“To be a legend, you’ve either got to be gone or excessively old!”—Sir Christopher Lee.
It goes without saying that 93 years is a long time to live, with lots of opportunities for adventures and accomplishments. This was especially true of Christopher Lee, a renowned film actor with one of the most recognizable voices of his time. However, despite the many iconic films he appeared in—Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, the James Bond series, the Hammer Horror films—Christopher Lee’s career was so much more diverse than just the acting he was commonly known for. It’s safe to say that Lee was one of the great British Renaissance men to grace a film set, as can be determined by these 46 awe-inspiring facts about Christopher Lee.
46. Army Brat
Christopher Frank Carandini Lee was born in West London on May 27, 1922. His father, Geoffrey, had fought in the Boer Battle and the WW1 with the 60th King’s Royal Corps.
Lee remains to be one of the very few actors who has played three different characters from the Sherlock Holmes stories. He played Sherlock Holmes, Mycroft Holmes, and Ser Henry Baskerville, in different productions, of course—otherwise, that would’ve made one heck of a one-man show.
44. I Just Wanted to Fly!
At the outbreak of WW2, Lee signed up with the Royal Air Force to become a fighter pilot. However, Lee was diagnosed with a failed optic nerve while he was nearly finished training. He was forbidden from flying, much to his disappointment. However, he had himself transferred to the RAF Intelligence unit instead.
43. Family Connections
After Lee’s parents divorced in the late 1920s, his mother remarried the uncle of none other than Ian Fleming, who would go on to create the literary—and film—legend James Bond.
42. Don’t Be So Insecure!
Lee’s towering height at 6’5” got him entered into the Guinness Book of World Records as the tallest lead actor. Despite this honor, his height actually proved to be a handicap early on in Lee’s career. He couldn’t land many supporting roles because the leading actors were all much shorter than he, and this was a time when men would happily wear platform shoes to look as tall as possible on camera.
41. Sir, Your Resume is a Book…
Despite any initial setbacks, Lee proved to be one of the most prolific actors of all time. In two different years—1955 and 1970—Lee acted in nine films within the span of the year. In total, he appeared in more than 220 feature films.
40. In Hindsight…
According to Lee, he turned down the role of Dr. Sam Loomis in Halloween, which eventually went to Donald Pleasance. Lee considered his refusal to be the biggest mistake of his professional career, despite the fact that he had also turned the role of Judge Doom in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Considering that Christopher Lloyd’s performance in that film basically seemed like a tribute to Lee, we can’t see he missed out on that much.
39. Move Over, Bacon
Movie buffs will be able to recognize the game of connecting actors to one another through other actors they’ve worked with. This game is called “Six Degrees of Separation” but is more popularly referred to as “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” due to that actor’s prolific career. However, Guinness officially recognized Lee as the most connected actor in the world, being connectable to anyone in Hollywood in an average of 2.5 steps. Impressive.
38. Having a Bash with Burton
Lee was reportedly one of Tim Burton’s favorite actors, and late in his career, Lee became a regular collaborator with Burton. Whether in person or just in voice, Lee appeared in five of Burton’s films, including C.o.r.p.s.e Bride and Sleepy Hollow. All of his films with Burton also included Johnny Depp in the cast. To be fair, it’s easier to name the Burton films that Depp didn’t do!
37. True Love
Rare in the entertainment industry—and arguably rare in Western society at this point—Lee only ever married once, to Danish actress Birgit Kroencke. They were married in 1961 and remained together until Lee’s passing in 2015.
36. Really, Ian?!
Because the role was villainous, it’s almost inevitable that Lee was offered the role of Magneto in the first X-Men movie. However, he eventually lost out to his former Lord of the Rings co-star Ian McKellan.
35. Who’s Got the Eviler Laugh?
Lee shared a birthday—albeit 11 years apart—with Vincent Price, another staple of the horror genre back in the day. You might remember Price as the man who laughs at the end of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller".
34. It’s a Good Thing I Didn’t Stick Around…
While Lee was in Italy during the WW2, he managed to find the time to climb Mt. Vesuvius, which some might recognize as the reason responsible for Pompeii’s destruction. Lee picked his time wisely, as Vesuvius erupted three days later!
33. Real Dedication
From 1958 to 1976, Lee played Dracula in a total of ten films. We would have gotten tired of it by the fifth or six movie, personally.
32. I Only Ask Because Bobby De Niro Said No…
Apparently, Lee was good friends with legendary director Martin Scorsese for many years without ever working together on a film. When Scorsese finally approached Lee to participate in the film Hugo, Lee allegedly responded: “It’s about time!” We agree, Mr. Lee, we agree.
31. Lost in Translation? I Think Not!
Incredibly, Lee spoke no less than five languages fluently. He could speak English, French, German, Italian, and Spanish, while also claiming to be reasonably familiar with Greek, Russian, and Swedish. It proved useful when he could dub his own voice in those languages as he became a film star.
30. Saruman Tells Jokes?!
After spending most of the 1970s making over-the-top horror movies in the UK, Lee moved to the US to prevent himself from being typecast. While his first American film was the disaster epic Airport ‘77, he went on to astonish his fanbase and general audiences by hosting an episode of Saturday Night Live in 1978.
29. A Role for a Fan
While it’s largely forgotten today—unless you’ve seen it get parodied in Leslie Nielsen’s Airplane!—Airport ’77 was a big movie for its day, featuring a notable cast and a big budget. This included Lee, but apparently, he wasn’t interested in being in a big American film for the money. It was purely because he would be able to act alongside Jack Lemmon, whom he admired.
28. Two Out of Six Ain’t Bad
Throughout his diverse film career, Lee appeared in six movies nominated for Best Picture Oscars. These films were Hugo, Hamlet (the 1948 version), Moulin Rouge (the 1952 version), and the three Lord of the Rings films. Hamlet and Lord of the Rings: Return of the King both won the coveted award, and also landed Lee a unique record. He is the only actor to appear in two Best Picture winners that were made more than 50 years apart.
27. Lee Once Sang a Country Song and it is Glorious!
Lee’s first full album of music was called Christopher Lee Sings Devils, Rogues, & Other Villains. Released in 1998, the album was somehow swept so far under the rug that it doesn’t even have its own Wikipedia page. And this is despite the fact that one of the tracks is arguably the most sinister version of “Ghost Riders in the Sky” that’s ever been made—find it on Youtube and enjoy Lee’s Southern accent for the rest of the day.
26. Oh No, Not Nicolas Cage! Not the Cage! ARRHHHHHH!
One of Lee’s most well-known works—and allegedly his favorite role to play—was the villainous role of Lord Summerisle in The Wicker Man. That is, the original British version, not the Nicolas Cage one. Lee was so gung-ho about being in this film that he appeared in it for free.
25. You’ve Got a Friend in Me
One of Lee’s lifelong friends was his frequent co-star Peter Cushing (most famous as Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars: A New Hope). While Lee often played Dracula in the Hammer Horror films, Cushing would often play his mortal enemy, Van Helsing. Lee and Cushing made 24 films together and remained friends most of their careers.
Before anyone ever considered making the Lord of the Rings books into movies, Lee was a fanatic for them. He reportedly reread them every year for most of his adult life, and given how busy his schedule was, that’s saying a lot. Also, of all the people who played roles in the Lord of the Rings films, Lee was the only one who actually got to meet J.R.R. Tolkien in person.
Before age slowed him down somewhat, Lee was well-accustomed to doing all of his own stunts, which turned out to be life-hazard at times. During the filming of a fight scene for The Dark Avenger, Lee found himself dealing with former movie star Errol Flynn, who at that time was dealing with a severe bout with alcoholism. Flynn ended up breaking Lee’s hand in an accident during filming. Incredibly, Lee kept going with the fight scene until it was done!
22. A True Sense of Humor
According to Lee, he first interacted with Peter Cushing on the set of The Curse of Frankenstein in the late 1950s. Cast as Frankenstein’s monster, Lee was furious to discover that he didn’t have any lines. When he confronted Cushing to gripe about it in a dressing room, Cushing replied “You’re lucky; I’ve read the script". No wonder they became good friends!
21. Mr. Bond, I Presume?
Lee was offered the role of the titular villain in the very first James Bond film Dr. No by Ian Fleming. Lee was gung-ho to appear in the film, but by the time Fleming passed on his recommendation to the film’s producers, they’d already cast the role. Lee had to wait 12 years before he could appear in a James Bond film, finally playing the role of Francisco Scaramanga in The Man with the Golden G.u.n.
20. In A Parallel Universe…
Incredibly, Fleming and Lee had both worked in the special forces during WW2—more on that later—and Fleming is said to have partly based the character of James Bond on Lee himself. This leaves us in a strange position of imagining a world where Lee became the first James Bond instead of Sean Connery!
19. Music in Your Soul!
Lee’s grandparents were actually responsible for bringing Australia it’s first opera company. Lee himself would lend his incredible voice to opera pieces as well throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, in between acting in films.
18. Maybe I Should Finally Dial It Back…
One of Lee’s more underrated performances can be found in the equally underrated film Triage. Aside from adopting a Spanish accent for the role, and despite only appearing in the second half of the film, Lee also had to learn more dialogue than he’s ever had to learn for a role before, and this was when he was already 86 years old. Small wonder that Lee later remarked that he would no longer take on leading roles in films after that.
17. How Dare You Omit Me!!
If you’ve only seen the theatrical versions of the Lord of the Rings films, you might wonder what happened to the evil wizard Saruman, since he never quite got a complete resolution. Lee himself was furious about that because they’d actually filmed a scene for the third film where Saruman confronts Gandalf in Isengard, only for his servant, Wormtongue, to betray Saruman by stabbing him in the back. The scene was put in the extended edition of the movie, however, presumably because Peter Jackson wanted to sleep at night.
16. Anyone Else Feel Creeped Out?
In 1966, Lee took on the role of Rasputin, the sinister holy man who served as an advisor to the Russian royal family before their execution and his own ending. This bit of casting has a haunting prologue; as a child in the 1920s, Lee met two men named Prince Yusupov and Grand Duke Pavlovich. These two men were famous for being behind the execution of Rasputin!
15. But Now He Has a Mind of Metal!
Despite his initial dabbling in more traditional music, and his contributions to film soundtracks, Lee was utterly enamored with the metal genre. His first foray into singing metal music came when he worked with the power metal group Rhapsody of Fire on their album Symphony of Enchanted Lands II – The Dark Secret in 2004, when he was already in his 80s!
14. I’m Out… No Wait, I’m In
Interestingly, Lee was offered the role of Grand Moff Tarkin in the very first Star Wars film. He turned it down, and the role famously went to his friend Peter Cushing. Lee would later join the Star Wars franchise when he played Count Dooku in the prequel films. Some might argue that Cushing got the better deal of the two.
13. Playing Your Enemy
Lee’s gift for languages once again came in handy when he was cast as Captain Wolfgang von Kleinschmidt in the WWII comedy flick 1941, directed by a young Steven Spielberg. All of Lee’s dialogue in that film is spoken in German. Must have been a trippy experience for him!
Through Lee’s mother, Contessa Estelle Marie Carandini di Sarzan, Lee was connected to one of the oldest royal families in European history. In fact, the family is traceable back to the first century AD, and it includes no less a renowned figure than Emperor Charlemagne! Lee and his family actually shared a coat of arms with Charlemagne, even after centuries had passed.
11. I Shed the Blood of the Saxon Men
Lee took his ancient royal roots seriously, especially when it came to his entry into metal music. His third foray into the genre—which was also his first full metal album—was titled Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross. It told the story of Charlemagne, with Lee playing his ancestor in both the songs and a music video that was shot for one of the songs.
10. Second Choice
According to Lee himself, he was always enamored by the character of Gandalf while reading Lord of the Rings throughout his life, as it fed his fascination with magic and the occult. He initially auditioned to play Gandalf when Peter Jackson was casting the Lord of the Rings movies, but his age and physical limitations were judged to be too much for all the fighting and horseback riding he would have to do. Ian McKellan, 17 years younger than Lee, was deemed the more suitable choice for Gandalf. Lee was instead offered the role of Saruman, which Jackson once quipped that he never had to explain to Lee at all due to his immense knowledge of Tolkien’s world.
9. Time for Your Story!
With such a deep, engaging voice as Lee had, it should surprise nobody that he was invited to read well-known stories in audiobooks for BBC Radio. In particular, Lee provided audio readings of many works by Edgar Allen Poe, including The Raven, The Tell-Tale Heart, and The Black Cat.
8. Age Cannot Wither Me
While Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross was a metal album, it was a more symphonic type of metal. When Lee decided to make a sequel to that album, it became a heavy metal style of sound. Charlemagne: The Omens of D.e.a.t.h was made with an assemblage of multinational metal artists. Lee himself became the oldest metal performer in history with this album’s release—he was 90 years old.
7. Too Bad Vampires Don’t Know Sign Language
Lee eventually got so sick of playing Dracula in the Hammer Horror films that he had to be persuaded to stay purely so he wouldn’t rob his fellow cast and crew of paying work. Lee relented and resumed the role for Dracula: Prince of Darkness. However, he was so disgusted by the dialogue that he refused to speak a single word of it in the film. The filmmakers acquiesced because having a silent Lee was better than having no Lee.
6. They Didn’t Mention That in the Contract…
In 1970, Lee agreed to narrate a film called Eugenie, The Story of Her Journey into Perversion which he believed was based on the notoriously sleazy life of the Marquis de Sade, whose name inspired the word "sadism". Lee was flown to Spain for a single day of work, and everything seemed like any other film shoot to him. He only later learned that the film was pornographic when a friend of his saw that the new film was playing in an X-rated theatre.
5. Witnessing History
In the early summer of 1939, while he was passing through Paris, a 17-year-old Lee found himself attending the execution of serial offender Eugen Weidmann by guillotine. It was the last public use of the guillotine in France.
4. Everyone Needs a Hobby or Two
Being a part of that grisly bit of history must have left a serious impression on Lee. He spent a good portion of his life enthusiastically learning more about executions, particularly public ones. Apparently, Lee could identify “every official public executioner employed by England, dating all the way back to the mid-15th century". Some people read mystery novels, some people play tennis, but very few take up “memorizing the details of public executions” as a hobby.
3. The Gloves are Off
During his time in the WW2, Lee was moved to a position where he was kept busy “conducting espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance in occupied Europe against the Axis powers". The organization he worked for was called the Special Operations Executive (SOE), though it was also called the Ministry of Ungentlemanly Battles, a title so British that it makes Kingsman look French.
2. I Have Seen The End
While Lee never opened up about his time with the SOE, and his files with them are still classified to this day, he did once give this statement: “I’ve seen many men passing 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 brutality, mutilation and seeing someone blown to pieces by a explosive, you develop a kind of shell. But you had to. You had to. Otherwise, we would never have won". Chilling, Mr. Lee.
1. One Tough Resumé …
When it came time to film Saruman’s d.e.a.t.h in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, director Peter Jackson attempted to give Lee some direction on how to behave and sound when he was hurt in the back. While presumably giving Jackson a thousand-yard stare, Lee asked Jackson if he knew what someone sounded like when hurt in the back, following it up with “Because I do". We can only imagine the amount of regret that permanently imprinted on Jackson’s soul at that moment.