As I'm sure you all know, veteran thespian Christopher Lee died last week at the ripe old age of 93. Anyone who lives that long probably has a lot of stories and achievements under their belt, however I can imagine there are few 93 year olds who can rival the rather extraordinary life experienced by Lee.
Of course, his acting achievements are what he is best known for. He is the contender for the most prolific actor ever (having been credited in 278 films, television shows and video games), while it also suggested he has been in more on-screen sword fights than anyone else. He has also played several iconic characters throughout his career, such as Saruman, Scaramanga, Count Dooku and Dracula to name but a few, which has endeared him to young and old audiences alike.
Personally, I'd be happy with attaining one of these achievements in a lifetime, but this only scratches at the surface of Christopher Lee. Let's take a look at some of the other aspects of his truly remarkable life.
Christopher Lee Was a Special Forces Soldier and a Nazi Hunter
It seemed Christopher Lee was never one to shy away from a scuffle. In 1939-1940, he was one of the few men to volunteer to fight with the Finnish against the Russians during the so-called Winter War. In the end, he was there for only several weeks and did not see direct action, but it was the start of an intimate relationship with warfare.
Later, in March 1941, Lee volunteered for the Royal Air Force to become a pilot. However, a damaged optic nerve meant he was unable to complete his flying training. Despondent and demoralized, he moved around airbases in southern Africa before deciding to join RAF Intelligence. Eventually, he found his way to the No. 260 Squadron which was "leapfrogging" between airstrips as the British chased the Axis around North Africa. One on occasion he was almost killed when his airbase was heavily bombed. Having been sent to Carthage for medical treatment, he returned to his airbase in the midst of a potential mutiny. Lee, however, took the lead in the situation and persuaded the men to return to their duties, much impressing his commanding officer.
Later, after the defeat of the German Afrika Corps in North Africa, Lee moved to Sicily and then to other bases in Italy. He was seconded into the army and fought with the Gurkhas and 8th Indian Infantry Division during the bloody Battle of Monte Cassino - once again almost getting himself killed by tripping over a live bomb.
After the war, he would be seconded into the Central Registry of War Criminals and Security Suspects which was responsible for tracking down fleeing Nazi war criminals. Regarding his time with the organization, he stated:
"We were given dossiers of what they'd done and told to find them, interrogate them as much as we could and hand them over to the appropriate authority... We saw these concentration camps. Some had been cleaned up. Some had not."
He eventually retired from the RAF in 1946.
It is also known that during the war Lee was closely attached to the Special Operations Executive and Long Range Desert Patrol - the forerunner to the now world-famous Special Air Service and a group known for its daring airfield raids. It is not entirely clear what his responsibilities were, mostly because he held his vow of silence up to his death, once stating:
"I was attached to the SAS from time to time but we are forbidden – former, present, or future – to discuss any specific operations. Let's just say I was in Special Forces and leave it at that. People can read into that what they like."
On another occasion, he quipped:
"When people say to me, you know, were you in this? Were you in that? Did you work in this? Did you work in that? I always used to say 'Can you keep a secret?' And they would say 'Yes, yes' and I would say 'So can I.'"
What is undeniable, however, is that Lee was certainly involved in some ferocious and bloody battles during his time with the military. He later recalled:
"I've seen many men die right in front of me - so many in fact that I've become almost hardened to it. Having seen the worst that human beings can do to each other, the results of torture, mutilation and seeing someone blown to pieces by a bomb, you develop a kind of shell. But you had to. You had to. Otherwise, we would never have won."
It also seems some of this experience inspired his performances in later movies, even up to his role as Saruman. For example, in one anecdote, Peter Jackson was advising Lee on what sound to make when his character is stabbed in the back in the extended version of Return of the King. Lee replied:
"Have you any idea what kind of noise happens when somebody's stabbed in the back? Because I do."
Jackson later added:
"He proceeded to talk about some sort of very clandestine part of World War II. He seemed to have expert knowledge of exactly the sort of noise that they make and so I just sort of didn’t push the subject any further."
You can watch this scene below:
Christopher Lee Met/Was Related To Some Equally Incredible People
Lee's extraordinary life also meant he often crossed path with equally famous individuals of the arts and history, while he was also apparently related to many more. Here are some of them:
- Christopher Lee once met J.R.R. Tolkien in a pub in Oxford. As a huge Lord of the Rings fan, Lee could only manage to say "How do you do?". He was the only member of The Lord of the Rings cast to meet the author.
- Lee was once wounded in a cinematic sword fight with a drunk Errol Flynn.
- He was good friends with Josip Broz Tito, the Communist partisan resistance leader and first President of Yugoslavia.
- He was a distant cousin, and frequent golfing partner, of James Bond author Ian Flemming. Flemming originally wanted Lee to play Dr. No, although Joseph Wiseman was eventually chosen. Lee would, however, play the villainous Scaramanga in The Man With The Golden Gun.
- When a child, he was introduced to Prince Yusupov and Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, the assassins of Grigori Rasputin.
- His mother, well-known as an Edwardian beauty, was a contessa of the Italian Carandini family, meaning he is related through marriage to the infamous Borgias as well as the first Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Charlemagne. His mother was painted by artists such as John Lavery, Oswald Birley and Olive Snell, and sculpted by Clare Frewen Sheridan.
- At the age of 17, Lee witnessed the guillotining of Eugen Weidmann, France's last public execution.
- He appeared on the cover of Band on the Run, the iconic album by Paul McCartney's band, Wings.
- Lee's great-grandmother, Marie Carandini, became a world famous opera singer and one of the founding figures of opera in Australia - to where she emigrated. She has a street named after her in the Australian capital, Canberra. Lee is also a classically trained opera singer.
- Lee almost married Henriette von Rosen, daughter of the Swedish count, Count Fritz von Rosen. He attained the necessary permission from the King of Sweden prior to the marriage, but he eventually called off the wedding.
Christopher Lee Was Also a Heavy Metal Musician
At the age of 88, Christopher Lee decided it was the perfect time to become a heavy metal musician, releasing a "symphonic metal" album about the exploits of Charlemagne. Titled Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross, the album won him a spirit of metal award at the 2010 Metal Hammer Golden Gods ceremony. According to Lee, the experience made him feel like "a young man right at the beginning of his career."
However, he didn't stop there. He went on to release another album on his 90th birthday, this time titled Charlemagne: The Omens of Death. This was different from his previous release, as it signaled a move on to "full on" heavy metal. In 2014 he released another heavy metal cover album called Heavy Knight. Check out his collaboration with heavy metal band, Rhapsody of Fire, below:
Additional albums followed, including three heavy metal Christmas albums titled A Heavy Metal Christmas, A Heavy Metal Christmas Too and Darkest Carols, Faithful Sing. One of his songs, Jingle Hell (a cover of Jingle Bells), reached number 22 on the Billboard 100, making him the oldest artist to ever enter the music charts. Regarding these projects, he explained:
"It's light-hearted, joyful and fun... At my age, the most important thing for me is to keep active by doing things that I truly enjoy. I do not know how long I am going to be around, so every day is a celebration and I want to share it with my fans."
Christopher Lee's life certainly seemed like one hell of a ride.