In a career spanning over four decades, Christopher Lee has entertained audiences in a wide variety of roles, portraying characters that range from the diabolical and sinister to the wise and elderly, justly earning a reputation as one of the world’s most versatile actors.
With his deep voice and commanding presence, Christopher Lee has portrayed such characters as the artist Georges Seurat in Moulin Rouge (1952), the diabolical Count Dracula in Dracula (1958), the sedate Sir Henry Baskerville in The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959), the sinister Grigori Rasputin in Rasputin: The Mad Monk (1966), the shrewd Mycroft Holmes in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), and the incomparable Sherlock Holmes in both Sherlock Holmes and the Leading Lady (1990) and Sherlock Holmes and the Incident at Victoria Falls (1991). In 1973 Mr. Lee starred in the critically acclaimed film The Wicker Man, which was recently rated one of the top 100 films of the 20th century by the British Film Institute.
More recently he starred as Mohammed Ali Jinnah in the film Jinnah (1998). In December of this year he will appear as Saruman in J.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and in Spring 2002 he will appear in Star Wars: Episode II-Attack of the Clones. Earlier this year he was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire.
TSM: When did you first decide to write your autobiography?[Tall, Dark and Gruesome]
CL: Well, it was in fact the publisher, W.H. Allen, who approached me and suggested that I should. The first autobiography came out in 1976, in hardback, and then in paperback in 1977. Then the second one, which was merely a continuation, you might say, under the same title, came out in Britain in 1997 in hardback and then in paperback in 1998, and in the U.S. in hardback and paperback in 1999.
So many people over the years have said to me that I should write an autobiography, so I did. I guess I’ve lived a long time, been to a lot of places, seen a lot of extraordinary things in my life, met a lot of extraordinary people, had a lot of remarkable experiences etc., both professionally, as an actor, as well as privately, as a person.
TSM: In your autobiography there is a reference to your meeting as a child with two of Rasputin’s assassins-Prince Yusupov and Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich.
CL: Two of the conspirators, yes. I was pulled out of bed in the middle of the night by my mother. She said there are two people here in black tie and tuxedos, you will remember having met them-but that’s about all. And then of course years later it meant a great deal. But I can’t remember their faces. Then I played the part [Rasputin in Rasputin: The Mad Monk] in ’65, although it was not correctly played, because even then Prince Yusupov was alive and he would always bring legal action against anybody who used his name or his wife’s name in a film. Which is why, of course, in 1935 he succeeded in getting the MGM film with the three Barrymores taken off. He did in fact scrutinize and authorize every page of the script of Hammer, although the ending was incorrect. Some of it was correct, but not completely.
It’s a very strange story because nobody has ever explained Rasputin, really. I met his daughter in 1976 in Beverly Hills, Maria. She was charming. I’ve got a picture of myself with her. She said that I looked like him, which startled me slightly because I’m taller than he was and my eyes are dark brown and his were grey-blue. And when I mentioned that she said, “Oh, no, what I meant was the expression.” I didn’t pursue that. I wasn’t quite sure what she meant.
TSM: You played Georges Seurat in the film Moulin Rouge. What are your memories of that film?
CL: Well, it was the only time I ever worked with John Huston, which of course was a marvelous experience. And of course I worked with José Ferrer, who became a great friend. I played in another film with him later on, which he directed, called Cockleshell Heroes.
I only had one scene really as Seurat and they didn’t say anything about the style of painting that he invented, Pointillism. The scene was at the Café Deux Magots, which still exists, of course, in Paris, and we used the actual café-dressed it up a bit to make it seem more of the period (clothes and everything). And as we rehearsed and played this scene the noise was beyond belief because of all the Paris traffic and all the tourists taking pictures. I couldn’t hear what José Ferrer was saying, and he couldn’t hear what I was saying.
TSM: That must have been disconcerting.
CL: Oh, it was very disconcerting. It was very difficult to do and it was also terribly hot. But John [Huston] was marvelous. He said, “Just be yourself,” and I didn’t really know what that meant but I went ahead and played it. I’ve got some lovely pictures taken by Robert Capa, the most famous photographer of the time-one of the most famous of all time-who was killed when a land-mine exploded during one of the wars he was covering. It was either in Korea or in Vietnam. I can’t remember.
TSM: I think in Vietnam.
CL: His brother is still alive in New York. But he’s very old. I’ve got some of the photographs Robert Capa took, not all the ones I wanted but some of them of myself with John Huston in rehearsal, and with José Ferrer. They are not stills from the film. These were all taken during rehearsal by Capa. He was not the still photographer for the film. Eliot Elisofon was the still photographer-also a very famous photographer for Life.
TSM: Your good friend was in it as well.
TSM: Yes, Peter Cushing.
CL: But we hadn’t met.
TSM: You hadn’t met at the time of the film?
CL: No, we hadn’t.
TSM: What are your memories of him?
CL: Oh, well you know I could talk for an hour about that. He was a great human being, a wonderful man, and a superb actor. And a very, very dear friend whom I miss terribly.
TSM: He was a great Sherlockian as well.
CL: Oh, indeed he was.
TSM: He designed the logo for the Sherlock Holmes Society of London.
CL: Oh, yes. He was a very fine artist and draftsman and painter, none of which I am. But he was outstanding. He painted a lot with one of England’s most distinguished painters, a man called Edward Seago. They knew each other very well indeed. Peter lived in Kent on the seashore, Whitstable. And I knew him of course, and his wife, early on. I met him in 1957, which is 44 years ago, and we formed this relationship. You might say we forged it-it became a bond between us. We had the same sense of humor, of fun, and of the ridiculous. We loved the animated cartoons. We had a great affection for Sylvester the Cat and Yosemite Sam in particular. We loved those, and we used to imitate them to each other in all our conversations. He was a great ornithologist and I used to send him postcards from all around the world, inventing totally untrue species of birds saying, “Just discovered last nesting pair. Your flight’s been arranged. The room has been reserved. What’s keeping you?” So we kept in touch all the time.
TSM: So are you interested in the Sherlock Holmes stories?
CL: Oh yes, I’ve read every one. Not only Sherlock Holmes. Also I think that, in a totally different context, Conan Doyle wrote the finest book ever written about what they call the noble art, or ‘the Fancy’ as they called it in Regency times-bare knuckle fighting. Rodney Stone, what a book that is. And the two greatest historical novels I think I’ve ever read in my life, Sir Nigel and The White Company.
TSM: The White Company was brilliant.
CL: Wonderful! Wouldn’t it make a wonderful movie?
TSM: It definitely would. In fact, it’s a great pity that Sherlock Holmes has overshadowed his other great works.
CL: Well, Brigadier Gerard, they did that once but it didn’t work. And of course they’ve done The Lost World to death and it’s never worked properly.
TSM: Because they never stayed faithful to the book.
CL: No. Well this is the story of our lives as actors. You know, you read a book, somebody says they are going to make a movie, and it’s not what’s in the book. I certainly experienced that with a certain work by Mr. Stoker.
TSM: Dracula, of course.
CL: That’s right. Well, I’ve done Lord of the Rings and that’s going to be like the books. I told you I’m in Sleepy Hollow briefly and that pretty well follows the book, except that Ichabod Crane is not a school teacher, he’s a police constable. And I’m the person who sends him off to Sleepy Hollow to solve the problem of the three people who have been murdered. Similarly, Gormenghast is very faithful to the book.
TSM: Tell me, what are your recollections of Ian Fleming, to whom you were related through your stepfather?
CL: Well, my recollections of Ian are that he was an extremely intelligent man who had travelled a great deal and knew a great deal about a great many things, which is very clear, of course, in the books that he wrote. He was a great lover of the good life, a man who had knowledge of many rather bizarre and exotic and somewhat unknown areas-like all the weaponry and everything which he describes so accurately in all his stories.
He had a very nice house in London, in Victoria Square, which I used to go to occasionally, and then the house in St. Margaret’s Bay down in Sandwich, Kent, because he was, like me, a great lover of the game of golf. We were members of Royal St. George’s at Sandwich Kent, which, of course, is the scene for the classic match in Goldfinger, hole by hole, if you remember that.
TSM: Yes, I remember that.
CL: Well they changed the name to Royal St. Mark’s, changed the name of the professional from Albert Whiting to Alfred Blacking, changed the name of the famous short hole, the sixth hole, from The Maiden to The Virgin. Otherwise it’s exactly the same, although they didn’t play the match on that course in the film. Sean Connery had never played golf but became a complete fanatic as a result of this film.
My recollections of Ian are of a very intelligent, entertaining, amusing man, with a very acid wit. Always smoked cigarettes in an amber holder. Even on the golf course he would smoke and he would smoke and he would smoke. He liked his libation. I mean, he didn’t drink too much or anything like that, but he liked it. He was very conventional in many ways and extremely unconventional in other ways, very attractive to women, very much respected by men. We used to talk when we played golf, on the course and afterwards in the clubhouse bar.
The sad thing is I saw him not very long before he died and he said, “One of my greatest ambitions is going to be realized next year,” and I said, “What’s that, Ian?” because Bond had already started, of course. He said, “I’m going to be Captain of Royal St. George’s Golf Club in Sandwich.” It never happened. He died in the ambulance on the way to Canterbury.
TSM: Well it’s been a very, very interesting and entertaining hour. It was a great pleasure. Thank you.