Christopher Lee, 'The Last Great Gothic Horror Star,' Dies At 93 Lee is best known for his villainous roles such as Dracula, Saruman and Count Dooku. He died on Sunday at 93. NPR's Audie Cornish talks to Lee biographer Jonathan Rigby.
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Christopher Lee, 'The Last Great Gothic Horror Star,' Dies At 93

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Christopher Lee, 'The Last Great Gothic Horror Star,' Dies At 93

Christopher Lee, 'The Last Great Gothic Horror Star,' Dies At 93

Christopher Lee, 'The Last Great Gothic Horror Star,' Dies At 93

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Lee is best known for his villainous roles such as Dracula, Saruman and Count Dooku. He died on Sunday at 93. NPR's Audie Cornish talks to Lee biographer Jonathan Rigby.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Sir Christopher Lee was a deliciously evil villain. He stalked hapless maidens as Dracula in not one but 10 films. He battled Bond, tried to conquer Middle Earth, betrayed Jedis and much, much more. Lee died at the age of 93 on Sunday. Here to remember the man behind the villain is Jonathan Rigby. He's the author of the book "Christopher Lee: The Authorised Screen History." Jonathan, welcome to the program.

JONATHAN RIGBY: Nice to talk to you.

CORNISH: What, if anything, do you see as Sir Christopher Lee's legacy?

RIGBY: You know, it's a very overworked cliche, the idea that we won't see his or her like again. But in Christopher Lee's case, we really won't. He was the last great Gothic horror star. You know, he was in the direct line of descent from Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi and of course was a colleague of Vincent Price and Peter Cushing. And he is the last of his line, as it were, and he was a remarkable actor.

CORNISH: So I understand he was a record holder at one point in terms of the number of roles he had. Were most of them villains?

RIGBY: (Laughter) A lot of them were villains. He was ideally suited to the more suave and Gothic sort of villain. And British filmmakers, and later filmmakers internationally, were well aware of this, so he was in constant demand.

CORNISH: In what way? Are you talking about his physical presence, his voice? What were the attributes that directors were drawn to?

RIGBY: Well, I think when he first played Dracula in 1957, audiences were staggered by this complete re-interpretation of the role. He was physically extraordinarily imposing, and he had a very resonant voice. And he brought an extraordinary sexual magnetism to the part, which, given that he was an undead (laughter) an undead creature, was quite a departure and startled and frightened people.

CORNISH: How did his roles change or not as he got older?

RIGBY: Well, I think, you know, he had an extraordinary Indian summer this century playing characters like Saruman in "The Lord Of The Rings" films and Count Dooku in the "Star Wars" prequels. And I think this is because young directors - I say young. They were young when encountering his early films. They remembered him so well as such an impressive and powerful villain. And they wanted a bit of that even when he was, you know, an octogenarian and it was undiminished. You know, his Saruman is a very, very scary and impressive creation.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING")

CHRISTOPHER LEE: (As Saruman) Friendship with Sauron is not lightly thrown aside. One ill turn deserves another. It is over. Embrace the power of the ring.

CORNISH: Tell us a little bit about his background. People talk so much about his looks, but where did that and his bearing come from?

RIGBY: Well, one of the curious things about him actually is that, you know, he's a kind of symbol now of a British cinema that is gone. And yet, at the beginning of his career, he spent 10 years playing small parts, supporting parts, but not breaking through to stardom.

And the reason for this was a kind of prejudice on the part of British casting directors about two problems, as they saw it. A - he was so tall - far taller than the average British leading man. And B - he was very, as far as they were concerned, he was very foreign looking. What do we do with this actor? We don't know. Well, eventually they cast him as monsters.

CORNISH: Christopher Lee had another side to him that heavy metal fans may be aware of. He was in a heavy metal band.

(LAUGHTER)

RIGBY: Well, you can't say he wasn't a surprising man. That particular facet all goes back to the fact that in the early '50s he briefly trained in Sweden, actually, as an opera singer. And he always felt that, you know, he had a voice that should be exploited and it very rarely was. He did sing in some of his films, such as "The Wicker Man," for example, but basically he didn't have an opportunity to express this part of himself. But in his old age, you know, I think he thought to hell with it, and he did indeed record some heavy metal albums. Who would have anticipated that? (Laughter) Extraordinary.

CORNISH: Jonathan Rigby - he's the author of the book "Christopher Lee: The Authorised Screen History." Thank you so much for speaking with us.

RIGBY: You're welcome. I enjoyed it.

CORNISH: Sir Christopher Lee - villainous actor extraordinaire and heavy metal singer. He died on Sunday. He was 93 years old.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY WAY")

LEE: (Singing) And now the end is near. And so I face the final curtain. My friends, I'll say it clear. I'll sate my case of which I'm certain. I've lived a life that's full...

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

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