“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon
Hello, and welcome to another installment of “The Ten Percent,” a regular column where every other week Ensley F. Guffey and I look at the corollary of Sturgeon’s Law: the ten percent of everything is not crud. We often look at television and film here in “The Ten Percent” and we’ll continue to do so, but today we’re going to pay tribute to a person who, for reasons that will be explained, is part of the Ten Percent by virtue of breadth, depth, and length of his career – and probably for massively exceeding other dimensions of awesomeness as well.
While many know him as “that other wizard guy from Lord of the Rings” there is much, much more to Sir Christopher Frank Carandini Lee than his role as Saruman. His own life reads like an especially thrilling adventure tale, filled to the seams with swashbuckling action and improbable escapades.
Born in London in 1922, Lee entered the world as the son of an Italian contessa who could trace her lineage back to Charlemagne. As a very young child, he met Prince Yusupov and Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, who assassinated the “mad monk” Rasputin. (In 1966, he would play Rasputin in the film Rasputin the Mad Monk.) At the tender age of 17, he witnessed the death of the murderer Eugen Weidmann in Paris, who had the distinction of being the last person to be publicly executed in France by guillotine.
Prior to going into the acting profession, Lee served in WW2. That’s a little like saying Audie Murphy saw a touch of combat.
Lee was an intelligence officer for the Long Range Desert Patrol, which was the forerunner of the British Special Forces. He fought the Nazis in North Africa in this capacity, but at some point during the war, he was selected for the Special Operations Executive (“SOE”), whose missions still remain classified today. The SOE was charged with “conducting espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance in occupied Europe against the Axis powers.” To give you an idea of just what the SOE engaged in, the group was informally known by the incredibly kickass name “the Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare.” (And yes, I’d totally go see that movie!) By the time the war ended, Lee had received commendations for bravery from the British, Czech, Polish, and Yugoslavian governments.
After a few years of using his fluency in both French and Italian to help hunt Nazi war criminals, Lee took up acting at the age of 25. His experiences in the war led his step-cousin Ian Fleming to favor him to play the role of James Bond, which turned out to be one of the only roles Lee didn’t play.
Best known for his portrayal of Dracula in a series of films done for Hammer Films beginning in the late 1950s, he also played both the Mummy and Frankenstein’s monster. Known for villainous roles including Saruman (more on that in a bit), Fu Manchu, Rasputin, Rochefort in The Three Musketeers (who didn’t wear an eye patch in Dumas’ story, but almost always does now, since Lee did), a Bond villain (Scaramanga in 1974’s The Man with the Golden Gun), Mephistopheles, and even Death. He has also played both Holmes brothers – Sherlock and Mycroft – as well as Sir Henry Baskerville, who was memorably plagued by a large hound.
The Hammer Dracula films were incredibly profitable, but Lee eventually got tired of playing the same role and he tried to step aside. Studio executives stressed how many people relied on these movies for their livelihood, essentially guilting Lee into continuing with the role, despite his misgivings over the increasingly bad scripts. In fact, for the 1966 Dracula: Prince of Darkness, he flatly refused to speak a word of the dialogue. Determined to have Lee in the role, Hammer agreed and Dracula shouts and hisses his way through the film.
He was so skilled with a sword that, during the filming of The Dark Avengers (1955), he retaliated against Errol Flynn, who had cut Lee’s hand quite badly, by cutting off Flynn’s wig – while Flynn was wearing it. And yes, he does his own swordplay as Count Dooku in the Star Wars prequels.
He belonged to three – not one, but THREE – stuntmen’s unions and performs his own stunts.
He had a lifelong love for Tolkien, reading the trilogy numerous times. He was the only member of the cast to have actually met Tolkien – they apparently bumped into each other at a pub. When Peter Jackson was giving Lee direction on Saruman’s death scene (only included on the extended edition of The Return of the King), and attempting to describe the sounds he wanted Lee to make when Saruman was stabbed in the back, Lee responded that he had seen people being stabbed in the back and he knew precisely what sounds were made in that event. (I can only imagine Jackson blinked owlishly at that.)
In addition to his prolific acting career, Lee spoke fluent Italian, French, Spanish, and German and considered himself “moderately proficient” in Swedish, Russian, and Greek, but only “conversational” in Mandarin Chinese. Oh, and he was a knight. And a trained opera singer.
He used his rich bass voice to pursue a longtime interest of his – heavy metal. He released his first heavy metal album in 2010 at the age of 88. Other albums followed and, at age 91, Lee became the oldest music performer to enter the Billboard charts, knocking off youngster Tony Bennett who was only 85 when “Body and Soul,” his duet with Amy Winehouse, charted in 2011.
In the late 1950s, Lee was engaged to Henriette von Rosen, whose father did not approve of him, so he demanded that the actor submit to interviews and provide references. He later insisted that he would only grant the couple permission to marry if the King of Sweden gave his blessing to the lovebirds.
Lee got it.
However, fearing he could not properly provide for his wife on a struggling actor’s salary, the marriage did not go forward. Don’t feel too bad for him, though – from 1961 to his death, he was married to the Danish model (because, of course) Birgit “Gitte” Kroencke.
He holds records for being the “tallest leading actor” (6’5”), although that credit could conceivably be challenged by Armie Hammer, who also gazes at the world from that lofty a perch. His record for “most screen credits” – at 258 films and TV movies, with one more (Angels in Notting Hill) scheduled for release later this year. Further, he holds the record for starring in the “most films with a sword fight” with 17.
Christopher Lee. While he may no longer walk among us, I like to think he has Cerberus padding around as his own personal hellhound/lapdog. Gentleman, actor, scholar, musician, spy, and handy with a sword to boot! If anyone deserves the title of “Badass King of the Ten Percent,” it is Sir Christopher Lee.
Rest in peace, sir.
Christopher Lee recites “The Ring Poem” from Tolkien’s epic
Christopher Lee sings a heavy metal Christmas carol
Ensley F. Guffey and K. Dale Koontz are co-authors of Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Bad, and of the forthcoming Dreams Given Form: The Unofficial Companion to the Babylon 5 Universe (fall 2017). You can find Dale online at her blog unfetteredbrilliance.blogspot.com and on Twitter as @KDaleKoontz. Ensley hangs out at solomonmaos.com and on Twitter as @EnsleyFGuffey.