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Listen Back To A 1990 Interview With Actor Christopher Lee


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. British actor Christopher Lee died Sunday in London at the age of 93. You can tell something about his career from the title of his 1977 memoir, "Tall, Dark, And Gruesome." Lee was a six-foot-four actor with a commanding, baritone voice, best known for his portrayals of Dracula in several films, though he also played Frankenstein's monster and the Mummy. Lee had more than 250 TV and film roles, and he did get beyond the horror genre in the 1970s, when Billy Wilder cast him in "The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes." He kept acting into his 90s. Among his other films are "The Wicker Man," the James Bond film "The Man With The Golden Gun," "The Three Musketeers," "Sleepy Hollow" and several films in the "Star Wars" and "Lord Of The Rings" series. He was knighted by Prince Charles in 2009. Terry spoke to Christopher Lee in 1990.



I'm curious, in terms of the "Dracula" series of films that you did, were you - did you have a special interest in that type of story or was it more of circumstance that landed you in those movies?

CHRISTOPHER LEE: I think probably both because as a young man, indeed as a boy, I'd always been fascinated by fairy stories, which in a sense is what these stories are, and what these films are too, of that particular type and of that particular period, the '50s and '60s. I was always fascinated by, as I said, fairy stories, fantasy, you know, demons, necromancers, gods and goddesses, everything that is out of our kin and out of our everyday world. I was always interested in enchantment and magicians and still am. And also because I had read the book and I had perhaps discovered something in the character which other people hadn't or hadn't noticed or hadn't decided to present, and that is that the character is heroic, erotic and romantic. I tried to put all those things over. And for your information, I gather that part has been played about 125 times in different languages all over the world. And I can tell you on a personal level, and I know I'm right, that nobody has ever filmed in its entirety the book that Bram Stoker wrote.

GROSS: Can you describe for us what your vision of Dracula was, how you saw the vampire and what characteristics you wanted to bring out in him?

LEE: I never thought of him as - I never thought of him as a vampire, ever. I mean, the blood is the life. That's one thing you have to bear in mind. And it is for all of us, isn't it? Here's a man who is immortal. Here is a man who, through being immortal, is a lost soul. Here is a man who experiences the loneliness of evil, something he can't control, who wants to die but there is a force in him, a malefic force, which drives him to do these terrible things. I said earlier the character is heroic, based on the real man - a war leader and a national hero, I may say, in Romania to this day - Vlad the Impaler. Certainly a bloodthirsty character, without a doubt. I also told you that the character is romantic - so he is, as far as women are concerned, and erotic. And there's, of course, the obvious association with the bite in a sexual sense, if you like. So I tried to put all those particular characteristics into the character. It appears that I succeeded.

GROSS: How were you first cast as Frankenstein's monster? How did you get that role?

LEE: Because I'm six-foot-four (laughter), I think is the answer to that. The first 10 years of my career between 1947 and 1957, I was always being told here in Britain, not in the States - that's why I rather wish I'd been born an American and had become an American actor because my size, either too tall or too short, would've been immaterial - I was told over here I was much too tall for the average British leading man, therefore out of the question that I would be in any kind of film with any of these people because people's eyes inevitably gravitate to something that's either taller or shorter or fatter or thinner or whatever. And so rather than being discouraged by this, which I thought was nonsense anyway - and indeed, in a sense, it is - I was all the more determined that during those 10 years before I got my first break, I would learn everything I possibly could about my craft - because it's a craft and a vocation, as well as a job and a living. And I did. I did radio, I did television, I did opera, I did films in which I had very, very little to say. But I had a lot of experience in front of the camera, and that's what really counts so that when the time comes, OK, you're ready.

So when they wanted a very tall man who had some experience of mime and didn't have to say anything but could express emotions without speaking, they asked for me, or I think my agent suggested me, and I said well, why not? And that's how it all started and I thought, well, here I've been for 10 years trying to make something out of my life as an actor. I've learned a lot but I haven't done much that's worthwhile. So maybe if I make people wonder what I really do look like and make myself unrecognizable, they will be interested and intrigued, which eventually, of course, happened.

GROSS: Well, why don't you describe what your face looked like in the "Frankenstein" film?

LEE: Oh, dreadful, like a road accident. You see, we weren't allowed to use the famous Karloff makeup because that was a copyright with Universal Films. And so we just had to go through a series of tests deciding really on what would be right and what would be wrong. Some of the makeups were quite unacceptable and some were even faintly comic. But I think the answer is this - when you're playing a character which is put together from bits and pieces of other bodies, you've got to make it look that way.

GROSS: It took seven years before you made - six or seven years before you made the first sequel to "Horror Of Dracula." Why did it take so long? Did you not want to do another one...

LEE: I have no idea.

GROSS: ...Or did they not initiate it?

LEE: I've no idea. I never really knew because the first one was either '57 or '58. You know, it's so long ago, I've forgotten....

GROSS: Yeah.

LEE: ...Almost everything about it. You're talking about 33 years ago, and the second one was in 1965, I think it was. I did it back-to-back with another picture, which was a much better film in which I played Rasputin, and of course, much more interesting to me as an actor, playing somebody who really existed. I don't know why there was this gap. I've no idea. I never thought of asking anybody really. I think the problem was that in subsequent years - and I made this claim and I'm on record as saying it, I made it very plain - the qualities of the stories for that particular character went downhill and they deteriorated. And instead of writing a story around a central character, they wrote the story first and then tried to find a way of fitting the character in. And that never works no matter what the character is. And I became progressively disenchanted and I said look, you know, you've got a great character here and you're not making the best out of it - which is why I stopped in 1971.

GROSS: Wasn't there one film where you thought that the lines were so bad that you refused to read any of the dialogue?

LEE: That was the second one.

GROSS: That was the second one?

LEE: Yes, the "Prince Of Darkness." I read the script and I said, I won't say anything in this picture. I cannot possibly say these lines. They're not only un-say-able, but they'll have everybody rolling about for the wrong reasons. This is the difficulty of course, about making a film of this kind. You're treading such a very, very narrow line between credibility and absurdity. If you slip on the wrong side, you've lost the audience and the picture's dead. Fortunately, it seems that over the years we were able to maintain that credibility, and the audience - in the famous phrase - suspended its disbelief for an hour-and-a-half to two hours and accepted what we showed them. But they're very difficult to play, these characters, obviously because they're so outlandish. And they don't exist - yet - and consequently, when I read this dialogue and read this script, I said to them, oh, come on, you know, I'm not going to say any of these lines. Can you imagine somebody in front of a camera actually saying, I am the apocalypse? Now, unless you're making a religious picture or a picture like "The Exorcist," this would sound ridiculous.

GROSS: How much of a problem did you have with typecasting after the horror films that you made in the '50s and '60s?

LEE: Was I typecast? Yes, I was over a period of time. There are always two sides to every coin. And just as success in one respect is something that every actor or actress is hoping for, and for the right reasons, not to collect money - which seems to be the case these days - but to achieve as much as you can in your chosen profession, just as success is important so that your face and your name should be known - and the two should go together all over the world, not just in one country, in a domestic market - just as that is so important, so there is the other side to success that because you become successful playing one character or in one kind of film, it can be a disadvantage because people suddenly get the impression that that's all you do and all you can do. So I was certainly typecast, certainly playing heavies in general, and sometimes horror films in particular. Although it may surprise you to know that by my own personal account, I've only appeared in 15 pictures I would describe as horror movies. A lot of people are going to argue with that one, but that's my personal opinion, which is obviously the opinion of an actor about his own work. Now, this was becoming quite a problem for me. Typecasting always is, as everybody knows. And everybody is typecast up to a point, or has been in his or her career. I remember Boris Karloff saying to me, find something that nobody else can do or will do, even if it is a type of role, and you'll be the only one, and there's nothing wrong with that.

Indeed, there isn't, but if you want to be a real actor and a true professional, and you want to show whatever versatility you think that you possess, you want to have the chance to show it. I would never have got that chance if I had remained here in Britain because casting was and still is to a certain extent cautious, conservative and bound by tradition - he only has made this kind of film. He made in it. This is all he does or she does or whatever. This applies also to directors and writers. And it's a big problem, so I was determined I was going to break these shackles, if you'd like to call them that. And I was told by many of my friends who were senior executives of the film industry in LA and by many of my friends who were producers and directors and actors and actresses, I was told by them that if I stayed here in Britain, I would make a good living and I would go on doing the same sort of film and playing roughly, very roughly, the same sort of role - the heavy, the heavy, the sinister killer or whatever, the hard man, whatever you like to call it. And I eventually would become frustrated and disenchanted and perhaps bored, and inevitably of course the audience would too. They said, you've got to come to the States. There, you will have the opportunity of showing what you can do, other parts that you can play. There will be many, many more films made, many, many more parts available to you.

And it proved to be true.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us. Thank you.

LEE: Not at all, a pleasure.

DAVIES: Christopher Lee, speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 1990. Lee died Sunday in London. He was 93. Coming up, David Edelstein reviews the documentary, "Wolfpack." This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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