Christopher Lee: A Cinematic Wizard

The late actor’s formidable presence elevated movies from Hammer Films horror to “The Lord of Rings” series.

For all the epic battles brimming with orcs, dwarfs and elves that filled Peter Jackson’s half-dozen “Lord of the Rings” and “Hobbit” movies, the series' most intense fight proved a one-on-one match between two of the oldest, most powerful denizens of Middle Earth – and of filmdom.

In “The Fellowship of the Rings,” Ian McKellen’s Gandalf and Christopher Lee’s Saruman fired staffs of fury as they thrashed about the screen. But all the special effects couldn’t mask the heart of the clash of these titans of two worlds, which rested in the commanding voices and wizened faces of two master performers, McKellen, then in his early seventies, and Lee pushing 80.

Now the seemingly ageless Christopher Lee, whose death at 93 was announced Thursday, belongs to the ages, leaving a legacy of cinematic wizardry stretching over a seven-decade career that offered fright and thrills to the last bout.

While beloved by fanboys and fangirls around the word, the London-born performer never quite reached household-name status on this side of the Atlantic – even if his many faces were well known from movie-house forays that ranged from Hammer Films horror flicks (most famously for his run as Dracula) to action-adventure (the title role in “The Man with the Golden Gun”) to a macabre musical (“Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”).

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Some knew Lee as the British Vincent Price, which, while unfair, proved, in a sense, an apt description of equals – Price just as easily could have been called the American Christopher Lee. They were co-kings of 1950s and 1960s horror, and shared a sense of humor about their craft, which veered at times into camp (Lee poked fun at his solemn image while hosting “Saturday Night Live” in 1978 and more recently recorded a couple of heavy metal albums). Both could thank director Tim Burton for latter-day career boosts (Price in “Edward Scissorhands,” and Lee in “Sweeney Todd” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” among others).

Lee shined brighter in his final years, not only thanks to Jackson and Burton, but also via his role as Dark Side denizen Count Dooku in the two most recent “Star Wars” installments. As he grew older, Lee’s presence – buoyed by his six-foot-five frame, deep, dark eyes and a deeper, booming voice that made his Bond villain Scaramanga fearsome beyond his deadly (and very expensive) ammunition – grew in its malleable majesty.

Saruman ultimately lost the fight over a ring wrought in hellish fire, but Christopher Lee left fans a greater gift, forever etched in celluloid.

Jere Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.

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