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In memoriam: Christopher Lee, Hammer's Count Dracula

Iconic star of Hammer Horror, Lord of the Rings, and Star Wars dies aged 93

Obit Christopher Lee, the iconic British actor best known for his portrayal of Count Dracula in a series of films from Hammer Studios and for roles in the recent Lord of the Rings and Star Wars film trilogies, has died at age 93.

The deep-voiced Lee made his film debut in Corridor of Mirrors in 1948 for future James Bond director Terence Young. Lee himself would go on to play the heavy in the Bond film The Man with the Golden Gun in 1974.

But he was best known as Transylvania's most famous aristocrat. Lee's film portrayal of Bram Stoker's vampire in the 1958 Hammer horror film Dracula (known in the US as Horror of Dracula) is almost as instantly recognizable as Bela Lugosi's version from the Universal Studios film of 1931.

Lee would reprise his role as the bloodsucking Count in six other Hammer films, although he had little love for the scripts he was given. In 1966's Dracula: Prince of Darkness he has no lines at all. Lee said in interviews that he refused to say any of the dialogue that was written for him for the picture, a claim that screenwriter Jimmy Sangster has disputed.

Much of Lee's reticence came from his love of the original character of Dracula, which he thought was poorly represented in the later Hammer films. He is said to have added at least one line of Stoker's original novel to his character's dialogue in each of the films (the 1966 picture being the notable exception).

An avid reader, Lee was also a lifelong fan of JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, which he claimed to have read countless times. When approached by director Peter Jackson in the late 1990s about a role in his film trilogy based on Tokien's works, he reportedly jumped at the chance – although, despite admitting to a lifelong desire to play the wizard Gandalf, he felt that the physical demands of the role were too much for him at his age and he accepted the role of the villainous Saruman instead.

Not that the 6' 5" Lee was any stranger to physicality. Prior to his acting career, he had distinguished himself in the British armed forces during the Second World War, including stints with RAF intelligence and with the Gurkhas of the 8th Indian Infantry Division. He retired from the RAF in 1946 at the rank of flight lieutenant.

As an actor, however, it was indisputably Hammer Studios that brought Lee fame. In addition to Dracula, he played various other roles for Hammer, including Frankenstein's monster and the titular creature in 1959's The Mummy.

Outside Hammer, in 1973 he portrayed the sinister Lord Summerisle in The Wicker Man opposite Edward Woodward, Britt Ekland, and Ingrid Pitt, in what he would later consider to be his best film.

In later years, Lee appeared in many film and television roles, often as a villain – no doubt due to his memorable stint at Hammer.

His later performance as Saruman in Jackson's Lord of the Rings films signaled a career revival for Lee, and he would subsequently appear in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, and a number of collaborations with director Tim Burton – in addition to reprising his role as Saruman in Jackson's Hobbit trilogy of films.

At the time of his death, Lee could count 281 acting credits to his name, according to IMDB. In addition to his film and TV appearances, he was also known for his voice work in animated films and videogames, and he even released several albums of music in collaboration with heavy metal musicians.

Lee died in a hospital in London on Sunday morning, June 7, after suffering heart and respiratory problems. He is survived by his wife, Danish former model Birgit "Gitte" Krøncke, and the couple's daughter, Christina Erika Carandini Lee. ®

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