A figure who loomed large on the silver screen in the boomer years passed away last week: Christopher Carandini Lee. An actor who paid his dues and worked his way up as a character actor, Mr. Lee first came to the notice of boomers as an actor in the campy horror films of the late 1950s and throughout the ’60s.
Lee was born into a military family. At an early age he decided he did not want to follow in his father’s footsteps in the army, which forced his family to move every few years. When World War II broke out in Europe in 1939, rather than wait until he was drafted, he joined the Royal Air Force to avoid the army. When training to become a pilot, he developed headaches and blurred vision. The diagnosis was a damaged optic nerve, and it doomed his piloting dreams. He was assigned administrative duties and served in North Africa during the war, assisting in the planning of British bombing sorties and later in the planning of the invasion of Sicily. He finished his service in Special Forces, where it is speculated that he was a British spy, something which Lee never confirmed. Yet with Lee being such an imposing figure and speaking multiple languages, including French, German and Russian, it would seem plausible that his talents might be employed in clandestine operations.
After the war he was thinking about a career when his mother’s cousin, noting there had been a Carandini actor in his line years before, suggested he try acting. He went to some classes and was immediately told he could never be an actor because he was too tall and too ethnic looking. Nevertheless, Lee persisted at learning his craft, and eventually landed a bit role as a spear carrier in Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet in 1948, where he met fellow struggling actor Peter Cushing. He would go on to make twenty films with Cushing, now classics in the boomer era horror genre.
Lee’s first role where he was recognizable to most boomers was The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), produced by Hammer Film Productions. His performance garnered him a contract with Hammer, and he made dozens of films for them, playing such classic film monsters as Frankenstein, Dracula (Horror of Dracula  and in numerous sequels) and the Mummy in The Mummy (1959). He went on to appear in Sherlock Holmes movies and dozens of others. In fact, he appeared in nearly 250 movie and television roles in his 70-plus years as an actor.
In 1973 he appeared in The Wicker Man, which is now considered a British horror classic, and as villain Scaramanga in the James Bond film, The Man with the Golden Gun (1974). Lee was so loved among filmmakers that George Lucas cast him as Count Dooku in Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones (2002), and he appeared in the Tim Burton films: Sleepy Hollow (1999), The Corpse Bride (2005) and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005). And of course, he played the part of the White Wizard Saruman in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001, 2003, 2004).
Mister Boomer knows he saw Lee in The Mummy on one of his Saturday matinee excursions way back when, and probably saw several of his Dracula movies, but didn’t take much notice of him as his heroes of the genre remained Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff and the great Vincent Price. He really pictured Lee as an actor he could enjoy when he saw The Face of Fu Manchu (1965). Lee made five films as the title Fu Manchu character, which in Mister B’s opinion, can only be described as campy fun.
Mister B is blown away at the depth of this man’s life. We should all be so talented and loved by millions of fans. Mister B recommends you place several of Lee’s film performances on the streaming list of your choice and introduce him to your children, grandchildren and anyone else who is willing to watch. That voice and stage presence! He was a brilliant actor of any era.
Which was the first Christopher Lee film for you, boomers?