?As the BBC cult show Snuff Box once pointed out, Christopher Lee is a sexy man god. He’s also a global treasure, a living legend, a heavy metal icon, a Tolkien scholar and a seemingly genuine guy who is graceful to his fans. In other words, he’s way more than just Dracula. That role will be the first mentioned in association with Lee on the dark day when he passes on, but it’s hardly the only interesting character he has embodied. Lee has been acting steadily since 1948, and in that time he has worked in every genre and experienced life at the top and bottom of showbiz. These days he is an elder statesman and inspiration who, with any luck, will live on for years to come (if any one actor deserved an immortality potion, Lee is it).
But we come here to praise Lee, not to ponder his mortality. For this list is a celebration of his work, his life and the other roles which he is so fondly remembered for — although we’ve slanted it towards his nerdier roles, admittedly.
So please, grab a drink and enjoy this look at Sir Christopher Lee’s 10 best non-Dracula roles (you’ll want the drink for entry #4).
In 1973, Christopher Lee played Lucifer in Poor Devil, a failed TV pilot that starred Sammy Davis Jr. as a recruiter working for Satan. It seems that Sammy was especially bad at his job, so in an uncharacteristic moment of kindness his boss gave him final chance to claim a soul — namely that of gambling addict Jack Klugman. Hilarity likely ensued. The brilliant premise of having the Candy Man bumbling his way through hell every week should have earned the show at least five seasons. And yet foolish network execs still took a pass on it. Honestly, I’ll admit that other than the clip above that was taken from a TV special about unsold pilots I haven’t seen a second of Poor Devil (you could probably land a copy of The Day the Clown Cried easier than this thing). But come on, it’s Sammy Davis Jr. yukking it up with Chris Lee. How could that possibly be anything but a milestone in either of their careers?
9) General Miguel
Christopher Lee once fought Captain America. That’s easily the coolest sentence you’ll read this week. It went down in the 1979 telefilm Captain America II: Death Too Soon. In the flick, Lee plays terrorist-for-hire General Miguel. When the madman decides he wants to use a rapid aging chemical substance for his own nefarious purposes, a very shitty and Evel Knievel-esque Cap steps in to save the day. Their final showdown is embedded above. It’s retrotastic and appears to have a budget of $6.25. Enjoy.
8) Count Dooku
Yes, yes, the Star Wars prequels suck and Lucas raped your childhood and so forth. There’s no arguing what a mess Episodes I-III are, so at least Lee’s Count Dooku classed things up a bit. He made us smile as he fought Yoda and cringe as he escaped from said Jedi Master on an intergalactic jet ski. Mainly though he made us feel sorry for him and the other decent actors in the trilogy (Terrence Stamp, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, et al) whose abilities were overshadowed by wooden directing and incomprehensible plotting. At least his portrayal of Dooku had some, er, menace to it. That’s a character trait that is sorely missing from Jango Fett and Emperor Frankenberry.
7) Francisco Scaramanga
Christopher Lee took his cinematic villainy to the next level when he portrayed James Bond foe/fearsome assassin Francisco Scaramanga in The Man with the Golden Gun. The film remains a high point of the Bond series largely thanks to Lee’s gleefully sinister performance and a final act that proved once and for all that nothing good ever happens in a funhouse. If you enter one, a super villain is just going to fuck with you. Consider that a warning to you all.
6) Fu Manchu
Viewed from a 2010 perspective, Christopher Lee’s five Fu Manchu movies are lousy with political incorrectness and offensive Asian stereotyping. So it’s probably best at this point to sidestep any potential controversy and state that the real reason this role made the cut is just how incredibly cool Lee looks with that wicked moustache.
Not merely content with being forever associated with one horror icon, Lee took on the title role in 1959’s The Mummy. With apologies to Boris Karloff, Lee’s soulful take on Kharis — heightened by injuries he suffered during the film’s production — make him the definitive mummy of the silver screen. Dracula gets all the attention, but Kharis is Lee’s most brave (and thankless, given his endless comparisons to Karloff) role during his time working with Hammer Studios.
4) Mr. Midnight
This above video has appeared on Topless Robot before, and it hopefully will appear again. In fact, every day of this blog should begin and end with it. Why? It’s a song called “Name Your Poison” in which Christopher Lee encourages listeners to become raging alcoholics. The clip comes from 1983’s The Return of Captain Invincible, an Australian sci-fi cult musical comedy that co-stars Alan Arkin as the titular washed up superhero. If the style of the song seems to take a page out of Dr. Frank N. Furter’s songbook, that’s because it was written by Rocky Horror collaborators Richard O’Brien and Richard Hartley. The flick also gives Lee the opportunity to flex his comedic acting muscles…something we’ll see a bit more of at the top of this list.
If I ever get around to writing a Daily List about sci-fi actors’ most oft-told anecdotes, Christopher Lee’s story about how he reads the Lord of the Rings trilogy annually will be near the top of the entries. Not that that’s a bad thing. His familiarity with the source material meant that he fully grasped the motives behind every character, not just his own and his performance was that much better because of it. Lee was rightfully upset when Saruman’s demise was cut from the theatrical version of Return of the King, claiming that his character is not given closure on-screen. The extended edition DVD rectified this edit, but many fans — and Lee himself — still assert that Saruman’s death should have been in the original cut. Some nerd fights are truly timeless.
2) Lord Summerisle
The Wicker Man’s effigy-loving nutball Lord Summerisle was written with Christopher Lee in mind. It’s impossible to imagine anyone else in the role — *cough* Ellen Burstyn *cough* — because of how he slow burns his way through the film. (Pun intended). Once Summerisle’s true intentions are revealed, his sinister agenda blazes across the screen as bright as the religious totem Sergeant Howie meets his demise in. And no, that’s not a spoiler because the movie is 37 years old. Lee has gone on record saying this is his favorite film role, and as amazing as it is there is one other character that is a just a wee bit more lovable. Certainly less of a firebug anyways…
1) Dr. Catheter
Betty White is so over. The real Facebook campaign should have been to get Christopher Lee hosting Saturday Night Live again. He did once in 1978 and killed, proving to audiences that his acting range was broad enough that could play more than just villains or bloodsuckers. His most memorable comedic role came in Gremlins 2: The New Batch as, wait for it, Dr. Catheter. Running the Splice O’Life genetics laboratory, his unethical experiments set the stage for the film’s batch of mutated Gremlins. Whether deadpanning his way through scenes or referencing his most iconic role, Lee illustrates how his great sense of humor rivals his impressive acting chops. Cherish him folks, we aren’t ever getting another just as diverse and talented as he is.