Christopher Frank Carandini Lee
1922 - 2015
Sir Christopher Frank Carandini Lee, CBE, CStJ (27 May 1922 – 7 June 2015) was an English actor, singer and author. With a career spanning nearly 70 years, Lee initially portrayed villains and became best known for his role as Count Dracula in a sequence of Hammer Horror films. His other film roles include Francisco Scaramanga in the James Bond film The Man with the Golden Gun (1974), Saruman in The Lord of the Rings film trilogy (2001–2003) and The Hobbit film trilogy (2012–2014), and Count Dooku/Darth Tyranus in the final two films of the Star Wars prequel trilogy (2002 and 2005) and Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008).
Lee was knighted for services to drama and charity in 2009, received the BAFTA Fellowship in 2011 and received the BFI Fellowship in 2013. Lee considered his best performance to be that of Pakistan's founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah in the biopic Jinnah (1998), and his best film to be the British horror film The Wicker Man (1973).
Always noted as an actor for his deep strong voice, Lee was also known for his singing ability, recording various opera and musical pieces between 1986 and 1998 and the symphonic metal album Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross in 2010 after having worked with several metal bands since 2005. The heavy metal follow-up titled Charlemagne: The Omens of Death was released on 27 May 2013. He was honoured with the "Spirit of Metal" award at the 2010 Metal Hammer Golden God awards ceremony.
Christopher Lee was born in Belgravia, Westminster, London, on 27 May 1922, the son of Lieutenant Colonel Geoffrey Trollope Lee (1879–1941), of the 60th King's Royal Rifle Corps, and his wife, Countess Estelle Marie (née Carandini di Sarzano; 1889–1981). Lee's father fought in the Boer War and in the First World War and his mother was an Edwardian beauty who was painted by Sir John Lavery as well as by Oswald Birley and Olive Snell, and sculpted by Clare Frewen Sheridan; her lineage can be traced to Charlemagne. Lee's maternal great-grandfather was an Italian political refugee, whose wife, Lee's great-grandmother, was English-born opera singer Marie Carandini (née Burgess). He had one sister, Xandra Carandini Lee (1917–2002).
Lee's parents separated when he was four and divorced two years later. During this time, his mother took him and his sister to Wengen in Switzerland. After enrolling in Miss Fisher's Academy in Territet, he played his first role, as Rumpelstiltskin. They then returned to London, where Lee attended Wagner's private school in Queen's Gate and his mother married Harcourt George St-Croix Rose, a banker and uncle of Ian Fleming. Fleming, author of the James Bond novels, thus became Lee's step-cousin. The family moved to Fulham, living next door to the actor Eric Maturin. One night, he was introduced to Prince Yusupov and Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, the assassins of Grigori Rasputin, whom Lee was to play many years later.
When Lee was nine, he was sent to Summer Fields School, a preparatory school in Oxford whose pupils often later attended Eton. He continued acting in school plays, though "the laurels deservedly went to Patrick Macnee." Lee applied for a scholarship to Eton, where his interview was in the presence of the ghost story author M. R. James. Sixty years later, Lee played the part of James for the BBC. His poor maths skills meant that he placed eleventh and thus missed out on being a King's Scholar by one place. His step-father was not prepared to pay the higher fees that being an Oppidan Scholar meant and so he did not attend. Instead, Lee attended Wellington College, where he won scholarships in the classics, studying Ancient Greek and Latin. Aside from a "tiny part" in a school play, he didn't act while at Wellington. He was a "passable" racquets player and fencer and a competent cricketer but did not do well at the other sports played: hockey, football, rugby and boxing. He disliked the parades and weapons training and would always "play dead" as soon as possible during mock battles. Lee was frequently beaten at school, including once at Wellington for "being beaten too often", though he accepted them as "logical and therefore acceptable" punishments for knowingly breaking the rules. At age 17 and with one year left at Wellington, the summer term of 1939 was his last. His step-father had gone bankrupt, owing £25,000.
His mother separated from Rose, and Lee had to get a job, his sister already working as a secretary for the Church of England Pensions Board. With most employers on or preparing to go on summer holidays, there were no immediate opportunities for Lee and so he was sent to the French Riviera, where his sister was on holiday with friends. On his way there he stopped briefly in Paris, where he stayed with the journalist Webb Miller, a friend of Rose, and witnessed the execution of Eugen Weidmann, the last person to be executed in public in France. Arriving in Menton, he stayed with the Russian Mazirov family, living among exiled princely families. It was arranged that he should stay on in Menton after his sister had returned home, but with Europe on the brink of war, he returned to London instead. He worked as an office clerk for United States Lines, taking care of the mail and running errands.
In 1997, he was appointed a Commander of the Venerable Order of Saint John. On 16 June 2001, as part of that year's Queen's Birthday Honours, Lee was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire "for services to Drama". He was made a Knight Bachelor "For services to Drama and to Charity" on 13 June as part of the Queen's Birthday Honours in 2009. He was knighted by Prince Charles, but because of his age he was excused the usual requirement to kneel and received the knighthood whilst standing. Lee was named 2005's 'most marketable star in the world' in a USA Today newspaper poll, after three of the films he appeared in grossed US$640 million. In 2011, Lee was awarded the BAFTA Academy Fellowship by Tim Burton.
In 2011, accompanied by his wife Birgit and on the 164th anniversary of the birth of Bram Stoker, Lee was honoured with a tribute by University College Dublin, and described his honorary life membership of the UCD Law Society as "in some ways as special as the Oscars". He was awarded the Bram Stoker Gold Medal by the Trinity College Philosophical Society, of which Stoker was President, and a copy of Collected Ghost Stories of MR James by Trinity College's School of English. The government of France made him a Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters in 2011.
The Carandinis, Lee's maternal ancestors, were given the right to bear the coat of arms of the Holy Roman Empire by the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. Cinemareview notes: "Cardinal Consalvi was Papal Secretary of State at the time of Napoleon and is buried at the Pantheon in Rome next to the painter Raphael. His painting, by Lawrence, hangs in Windsor Castle." Lee was a step-cousin of Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond spy novels, and a distant relative of Robert E. Lee and the astronomer John Lee.
Lee was engaged for a time in the late fifties to Henriette von Rosen, whom he met at a nightclub in Stockholm. Her father, Count Fritz von Rosen, proved demanding, getting them to delay the wedding for a year, asking his London-based friends to interview Lee, hiring private detectives to investigate him, and asking Lee to provide him with references, which Lee obtained from Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., John Boulting and Joe Jackson. Lee found the meeting of her extended family to be like something from a surrealist Luis Buñuel film and thought they were "killing me with cream". Finally, Lee had to have the permission of the King of Sweden to marry. Lee had met him some years before whilst filming Tales of Hans Anderson and received his blessing. However, shortly before the wedding, Lee ended the engagement. He was concerned that his financial insecurity in his chosen profession meant that she "deserved better" than being "pitched into the dishevelled world of an actor". She understood and they called the wedding off.
Lee was introduced to Danish painter and former model Birgit "Gitte" Krøncke by a Danish friend and his wife in 1960. They were engaged soon after and married on 17 March 1961. They had a daughter, Christina Erika Carandini Lee (b. 1963), who married Juan Francisco Aneiros Rodriguez in July 2001. Lee was also the uncle of the British actress Dame Harriet Walter. Both Lee and his daughter Christina provided spoken vocals on Rhapsody of Fire's album From Chaos to Eternity.Known for his imposing height, Lee stood 6 ft 5 in (1.95 m) tall. Lee and his wife Birgit were listed as among the fifty best-dressed over 50 by the Guardian in March 2013.
Lee was a supporter of the British Conservative Party. He described Michael Howard as "the ideal person to lead the party" in 2003 and supported William Hague and David Cameron.Contrary to popular belief, Lee did not have a vast library of occult books. When giving a speech at the University College Dublin on 8 November 2011, he said: "Somebody wrote I have 20,000 books. I'd have to live in a bath! I have maybe four or five [occult books]." He further admonished the students against baneful occult practices, warning them that he had met "people who claimed to be Satanists. Who claimed to be involved with black magic. Who claimed that they not only knew a lot about it"; however, he himself had certainly never been involved: "I warn all of you: never, never, never. You will not only lose your mind, you'll lose your soul."
Lee died at the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital on 7 June 2015 at 8:30 am after being admitted for respiratory problems and heart failure, shortly after celebrating his 93rd birthday there. His wife delayed the public announcement until 11 June in order to break the news to their family.