I’m attending the 66th Locarno Film Festival right now, and the festival has honored Sir Christopher Lee with the “Excellence Award Moët & Chandon” for his invaluable contribution to cinema. On accepting the award during the opening ceremony, Sir Christopher made an apparently hilarious speech. I can’t verify this because, in keeping with the setting, Sir Christopher made the speech in Italian (a language I know little of). The only English sentence was an anecdote about “Star Wars” (as if that’s all we English-speaking audiences care about... though to be fair it was a hilarious anecdote wherein he forcefully stated that he had performed the entire duel with Yoda in “Revenge of the Sith” without the help of a double).
The next day, the festival scheduled a Masterclass with the living legend, a moderated session where Sir Christopher talked about his career, its highs & lows and the relationships he shared with his colleagues. The 91-year old thespian acted as a raconteur and narrated stories of all kinds, making the talk more freewheeling than even the moderator had bargained for (his discomfort at times was laughable), with a Q and A session afterwards.
On “The Wicker Man”, his favorite role and horror:
He began by talking about “The Wicker Man”, the 1973 cult classic by Robin Hardy. Sir Christopher revealed that they had originally shot a film that was two hours long. “It was fantastic, brilliant. The dialogue was incredible,” he said. However, the film was pruned to 88 minutes; even the Director’s Cut doesn’t contain all that was shot. Though Sir Christopher maintains that “The Wicker Man” is the best film he has ever done, the best role he has ever played and one of the best British films ever made, he regretfully added, “the negatives, even the outtakes, of the film have been lost since 1973. And this is a great tragedy.”
Talking about this horror movie led the conversation to his extensive work in the genre, something Sir Christopher acknowledges but proudly points out is not the only thing he did. He said that he did not want to be known as actor “who only made horror films”. He believes only 12 out of the 300 roles he has played are in horror films. He talked about his colleagues who faced similar compartmentalization and said, “Bela Lugosi was never able to escape this stereotype, and I feel incredibly sad for him.”
His favorite director:
The moderator asked him who was the best director he worked with, and even though Sir Christopher has worked with all-time greats like Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and Peter Jackson, his answer came instantly and was something completely different.
“Billy Wilder is the best director I’ve worked with. Unlike the others, he didn’t care where I came from or what I had done before. He wanted me to play the role he had written for me, even if I had to shave my beard and cut my hair,” he said.
Working on “Saturday Night Live”, comedy and John Belushi’s jealousy:
He then talked about his move to the U.S., family in tow, so he could get better acting opportunities and further his career. He prefaced this section by asserting that he would not recommend living in Los Angeles to anyone, especially now, and got a huge laugh out of the audience.
He said that being in Los Angeles got him one of the most important things he has ever done: Saturday Night Live. “During my time on Saturday Night Live, I worked with the best people: John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd,” he said. After he hosted the show for the first time, producer Lorne Michaels called him and told him he “had a 39 share of the audience.” Sir Christopher had “no idea” what this meant, so he asked Michaels to clarify. He was informed that the broadcast had 35 million viewers, which he informed us was still the third best in SNL’s history.
After this successful stint, Christopher Lee received a letter from John Belushi, the contents of which read:
“Christopher, you are the best in the biz.
From John Belushi, the second best in the biz.”
When asked what is the most difficult thing for him as an actor, he said that doing comedy on film was “an excruciating challenge.” He has also performed comedic roles in theatre, but it’s easier there because “you get instant reactions to your lines.” He would time his delivery and even delay a line based on the audience’s laughter (or the lack of it). However, in a film, he said, “you have no idea what the audience is going to find funny. A line you think is hilarious may get no laughs, whereas the next line may drive everyone crazy.” He followed up this confession with the beaming proclamation: “I believe comedy is the thing I do best.”
He was especially pleased with his work on SNL, because that got him a film with Steven Spielberg, 1941. He admitted the film was blasted from all corners on release, but he smiled while asserting it is now considered a cult classic.
The most important role of his career, and death threats:
As a follow-up to mentioning “The Wicker Man” is the best role he’s ever done, he said that playing the founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, in “Jinnah” was by far the most important role of his career. He revealed how people were aghast that a Christian man was playing such an adored Muslim leader. He even received death threats on numerous occasions, and was told he would be thrown out of the country (the film was shot in Pakistan). However, after the film released, in 1998, he claimed people came up to him and praised him for playing the man behind the politician and doing justice to their leader, khaid-e-azam.
On “The Hound of the Baskervilles”, Peter Cushing and…Yosemite Sam? :
Since “The Hound of the Baskervilles” is screening at the festival, the moderator obviously wanted to drum up some publicity for it. Sir Christopher Lee threw him a curveball yet again by saying that it’s a good film, but the reason for its success is not him, but Peter Cushing. “He [Peter] was a great actor. I still remember him. I still talk about him. I still think about him. He was as good a Sherlock Holmes as Basil Rathbone, although he wasn’t as popular.”
In what might be the coolest thing in the world, Sir Christopher Lee revealed that Peter Cushing and he were dear friends and pranksters on set. They would play all sorts of gags on people, and imitate cartoon characters while talking to each other on the phone. Lee would talk like Spike the Bulldog & Yosemite Sam, and Cushing would play along. “I would call Peter on the phone and shout [in Yosemite Sam’s voice] “I WILL KILL YOU IF IT’S THE LAST THING I DO.”” If an audio recording of this existed, it would be the dearest treasure on this planet known to man.
On mentoring Oliver Reed…and then fighting him off:
Sir Christopher Lee revealed that he and Oliver Reed [“Oliver!”, “The Three Musketeers” and “Gladiator”] went a long way back. Once, Sir Christopher gave his second-hand car to Oliver and, apart from that, he would give the then young and skinny lad lifts all the time. Oliver Reed would sit in the back seat and keep doubting his decision to be an actor. Sir Christopher calmed him down and told him “it’s okay, it’s okay.”
He spoke with wide-eyed horror about Oliver’s drinking problem. The British actor was known for his alcoholism and binge drinking, and died of a heart attack while shooting Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator.” “He was a nice guy. A decent guy. But after 8 o’clock he would become a monster. It was horrible to see.”
He then went on to describe an amazing incident that just cements how awe-inspiring an individual Sir Christopher Lee is, even when the camera isn’t rolling.
The two actors worked together on “The Three Musketeers” (released in 1973), with Oliver playing Athos and Sir Christopher playing the Count du Rochefort. They had a fight scene in the script and on the day of shooting, Oliver was unexpectedly hostile towards his one-time mentor.
They were using real swords and daggers, and going against expectations Oliver almost brought his sword down on Sir Christopher’s head. The veteran backed out and stopped shooting. Director Richard Lester asked him the reason for this and he revealed they had not practiced any move like this.
Sir Christopher Lee warned Oliver to stay on track and said to him, “don’t forget.” The shoot resumed but he did the exact same thing again. Sir Christopher Lee didn’t complain to anyone this time around but just touched his sword to Oliver’s leg, who jumped. And this is the exchange that followed, as stated by Sir Christopher Lee at the session:
Lee: Who taught you sword fighting?
Reed: You did.
Lee: Then. Don’t. Forget.
If you had any doubt he is one of the coolest people in the world, that exchange was for you.
On Lord of the Rings, auditioning in a church and thundering skies:
The moderator opened the discussion to the audiences now, and obviously, the first question was about Sir Christopher's work on “The Lord of the Rings”. Even during the sizzle reel played for him at the opening ceremony, before he accepted his award, the nearly 7000 people in attendance started clapping only when they saw Saruman for the first time.
The minute the audience member finished his question there was a rumbling in the skies. Sir Christopher remarked, “That’s [JRR] Tolkien warning me not to talk on this topic.” The audience hollered in approval. Whoever said the Swiss weren’t fun?
The actor went on to narrate how he got a call one day that Peter [Jackson, the director] and his partner, Fran [Walsh, a co-writer] wanted him to read for the part of Gandalf. Sir Christopher Lee is a huge fan of the books and reads them once every year. He agreed, because this was a dream for him and he “remembered most of the lines verbatim anyway”. He turned up at the place Peter and Fran had requested, which turned out to be a church, and read two pages of Gandalf’s dialogue. He was puzzled when they said that’s all they wanted and left.
A few days later, he received a call from his agent who informed him that the makers wanted him for the role of Saruman. Nonplussed he may have been, but Sir Christopher accepted nevertheless. He played the role to the best of his ability and then mentioned his reaction on seeing “Return of the King” for the first time.
The finale of the triptych doesn’t feature Saruman at all, as Peter Jackson edited the sequence wherein Sir Christopher Lee’s character [11 year old spoiler alert!] dies. This displeased the actor immensely, and — as followers of all news Middle-earth related will know — an infamous cold war erupted between the two.
“When [Return of the King] didn’t feature me I said a few things that I shall not repeat here. I would advise all of you to buy the DVDs, as they feature this scene and 30 other minutes of footage. It is an extremely important part of the movie.”
And that brought the talk to an end. If you’re wondering why there was no mention of “Dracula” at all (one of Christopher Lee’s most famous roles, after all), then the answer is that the actor himself asked the festival authorities not to include the film in his sizzle reel or screen it at the festival. Apparently he’s sick of talking about it. Ouch.