Christopher Lee, the acclaimed English actor and singer known for his roles in the Lord of the Rings and Star Wars films, died at age 93 on June 7 from respiratory problems and heart failure.
As we commemorate those we lost in 2015, Peter Jackson spoke with EW about his experiences with Lee and what he remembers about the late star.
“The Man with the Golden Gun would have been my first real experience of Chris on the big screen. In fact, it was the first movie I saw four times — I clearly remember my 13-year-old self thinking it was pretty damn amazing for any human being to actually see the same movie four times! Whether it was because of Chris or the simple fact it was a James Bond film is less clear now… but I strongly suspect Britt Ekland in her tiny bikini may have been a contributing factor. What did make a huge impression was the moment when Christopher’s villain opens his shirt to reveal three nipples — which I knew even then was more than Britt Ekland had!
By the time I was 12 or 13, I had become a huge horror movie fan… but I lived in New Zealand. We only had one TV channel (which eventually became two channels at some point) and virtually no cinema revival houses or festivals. Seeing old horror classics was next to impossible, but I would pour over books and magazines, reading stories about Boris Karloff, Vincent Price, and Christopher Lee, studying every photo obsessively. Back then I could name every Christopher Lee Dracula movie, tell you what year it was made and who directed it — but I’d never seen any of them! For virtually all my teen years, the intense adoration I felt for Hammer horror films, Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing and Chris Lee’s Dracula, was based entirely on black-and-white photographs!
Then home video arrived, and I was finally able to hunt down Hammer films — dripping in vivid color — as they slowly became available on VHS — but very slowly, like a two-decade-long drip feed. Even though I understood a lot more about filmmaking by then, they didn’t disappoint me in the slightest. That terrific Hammer movie trove, many featuring Chris and Peter Cushing, should be regarded with not just nostalgia, but also recognized as the great cinematic achievement it was.
Chris traveled to New Zealand three or four times during the shooting of The Lord of the Rings, and I’d read that he didn’t like to discuss his old Hammer movies, so I did my best to keep my mouth shut. However, on the day we finished his last shot, I asked if he’d mind ‘signing a few things for me?’ He replied ‘Of course,’ at which point I produced my old, much loved, childhood horror movie books and Hammer film posters. His eyebrows shot up — he was suddenly facing all manner of Hammer images — snarling with fangs, biting into virgins’ necks, Peter Cushing hammering stakes through his heart — the whole nine yards!
I could see that he was hauling in all reserves of goodwill, but he signed the lot for me. On my Dracula Has Risen From the Grave one sheet, he wrote: ‘To Peter, with best wishes from a past life.’ Interestingly, even today when I think about films like Dracula, Prince of Darkness, or Taste the Blood of Dracula, it’s those damn black-and-white photographs that instantly spring into mind, well before the films themselves. They remain a powerful part of my own past life.
Entertainment Weekly: At what point did you know that you wanted him to play Saruman in the Lord of the Rings films? Can you describe the initial conversations you had with him? What qualities did he bring to the role?
“In 1998, Fran and I were casting Lord of the Rings in London, and word came through that Christopher Lee ‘would appreciate the opportunity’ to meet with us! I was beside myself — firstly because he was Christopher Lee, but also because we had heard that he was very reluctant to play any more villains. We hadn’t seen him on-screen for a while but checked out recent photos and realized how perfect for Saruman he would actually be.
For reasons that now escape me, we were filming our auditions in a creepy old Gothic church in London. He literally loomed out of the shadows and introduced himself to Fran and me. As we chatted, he told us how he’d met Tolkien, and why the book meant so much to him. He re-read The Lord of the Rings every single year, and could freely quote vast chunks. We had a video camera and tripod set up, but just said that we would love him to be in our movie — virtually offering him the role of Saruman right there. However, it was at that exact moment that Fran and I realized in horror that he’d come to talk to us about playing Gandalf!
A very awkward 30 minutes followed, with Fran and I trying our best to explain to a rather peeved Christopher Lee that we were already talking to Ian McKellen about Gandalf — but what an incredible Saruman he would be!
Chris wasn’t hearing a bar of it, and eventually commanded us to turn on the video camera so he could audition for Gandalf. After shooting a few takes, he thanked us very graciously before disappearing back into the shadows.
Eventually we confirmed Ian for Gandalf and officially offered Chris the Saruman role.
We started shooting, and whenever we discussed Saruman’s scenes with Chris, he would always feel the need to say, “You must understand, Peter — he’s really not an evil man.’ He was carrying some heavy scars of Dracula of his own, and I felt it quite strongly.
Chris also let Ian McKellen know that he had really been hoping to play Gandalf. At one point during the shoot, Chris said, ‘I’m perfectly happy to be in an ‘Ian McKellen film.” Ian immediately turned to Chris, and with great affection he replied, ‘But not as thrilled as I am — to be in a ‘Christopher Lee movie’!’
That was the bittersweet reality with Chris — while he regarded his cinematic history with a certain amount of disdain, everyone around him had the opposite opinion. For my part, I’m as happy as hell to have made five Christopher Lee movies.
What was the experience like directing him on set? Was there a favorite scene or moment of working with him?
“There are several, but the single greatest moment was when the horror-obsessed teenage Peter collided straight into his 40-year-old self. The resulting wave of pure geek joy was almost overwhelming.
We were shooting Saruman’s death for The Return of the King. First he’s stabbed by Wormtongue, then he plummets from the tower. No conversation was had with Chris, but I decided to have Saruman land on some machinery and end up, well … impaled. In truth, I saw the opportunity to be the last director on earth to film Christopher Lee getting a wooden stake through his heart, and was far too nerdy to resist.
On [that] day all on-set crew were ordered not to make any ‘smart-arse’ comments, and use of the terms ‘wooden stake’ and ‘impaled’ was forbidden. I just told Chris that we needed to grab a quick shot of him after Saruman had landed on some ‘spiky machinery.’
So Chris lies on his back with our camera pointed down on him, and waits in stony silence while the makeup team glue what is clearly a wooden stake onto his chest. With my excitement level maxing out, I grabbed the bottle of fake blood, and squirted it over him myself. We then started the camera rolling to film Saruman taking his final gasps. I’m looking at the monitor thinking, ‘My God, I’m going to get away with this! He hasn’t said a thing!’
I call ‘action,’ and there’s … nothing but silence. Then Chris suddenly stares directly into the lens, and in the weary tones of a very stern — but kind at heart — old headmaster, says, ‘This is strangely familiar … 20 years I looked up and saw Peter Cushing. Now, all the way down here in New Zealand, I look up and see Peter Jackson.’ Then, without pause, he goes straight into his Saruman performance!
It doesn’t get better than that!
You mentioned in your Facebook tribute that he loved to regale you with stories when you would visit him in London. Is there a particular favorite anecdote that you remember?
“I loved my visits to Chris and Gitte (Birgit “Gitte” Krøncke) in London best of all. I wasn’t dealing with on-set pressures, Gitte would keep our little shot glasses filled with some kind of terrifying Scandinavian firewater, and I could finally have all the conversations with Chris that I’d always wanted to have, for many happy hours. I had frank debates with Chris about his Hammer legacy, and tried to explain how they inspired an entire [generation] of filmmakers. One evening, I think I got him to accept how rare his iconic status was in the business, and how proud of that he should be. In return, he opened up with many wonderful Dracula and Peter Cushing stories.
On another visit, we were talking about 1941 late into the night. It was the only movie he had made with Steven Spielberg. ‘Of course, he won’t remember me,’ said Chris. I told him that was nonsense. ‘Peter, it was a very, very long time ago. I haven’t seen him for years!’ insisted Chris.
So I grabbed my iPhone, and pointed the camera straight at him. ‘And what am I supposed to now…?’ he asked. ‘I’m filming a video message from you to Steven, so just say hi.’ Chris was completely bewildered, but stumbled through a nice little greeting, and I e-mailed it straight to Steven. It was nearly 11 p.m. in London, and I had no idea where Steven was, or what time zone he was in. As I pressed the send button, I was thinking, ‘Come on, Steven… come on, Steven…’
At that point, Gitte announced that Chris should really be getting to bed. I stalled by pleading for one last whack of her ‘tasty’ firewater for the road — I certainly wasn’t driving! Ten minutes later, my phone buzzed, and I saw it was a return video message from Steven Spielberg — so long in fact, it stretched over several e-mails.
I just said, ‘Hey, Chris. There’s one last thing I must show you before I head off,’ and I started to play the video to Chris, which was basically Steven shooting a video selfie. Even now, I tear up thinking about that long, heartfelt, loving, and very geeky message to Christopher, and how much his movies had meant to Steven when he was growing up.
When it finished, it was the only time I ever saw Chris literally lost for words — another Spielberg accomplishment. I gave Chris Lee a long hug in complete silence, and trying not to start blubbing, I headed out the door.”