peter Jackson and Ian McKellen, who worked with him on all three “Lord of the Rings” and two of “The Hobbit” films, each penned tributes to the late actor which you can read below.
It is with tremendous sadness that I learnt of the passing of Sir Christopher Lee. He was 93 years old, had not been in his usual good health for some time, but his spirit remained, as always, indomitable.
Christopher spoke seven languages; he was in every sense, a man of the world; well versed in art, politics, literature, history and science. He was scholar, a singer, an extraordinary raconteur and of course, a marvelous actor. One of my favourite things to do whenever I came to London would be to visit with Christopher and Gitte where he would regale me for hours with stories about his extraordinary life. I loved to listen to them and he loved to tell them – they were made all the more compelling because they were true – stories from his time with the SAS, through the Second World War, to the Hammer Horror years and later, his work with Tim Burton – of which he was enormously proud.
I was lucky enough to work with Chris on five films all told and it never ceased to be a thrill to see him on set. I remember him saying on my 40th Birthday (he was 80 at the time), “You’re half the man I am”. Being half the man Christopher Lee is, is more than I could ever hope for. He was a true gentleman, in an era that no longer values gentleman.
I grew up loving Christopher Lee movies. For most of my life I was enthralled by the great iconic roles he not only created – but continued to own decades later. But somewhere along the way Christopher Lee suddenly, and magically, dissolved away and he became my friend, Chris. And I loved Chris even more.
There will never be another Christopher Lee. He has a unique place in the history of cinema and in the hearts of millions of fans around the world.
The world will be a lesser place without him in it.
My deepest sympathies to Gitte and to his family and friends.
Rest in peace, Chris.
An icon of cinema has passed into legend.
When I arrived in New Zealand to start filming as Gandalf, in the first week of the 21st Century, Peter Jackson held a dinner for some of the cast. I was happily next to Christopher Lee who I had known of throughout my actor-admiring life. He’d been cast as the white wizard Saruman but his opening line to me was: “I’ve always thought I should play Gandalf. I read ‘Lord of the Rings’ every year – sometimes twice.”
He then treated me to a snatch of the black speech of Mordor and I felt inadequate. Not that that was Chris’s intention: he was 78 and well practised in the art of gentlemanly rectitude. The epitome of “tall, dark and handsome” kept any inner demons for his acting Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster and, once, as Sherlock Holmes.
It’s what made his Saruman so effective. With his long beard and white robes, he had the air of a stern yet benign Pope that belied his ambition to rule Middle-earth, with cruelty and spite.
Between our facing-off on the set, he could easily be persuaded to reminisce. After all there were over 200 films on his CV and a couple of singing albums. His earliest intention was to be an opera bass., Touchingly he was a little nervous at the outset. “Peter made me do my first speech 10 times!!” I told him not to worry as the previous day I’d had to repeat a scene 27 times. His dark eyes widened and glinted but he didn’t complain again.
Peter was tickled to have his Hammer Horror hero as the villain and devised a spectacular death to acknowledge his vampiric past – falling onto a spike which pierced his dastardly heart. Chris didn’t much approve and I think the episode can only be seen in the extended Director’s Cut.
An odd pity that he didn’t work in the theatre, nor direct a film, like his idol Laurence Olivier who had Chris as a spear-carrier in his film of ‘Hamlet.’ But he was justly proud of the span and success of his career in movies and when knighted must, like all of us, have been pleased to share a title with Sir Larry.
The last time Saruman and Gandalf filmed together was ’round a table in Rivendell but while Galadriel, Elrond and I were in the Wellington studio, Sir Christopher’s interjections were filmed in London some months later. You can’t tell. In movies, all is not as it seems.
Yet when he joined the “Star Wars” cast he said he did all his own stunts without benefit of a stand-in. That certainly wasn’t true of his gravity-defying fight with Gandalf. I suspect he just wanted to declare he was in old age fit for purpose. He needn’t have worried. His acting prowess never declined.
Christopher Lee is survived by his wife of over fifty years, Birgit Kroencke Lee, and their daughter, Christina Erika Carandini Lee. In addition to his turn as Saruman The White, Lee is noted for his many other genre appearances, including his appearances as Dracula in the “Hammer” horror films, Lord Summerisle in 1973’s The Wicker Man, the James Bond villain Francisco Scarmanga in 1974’s The Man with the Golden Gun, and Count Dooku in Episodes II and III of the “Star Wars” saga.