'He had such a presence ... I thought, Man, I’ve been hypnotized by Dracula!’
After a lifetime as an imperious film and television star, Christopher Lee died at age 93 on June 7. Amid hundreds of screen roles, he appeared in five films for director Tim Burton, playing Willy Wonka’s dentist father in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, an ancient mariner in Dark Shadows, the Jabberwocky in Alice in Wonderland, and an irate pastor in Corpse Bride. Here’s what the filmmaker told Entertainment Weekly about their time together.
“What about Christopher Lee?” I suggested.
We were putting together Sleepy Hollow back in 1998, and I mentioned to the studio that we had the small part of a judge left to cast. They said, “Oh …he’s dead.” I remember thinking, What? I grew up with him my whole life. I would have heard…
It’s funny how this dead man then went on to do the Star Wars prequels and The Lord of the Rings movies and dozens of other films over the next decade and a half.
I first met him at the Dorchester Hotel in London before Sleepy Hollow. He sat down and two hours went by in a second. He had such a presence, I felt like I was hallucinating. I thought, “Man, I’ve been hypnotized by Dracula!” He would tell me a story about when he was in World War II and then a story about 007 author Ian Fleming, then one about playing golf with Hervé Villechaize [his co-star from The Man With The Golden Gun.]
He experienced everything, and remained positive and interested and creative all the way through. It’s interesting to grow up watching somebody who has an intimidating presence but then in real life they’re warm, giving, and not very jaded. Like a lot of people, I grew up with his Hammer horror films, and probably some of his least favorites are some of my favorites, like Dracula A.D. 1972. I love that movie!
His voice… all he had to do was speak and it would lull you in with beauty, and draw you in with intimidation, and warmth, and everything all together. That’s why he was able to do so many things: comedy, music, drama, horror. I remember I said to him once, “Would you do my phone message for me?” (I really did ask, but I didn’t make him do it.)
The last time I saw Christopher, Johnny Depp and I visited with him and his wife at their home. He’d often call to check in. I didn’t even know my phone number, but he did. Not only are people like him friends, but you realize once they go that no one will ever see anything like that again.
The parts he played in my movies weren’t huge, but I just loved being around him. Even if it was small, I would ask him to do something, not only for me, but for the other actors. As soon as he came on, it brought an energy that made you realize why you liked making films. Even in the animated Frankenweenie, I stuck in a shot from 1958’s Horror of Dracula, the only live-action piece in the movie, just because Lee was an inspiration.
Knowing him, my impression was he — rightly so — got tired of playing monsters and villains. He was so versatile he could do anything, and nobody wants to be pigeon-holed. But at the end, he got the full picture and had a sense of humor about it, and embraced it all, and had opinions about it.
There was such a joy about him and respect from somebody who really loved to work. His mind was complete. I’m way far gone, but this guy was, to the very end, full of stories, remembrances, insights, everything. You would completely aspire to be where he was.
I’d run into him at the airport and ask, Where are you going? He’d say, “I’m off to Germany, I’m doing a heavy metal album,” or “I’m going to Italy to perform an opera.” And this was recently. He just kept going.
That’s why it’s hard to think of him as gone. He’s still really, really there. It’ll take a while to hit… for all of us.