Farewell to Christopher Lee, dead at 93

Christopher Lee as Dracula, 1958

On the passing of Sir Christopher Lee at the age of 93, here is a piece I wrote for The Yorkshire Post on the occasion of his 90th birthday in 2012. 

In two days’ time, Sir Christopher Lee will be 90.

The last living link to those great horror movies of yore, he can also claim an enviable movie heritage that dates back to 1947 and, over eight decades, runs to the best part of 400 film appearances. His film debut was in Corridor of Mirrors, starring Halifax-born Eric Portman. His latest project, due out in December, is the first part of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit.

At 89 he’s still working, still in demand, still the face and voice of choice for everyone from George Lucas and Martin Scorsese through to his adoring Hammer-lite protégé, Tim Burton. Call him a veteran, a survivor, an icon. Call him what you will. He’s The Man.

I have cause to be grateful to Lee for his great generosity. Several years ago I began research for a book on the making of perhaps his best-loved film, The Wicker Man. Over time I conducted several interviews with Lee who, with admirable patience, gamely went over well-trodden ground and answered (again) all the questions he’d answered many times before to a battalion of other writers.

Just last year he called me with an answer to another, unrelated, question and came up with the goods. The memory, like a steel trap, opened and out tumbled the detail I needed. “Not bad, eh, considering it was 66 years ago?” he observed. And I had to agree.

Lee has a reputation for being pompous and standoffish. Don’t believe a word of it. He’s basically a shy man who retreats behind a veneer of aloofness. He’s warm and funny and, most importantly, self-deprecating.

Many moons ago I called Lee’s home from my desk at The Yorkshire Post, leaving a message. I went out for lunch and returned to find a handwritten note from the chief reporter – my next-desk neighbour – stuck on my PC screen: “Please call Christopher Leeeeeeeee.” The added vowels were a reference to the baritone voice on the end of the line.

“What’s this?” I said, sandwich in hand. “Oh yes,” said my colleague. “Somebody claiming to be Christopher Lee rang for you. If it really was him.”

“Of course it was him.” My colleague gave me a hard look. “I thought it was somebody winding me up. When he said his name and asked for you I almost said ‘Who is this? I don’t know who you think you’re fooling but that’s a rotten impersonation!’”

I’m glad he managed to restrain himself. A couple of years later, following an interview for the first Lord of the Rings movie at London’s Dorchester Hotel, I told the story to the man himself. He listened, paused and then threw his head back and laughed. The resulting noise rattled the window panes. He thought it was a riot.

I can’t claim to know him well but that’s the Christopher Lee I recognise. And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Happy birthday, old boy.

Birthday cake cutting

Birthday cake cutting

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