He’s the only actor to appear in Star Wars, the Hammer horror films, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and the James Bond franchise—indeed, Christopher Lee, born 100 years ago on May 27, 1922, had one very impressive life. (Not to mention several impressive careers … heavy metal musician, anyone?) Read on to find out more fun/gruesome facts about one of the most iconic horror actors of all time.
1. Christopher Lee was involved in secret (and dangerous) government work during WWII.
Lee served in the Royal Air Force (RAF) during World War II, eventually joining the British Army’s intelligence and special forces division, Special Air Service (SAS). In the years after the war, he kept quiet on what he did as part of the SAS, but rumors circulated that he prevented a small mutiny of frustrated troops and snuck behind enemy lines to destroy Luftwaffe aircraft. Closer to the end of the war, he became a Special Operations Executive, hunting down suspected Nazi criminals, according to The Independent.
"I was attached to the SAS from time to time but we are forbidden—former, present, or future—to discuss any specific operations," Lee said in 2011. "Let's just say I was in Special Forces and leave it at that. People can read [into] that what they like."
2. He was cousins with the creator of James Bond.
Lee was cousins with James Bond creator Ian Fleming, who wanted Lee to play the OG Bond Villain, Dr. No, in the 1962 film of the same name. "By the time he got around to remembering to tell the producers, they’d already cast someone else [Joseph Wiseman]," Lee recalled. He would later play the villainous Scaramanga in the Bond film The Man with the Golden Gun, which was in production after Fleming had passed away.
3. He met (and geeked out over) J.R.R. Tolkien.
Of all the many actors in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, Christopher Lee was the only one to have met J.R.R. Tolkien. While drinking with friends at Oxford's Eagle and Child pub in the ‘50s, Tolkien walked in the door, and Lee—a fan of Tolkien’s works who regularly re-read the trilogy—"nearly fell out of [his] chair." He described the chance encounter in 2001:
"I didn't even know he was alive. He was a benign looking man, smoking a pipe, walking in ... an English countryman with earth under his feet. And he was a genius, a man of incredible intellectual knowledge. And he knew somebody in our group. He [the man in the group] said, ‘Oh Professor, Professor,’ and he came over. And each one of us, well I knelt of course, each one of us said, ‘How do you do?’ And I just said ‘Ho ... How ... How …’ I just couldn't believe it. But I'll never forget it.”
4. He was careful to model his Dracula after Bram Stoker's original novel.
Christopher Lee's career was defined by his take on Dracula, a role he first played in 1958's Horror of Dracula and reprised six more times until 1973's The Satanic Rites of Dracula. And while he freely admitted he wasn't a physical match for the character that author Bram Stoker originally created, he said he was focused on staying true to the count's personality.
"I’ve always tried to portray the character that Stoker defined in his writing," Lee said in a 1974 interview. "The character of aloof majesty, ferocity of dignity, and of sombre mystery, or irresistibility that the women find marvellous and the men unstoppable."
5. Lee owes a lot to Saturday Night Live.
Lee went through several phases in his career, starting off with bit parts and historical dramas before beginning a decades-long professional relationship with Hammer Films for the Dracula movies. But it was hosting Saturday Night Live in 1978 that he later called "the single most important thing I ever did in my career"—because it made people realize he could also be funny. In the SNL audience that night was Steven Spielberg, who then cast Lee in his 1979 war comedy 1941.
6. He turned down a key role in Airplane! ...
At around the same time that Lee was showing off his comedy chops on Saturday Night Live, he was offered the role of Dr. Rumack in Airplane!, but he turned it down because "[people] said, ‘Don’t touch it, you’re already making the greatest comedy of all time .’" The role eventually went to Leslie Nielsen and revitalized his career.
7. … And a key role in Halloween.
As relayed in the documentary Halloween: A Cut Above the Rest, director John Carpenter offered the role of Sam Loomis—eventually played by Donald Pleasance—to Lee, who turned it down. Years later, Lee told Carpenter that turning down the film was the biggest regret of his career.
8. Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing used to trade Looney Tunes impressions.
Throughout his career, Lee was best friends with fellow horror icon Peter Cushing, both of whom worked extensively with Hammer Films. In a 2002 interview, Lee said the duo had a habit of trading impressions of their favorite Looney Tunes characters, which would cause Cushing to “completely collapse" in laughter. (Lee's impression of Sylvester is a treasure, by the way.)
After Lee schooled Cushing in the ways of Looney Tunes, the pair would go to see animated films together, with Lee saying they were once asked to leave, "because we were laughing so much … almost imitating the characters on the screen, under our breath." Before Cushing died in 1994, Lee said he went to his sick friend's home with some of his favorite cartoons, where Cushing "just fell apart" laughing at them just like he used to.
9. Christopher Lee said The Wicker Man was his best overall movie.
In a 2007 interview, Lee said that the best film he acted in was 1973’s The Wicker Man, a folk horror cult masterpiece from director Robin Hardy. As for his favorite of his own performances, that was the role of Muhammed Ali Jinnah in the 1998 TV biopic Jinnah, about the founder of Pakistan.
10. He once was in a porno by accident.
Lee's long career was full of lesser-known oddities—and at the top of that pile is Eugenie, an early-‘70s soft-core porno that the actor shot some on-screen narration for. The problem was that Lee didn't know it was a porn film at the time: "I was told it was about the Marquis de Sade," he later recalled. "I flew out to Spain for one day’s work playing the part of a narrator. I had to wear a crimson dinner jacket. There were lots of people behind me. They all had their clothes on. There didn’t seem to be anything peculiar or strange."
Lee had forgotten about the film until a friend happened upon it and informed him of the, er, plot. "I crept along there heavily disguised in dark glasses and scarf, and found the cinema and there was my name. I was furious," Lee said. "There was a huge row. When I had left Spain that day everyone behind me had taken their clothes off!"
11. He had a side gig as a metal musician.
With his deep, resonant voice, perhaps it’s fitting that Lee also released several heavy metal albums during his career, including Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross, which came out when the actor was 90; Charlemagne: The Omens of Death; and A Heavy Metal Christmas, featuring the song "Jingle Hell." That song made him the oldest person to crack the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
12. Muhammad Ali dedicated a fight to him.
In 1975, Lee was promoting a film in Cleveland while Muhammad Ali was also in town hyping up the upcoming Thrilla in Manila fight against Joe Frazier. Ali, who was a big fan of Lee, arranged a meeting with the actor, and they chatted in Ali’s hotel room for a long while. After a later victorious Ali fight—possibly the Thrilla, possibly not—the boxer told a reporter, "I just want to say that I won this fight for Christopher Lee, who’s out there watching me now." And indeed Lee was watching—from the Playboy Mansion.
13. He originally wanted to play Gandalf, not Saruman, in The Lord of the Rings.
Lee always dreamed of being in a film version of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, envisioning himself as the perfect Gandalf. But by the time Peter Jackson's trilogy came along in the 2000s, the actor was told he was too old for the part, though Jackson knew he was just right for the part of the evil Saruman.
14. He holds the world record for oldest video game voice actor.
Per the Guinness World Records, Lee is the oldest video game voice actor of all time, having reprised his role of Saruman in LEGO The Hobbit in 2014 when he was 91 years, 316 days old. The record he broke was his own, set when he (or his voice) appeared in Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days when he was 87 years, 125 days of age.