It’s hard to know what to even write about that. Lee was the sort of unforgettable actor that if you ever saw him in anything – and you probably saw him in something, he did everything – you remembered it. A lot of times, it was because of that voice – his resonant baritone was the definition of unique – and a lot of times it was because Lee had a knack for playing memorable villains, the complicated sort that stay with you, that you end up feeling kind of sympathetic toward, even and often in spite of yourself.
In truth, Lee appeared in over 250 film and television productions - well beyond any attempt to pigeonhole him into any sort of genre or character - and the sheer volume of his work makes even attempting to summarize his career a challenging prospect. Suffice it to say, he has done everything: from playing a Bond villain, to a Tolkien villain, to Dracula, to FrnHe even played Death himself. In case all that acting wasn’t enough, he also served in both the Royal Air Force and the secretive Special Forces in World War II, was happily married to his wife Birgit Kroencke for over fifty years, and recorded not only an album of Broadway showtunes, but also two gothic heavy metal records.
Lee lived life to the absolute fullest, and even while we mourn his loss, it seemed appropriate to pause and celebrate a small handful of his greatest roles.
Horror of Dracula. This is the first big film that made Christopher Lee a star, and it’s one that many people will remember him for. In fact, he’s probably the second most famous Dracula of the 20th century, behind only Bela Lugosi’s iconic interpretation.
Reminder: This is a horror movie from the 1970s, so please keep your expectations accordingly in check vis a vis production values, but it’s worth a look.
All in all, Lee appeared as Dracula seven times for the famous Hammer Films series, though as the series continued he became increasingly reluctant to be involved. He also starred in several other horror movies for the studio including The Mummy, Rasputin, the Mad Monk and The Devil Rides Out.
The Man with the Golden Gun. Lee faced off against Roger Moore’s incarnation of James Bond, playing Francisco Scaramanga, an expert marksman and assassin who is so good he commands a seven-figure fee, and only uses a gold-plated gun and custom-made golden bullets. (Fancy!)
Lee’s fantastically charismatic performance as Scaramanga made him one of the Bond franchise’s most memorable villains and, to be fair, probably only Goldfinger and Bloefeld outrank him in that particular pantheon.
Personally, I've never been a big fan of Moore's Bond, but Lee's fantastically acidic Scaramanga is just perfection. Also, he gets to actually say the line You see, Mr. Bond, I always thought I loved animals. Then I discovered that I enjoyed killing people even more.
The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. Director Billy Wilder’s 1970 take on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s infamous great detective is slightly less traditional than most, in that deals with issues of drug addiction and draws a distinction between the “real” Sherlock Holmes and the man portrayed by Dr. Watson in his stories for the Strand.
Lee plays Mycroft Holmes, opposite Robert Stephens as Holmes and Colin Blakeley as Watson.
Lee is a fabulous Mycroft, and this is a really fantastic adaptation of the Holmes story, if you’ve never seen it.
Star Wars: Attack of the Clones. Many people have a lot of feelings about Star Wars Episodes I-III, the prequel trilogy that tells the story of the transformation of Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader. But, whether you think the prequels are amazing or an abomination, you can still enjoy Christopher Lee’s gleefully devious performance.
Lee plays a Jedi traitor named Count Dooku who betrays his sworn order by turning to the Dark Side and he is a true standout in what is, quite frankly, a not great movie. (Just fast forward through any of the bits with Anakin and love interest Padme Amidala. You’re welcome.) Unsurprisingly, Lee is once again a compelling and awesome bad guy – he gets all the best lines and steals every scene he’s in. Sure, Anakin takes out Dooku in the next movie but for a Star Wars villain, he gets a pretty good run, overall.
Oh, and he also gets to fight Yoda, which is basically the best scene in Attack of the Clones:
The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. Another amazing Christopher Lee villain, another amazing fight scene. In director Peter Jackson’s epic adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy epic The Lord of the Rings, Lee played Saruman the White, a powerful wizard who serves as the leader of Middle Earth’s magical contingent. A lot of stuff happens, but the basic gist of things is that Saruman is ultimately corrupted by his desire for the One Ring, and turns evil.
In an epic battle sequence from the trilogy’s first installment, The Fellowship of the Ring, Lee’s Saruman faces off against Sir Ian McKellen’s Gandalf the Grey, once it has been revealed that his true loyalties lie with the Dark Lord Sauron. And their wizards’ fight is as awesome as you’d expect.
If you watch the Hobbit films, which take place chronologically before the Lord of the Rings, you can actually see Lee do a good guy version of this same character – he reprised his role as Saruman for several brief scenes. It’s neat.
Other fun facts: Lee himself was a big fan of Tolkien and is the only member of the films’ casts who had ever met the author.
And one more, as a bonus, because it was my favorite movie as a child, and the first thing I ever saw (heard) Lee in.
The Last Unicorn. An animated cartoon adaptation of Peter S. Beagle’s novel of the same name, The Last Unicorn follows the story of – guess what – the last unicorn left in the world, as she attempts to discover what became of the other creatures like her. In the course of this quest the unicorn gets kidnapped by a travelling carnival; meets a down-on-his luck magician, a spunky serving girl, and a talking cat; and is turned into a human girl, among other things.
Lee voices King Haggard, the isolated, fairly villainous ruler so obsessed with unicorns he uses the mythical Red Bull to drive the creatures into the sea for his eternal entertainment.
Lee was so dedicated to the process that he showed up to his recording sessions with his own copy of Beagle’s novel in which he’d marked passages he wanted to make sure were included. Plus, he voiced Haggard again himself in the German dub of the film – for free – because he loved it so much. (Editorial PSA: The Last Unicorn is legitimately one of my all-time favorite films, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. Watch it!)
This list barely scratches the surface of the many iconic and memorable performances in Christopher Lee’s exceptionally extensive, and wonderful, filmography – what would you add to it?