From Horror of Dracula to The Face of Fu Manchu to The Lord of the Rings, Christopher Lee led a career playing iconic and imposing roles, mostly villains. The films that initially made him famous were Hammer monster movies, proud B-movies, but he immediately introduced an element of pathos and danger that stood out from the camp.
Lee died on June 7 at the age of 93. Here, we take a look back at his most memorable characters.The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)
Lee had been a bit player in British and Hollywood films for a decade before he landed his first popular role—as Frankenstein’s monster in Hammer Film Productions monster movie, the first in a trio of creature features. Peter Cushing—who, like his friend Lee, would catch the eye of a young George Lucas—played the misguided Dr. Frankenstein.
Dracula was a role Lee would reprise 10 times through the 1970s. The actor memorably appeared in the first film for only seven minutes, but left a lasting impression as the vampire, giving the role a terrifying but seductive presence that differentiated his take from Bela Lugosi’s Count from the 1930s.
The Mummy (1959)
Lee’s third Hammer assignment required him to not only swath himself in heavy makeup and bandages, but also lumber across screen with only his eyes visible to the audience. Lee would later remember the role as one of his most physically challenging, as he pulled every muscle in his back while lifting actress Yvonne Furneaux in a scene.
Lee first played the famous detective in the 1962 film, and would do so again in a pair of TV movies in the early ’90s: Sherlock Holmes and the Leading Lady and Incident at Victoria Falls. In 1970, he played Sherlock’s “smarter” brother, Mycroft, in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.
Fu Manchu was another repeat role for Lee, as he would go on to play the Chinese villain in four more films: The Brides of Fu Manchu, The Vengeance of Fu Manchu, The Blood of Fu Manchu, and Sax Rohmer’s The Castle of Fu Manchu. Under layers of makeup, including taped eyelids, Lee brought the character back to screen relevance after Boris Karloff first tackled the role in 1932.
Rasputin the Mad Monk (1966)
Even though playing the villainous Russian mystic required less makeup than Lee’s previous collaborations with Hammer Studios, the role was just as imposing: Lee managed to terrify audiences in a hypnotic performance that followed him throughout Russia, from early scenes in a monastery to his final moments in an icy river.
Armed with an eye patch and a sword, Lee’s Rochefort would stun theatergoers with his on-screen swordplay (Lee fenced in real life), as well as an unexpected depth in his interpretation of the tragic villain, a role he later reprised in the 1974 sequel The Four Musketeers.
The Man With the Golden Gun (1974)
In Roger Moore’s second turn as James Bond, Lee played the assassin Francisco Scaramanga, the man with—you guessed it!—the golden gun, a role that gave him the chance to not only face off memorably against 007, but also romance Maud Adams on his island lair.
The Wicker Man (1975)
Lee himself would later call the horror thriller “the best film I’ve ever been in,” and his role as the menacing Lord Summerisle, the leader of the deeply (and creepily) religious inhabitants of the island of Summerisle, “the best part I’ve ever had.”
In the early 2000s, Lee began a career renaissance of sorts, starring in two blockbuster franchises. The first was Peter Jackson’s Middle-earth saga, in which Lee played the traitorous wizard Saruman, a villain Lee portrayed with unsettling ferocity and zeal.
After dueling Gandalf, Lee was recruited to duel Yoda as Count Dooku, the corrupted Jedi Master who became Darth Tyranus. And as a Dark Lord of the Sith, Lee not only wielded a lightsaber (and his stunning Force lightning attack), but also created a classic on-screen villain that elevated the otherwise hokey prequel films.