Christopher Lee (Part 1)
I interviewed the legendary Christopher Lee on 29th January 1996 in a hotel in London. He was promoting the documentary video The Many Faces of Christopher Lee, which gave me the opportunity to ask about many different parts of his career. This was of course well before Lord of the Rings or Attack of the Clones - his most recent credit at the time was John Landis' children's film The Stupids.
Christopher Lee is very tall and quite scary and unfailingly polite but firm. He's the last of the horror greats. (He also has the most extraordinary CV which constantly throws up surprises, as witness the 1992 British animated version of Beauty and the Beast, which was still largely undocumented when I found a copy in 2005.)
Whose idea was the new video? How did they approach you?
"I got a call to my agent from Lumiere, who anyway have brought out quite a lot of my films on video. They wanted to do a video on me: clips of some of my films, and me talking on-screen about the films. So in a sense it's an autobiography on celluloid. As far as I know, it's never been done. And there is easily enough for a second one. Because they had to cut a lot of course to get it down to 55 minutes. It took two days to shoot. Somebody had the idea - I didn't suggest it - and the approach was made to me and my agent. When I was told about this I said, 'Of course.' It's a great privilege for an actor to be asked to discuss his or her career on film.
"I did it in a book called The Films of Christopher Lee, which came out in America from Scarecrow Press, but of course that only goes up to about 1983. There were stills from every film, many of which were not chosen by me, and the reproduction in some cases was terrible. The brought this book out, and the interesting thing about it, it wasn't just the film, the cast, the crew. They'd got the reviews in. And I discussed each picture. So we're doing this again, but this time we're doing it on film."
To many people, the one face of Christopher Lee is still Dracula. Do you think your identification with the role has been a help or a hindrance?
"Let me tell you something, and it was proved only the other day. Wherever I go in the world - and that's nearly everywhere over a period of time - people come up to me and they do one of three things. First of all: 'Are you Christopher Lee?' 'Yes.' The next comment is, 'I'm a big fan.' The next question is, 'Can I shake your hand?' 'Of course.' The next question is, 'Can I have your autograph?' 'Of course.' I've never refused one. The final comment - this is worldwide, 99.9 times out of a hundred - and this is the public, not the press: they say, 'I enjoy your films. You have given me so much pleasure over the years.' They do not say, 'I like your Hammer movies,' or, 'I loved you playing that particular part.' They don't say that.
"The letters I get; it's amazing that at my age, after all these years, I'm still getting at least 20 a day. Which is a lot - it works out at 150 a week - when you're my age and you've done all the things I've done. From all over the world - Uzbeckistan I had one from the other day. I'm trying to work out what on Earth they saw. Probably in the old days of the Soviet regime, when the sailors went ashore they saw things they normally weren't allowed to sea in Russia. So that explains it to a certain extent. But that's what they say.
"Now, I said this to this journalist, who looked a bit dubious. As we walked out of the place where I was being interviewed, two people came up and said, 'Can I have your autograph?' The journalist was standing right beside me, and the next thing was, 'We do enjoy your movies so much.'
"Let me explain something to you: the reason why people associate me with that particular character is three reasons. One: it was a tremendous launching pad for me as an actor. There's no question about that, I've never denied it, I shall always be grateful. It made my name known and my face known, the two went together. They don't always, but they did then, all over the world. Secondly, by force of circumstances, it became very effective, all over the world. Thirdly, people who saw the original films, of my generation or older - we're talking 38 years ago, the first one, and we're talking about 25 years ago for the last one - they remember them, but not to the exclusion of everything else. The other people latch on because of television and video. These are of course repeats all over the world.
"As we are talking now, somebody is watching one of those films. Some people may not look at the date. They think, 'Oh, that was made a couple of years ago,' or something like that. They do associate me with that character in a contemporary sense which is wildly out of date. Next, some of them - not all of them - became classic films and are shown as an ideal example of how to make a movie of that kind. Lastly, it's the old familiar story of sloppy journalism, because it's so easy to put a label on somebody, which is what they always do with everyone. They still refer to Sean Connery as 007, and they will do the same with Pierce Brosnan, no matter what else he's done. He was far more famous as Remington Steele in his television series, in terms of viewers. Far more people watched that than will ever watch Goldeneye; that's bound to be the case, isn't it? Look how many millions watch television.
"When I hosted Saturday Night Live in New York, the share was 39, which didn't mean anything to me.There were 30-35 million people watching that show. They still show it, and it's still, so far as I know, the third highest rated show they've ever had. So a lot of people in America associate me with Saturday Night Live and remember it very vividly. I think it's a question of what people remember you for in terms of the impact that each performance has made. It's not a question of trying to deny it, but I try to tell people that the public does not come up to me and talk about Dracula all the time because they don't.
"But the press will not accept it. As far as they are concerned, that's the label and you'd better conform. I won't conform and I never have. When people ask me what I do, I say I'm an actor. I leave it at that. It's extraordinary how people won't let go. Another thing is that there was a period between about 1957 and 1970, when I did The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, which completely cracked the type-casting situation. There was a period between those years when I was typecast, not in playing that character, but being in that kind of movie. I was, but so is everyone when they make their name. Connery played Bond seven times, I think Roger did too, and how many times did Peter Sellers play Inspector Clouseau? But look at what else they did! Everybody remembers Clouseau and talks about, 'Is this your dog?', and everybody talks about Sean and Roger in terms of Bond. It could not be more inaccurate, but it's the press that does it. I'm not trying to justify, I'm not making excuses, I'm simply saying that it isn't accurate. there was a time when I did suffer from typecasting, there's no question about it. But I broke that totally by doing The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes and subsequent features: westerns, The Wicker Man, and virtually all the work I did in America between '75 and '85. Half of it was comedy which is not even seen over here. So where's the typecasting? If I was to go through a list of the pictures that I've done in the last 20 years, you would have to agree with me."
Another prevalent name in your CV is the Sherlock Holmes canon: The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace...
"Oh, that was a disaster. That was shot in black and white, and actually in many respects it was excellent. Really good. A marvellous cast; all the top actors in Germany who spoke very good English, and Thorley Walters was my Watson. To this day, nobody can begin to believe that when the film came out it wasn't my voice, in English. But it was shot in English! I've played Holmes twice since then."
You also played Fu Manchu five times. These are both classic Victorian characters, and Sherlock Holmes continues to be popular, people are still making Holmes movies. But apart from that Peter Sellers spoof in 1980 and a couple of other obscurities, nobody has made a Fu Manchu movie since your last one. They're both classic adventure.
"They're melodrama. I can't really answer that. I can only assume that films have now moved away in another direction where, instead of it being an imaginary story about imaginary people, now the public appears to demand far more realism. I didn't say 'reality', I said 'realism'. There was no sex in the Fu Manchu films, the violence was very limited. It was a fairy story, it was a fantasy like many of the Hammer films.
"Also there might possibly be a racist element involved, with people who are Chinese objecting to a power-mad character being Chinese. Although when I played him, as I've said many times, I always tried to play him with an honest dignity, like an old-style war-lord. Like an emperor, with great dignity and with a brilliant brain. In other words, I read the Sax Rohmer books, I met his widow, and I tried to play him the way the author described him, just as I did in the Dracula pictures. Because of the scripts and the stories, I was prevented from doing so. It's as simple as that.
"The subsequent Dracula stories, after the first one, got so far away from the original conception, not only in the character but in the stories themselves, which had absolutely nothing to do with Stoker. The same thing happened with the Fu Manchu films. The producer bought the rights to all Sax Rohmer's stories about Fu Manchu, ignored them and then wrote his own. Something quite beyond me, I can't understand it. But I had read the books as a boy. I knew what the character was, because I knew how the author described him, so I played him the way that the author described him. It wasn't necessarily what was in the script. And the same thing applied to the character that I played in the Dracula movies. I tried to play the character the way that the author described him, but it wasn't in the script.
"I can't really account for that. I really don't know, unless it's a question of being politically correct. These sort of films still have tremendous appeal. What's the difference between a film like that and a melodrama like The Last of the Mohicans, which is also a melodrama based on imaginary people and imaginary stories."
You made Count Dracula in 1970.
"Ah, now that was the nearest to the correct appearance. The film was a disaster. I did all my scenes with Herbert Lom without him being there. He played Van Helsing, we had Klaus Kinski as Renfield: it's not bad casting. And I played all my scenes without anyone. I was playing to absolutely nothing behind the camera, an experience I have had quite frequently, one way or another. There was nobody there, so I was playing to talking to thin air. And so were they, because by the time they arrived, I'd gone.
"I did at least manage to get a bit of one of the great speeches in, because I insisted. And I did at least - and I think it's the only time it's ever happened - portray the character exactly as Stoker described him. As an old man with a white moustache, dressed entirely in black, getting younger and younger throughout the film. Because the film was made on a shoe-string, it was a mess, but it's the only occasion - as far as I know - in the history of the cinema, where he's been properly portrayed physically. Because Gary Oldman didn't do it. He didn't have a moustache, for God's sake! And the first time you saw him he was wearing what looked like a red dress! If you read the book: 'dressed from head to toe in black without a single speck of colour.' That's the quote from the book. Why did they do that? It's something I don't understand."
What did you think of Jess Franco as a director? There's been a heck of a lot written about him in the past few years.
"Yes, and I found out things about Jess that I didn't know, after a period of some years: that he'd made some rather strange films."
To say the least!
"Yes, so I gather. But I didn't know that, and I don't know that it would have made much difference to me. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that quite a few of the major directors in the world have done some questionable films. and a great many of the top directors in the world have done commercials. I don't know whether that would be considered as a step down, but even David Lean did commercials. To do a commercial, of course, is slightly different, to put it mildly.
"But Jess Franco, or Jesus Franco as he is in Spain, is under-rated in my opinion as a director, mainly because, I think, of these other films that people say he's done. As I said, I didn't know. And just because somebody has been involved in the making of what I gather were pornographic films, doesn't mean to say they can't direct, and it doesn't make much difference to me, because that's not the movie we're making. He has a great deal of experience under his belt as a director. After all, I think I'm right in saying he did the battle scenes in Chimes of Midnight for Orson Welles. Welles doesn't choose somebody who doesn't know what they're doing. That's a feather in his cap.
"He's done some very worthwhile things. He's a most amusing man with a great knowledge of the cinema. He's good with actors, he knows what he wants. But he has been so constricted over the years by the budgets: we haven't got time to turn the camera round and put the wall in again, so zoom - instead of close-up, instead of cutting. Everything is zoom to close-up. I remember the first time I met him, it was in the days of Franco, I said with two names like that - Jesus and Franco - you shouldn't have too much trouble in Spain! But he has a great sense of humour. I haven't seen him for years. I think he's under-rated, I've always said so, because he's not just a hack director. It's always a question of material; the same thing applies to actors."
Continue to Part 2 of this very long interview, where Christopher Lee discusses working for Hammer, A Feast at Midnight and his unseen Edgar Allan Poe TV series
Or jump to Part 3 where he talks about Space: 1999, The Return of Captain Invincible and The Wicker Man