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Joe Dante and John Landis Remember Christopher Lee

JOE DANTE on CHRISTOPHER LEE

LM:  What was your first impression of Christopher Lee, and what struck you about him?

DANTE: Well, the first Christopher Lee movie I ever saw, before which I was unaware of his existence, was The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957, which was sold by Warner Bros. as a big expensive (which it wasn’t—you know), first-time-in-color Frankenstein movie. And also, it was period. This was before the Shock Theater package was released to television, so I had never seen the original Frankenstein. This was my first encounter with Frankenstein.

LM:  How old were you?

JD:   I was eleven…and I wouldn’t be gilding the lily to say that it terrified me. I had nightmares of Christopher Lee in his mummy wrappings with that face clomping up my cellar steps, into my bedroom …as all good monster kids have done. It creeped me out so much, I went back and saw it again.

Of course, aside from what looked like very sumptuous production values the cast was very British, and very upper class; the whole picture had the patina of a classy movie. His performance, which was very spasticky and mime-ish, was quite impressive. You really felt for this creature; it really was a creature. When I later saw the Karloff movie, I saw where this was an antecedent of… but, it’s a very striking performance. When the next Hammer picture hit, which was Horror of Dracula, Lee is only in the movie for eight minutes, but the impression that he makes is so astonishing, it’s as if he hangs over the entire movie. It’s very easy to see why this propels him into a-a top rung star because he’s both suave and sexy and menacing in a way that prior Draculas had never been allowed to be.

Curse of Frankenstein Poster-1957

“The Curse of Frankenstein”

LM: Because you were hip even at that age, did you start to seek him out in other films?

JD: Well, I did. I became aware of actors around that time and I would buy these magazines. The only movie magazines you could buy were ones likeScreen Stories and the like and the reason I would buy them was because, not only would they have the story of the movies, they would have the cast list and stuff which you couldn’t find anywhere else. I remember looking at the cast of She Plays With Fire, which is a Jack Hawkins movie and there, a couple rungs down, was Christopher Lee! I was like, “Hey, I know who that is!” And I saw the movie (laughing) because he was in it.

And right around this time, of course, Famous Monsters magazine came out, which brought “the word” to all of the disparate movie geeks who thought that they were alone and the only one in their class who liked these kinds of movies. Even though the magazine didn’t really have that big of a circulation, it was passed around and it was read. I think the boom as it happened, right around the appearance of the Hammer films and the Shock Theater package, there was something going on in the zeitgeist. [Publisher] James Warren was canny enough to pick up on it and ride that wave. And as we know, when you look back on it, the voluminous number of movies that were produced in that genre over the next ten years, a lot of it had to do with that impact of the first two Hammer horror pictures…and a lot of it had to do with the presence of Christopher Lee.

LM:  Looking back now, which performances of his, or which characterizations, stand out the most to you?

JD:  I know that in his later years he regretted making as many Dracula pictures as he did. At one point he said; “I’ll never play another monster, but I could still play Dracula because he’s such a fascinating character.”  But I think it wasn’t so much him that let down the movies, but the movies let him down… because the need to keep repeating the same tropes over and over made the movies seem, more or less, identical. And I think that he resented that, being defined by that, even though he profited from it. But, I would have to say that the first Dracula picture was a pretty remarkable performance. As much as he sort of disowned the whole thing, the whole series as a group, I think that one really does stand out over the others.

Some of my other favorite performances of his are not horror films… Obviously, The Wicker Man is a great performance and a terrific movie.…but his Mycroft Holmes in The Private Life of  Sherlock Holmes, his Richelieu inThe Three Musketeers movies… and Scaramanga in The Man With the Golden Gun, it’s a weak movie, but he’s great in it. And I think he, being related to Ian Fleming, I think he was very proud of being in that picture. Also It was a career boost. It was sort of a measure of how he had risen to some prominence and he didn’t have to take these low-rent movies. His sojourn in America was very disappointing for him, because it didn’t really yield much success. He did play in some mainstream movies but they weren’t very popular. He went back, I think, disappointed that he hadn’t been able to consolidate his fame by coming out here at that period. But that didn’t happen to be a particularly great period right then in American studio movies.

Mike Finnell-Joe Dante-Christopher Lee

Director Joe Dante (center) with producer Mike Finnell and Christopher Lee, celebrating his (supposed) 200th screen appearance in Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990)

LM: I remember feeling what a waste it was to put him in Airport 77.  What did you think of his mummy?

JD:  I thought The Mummy was another expressive performance. He was a very physical actor but he also was able to use facial expressions, as limited as they were, in that makeup to really get emotion across. And his love for Ananka is actually fairly palpable. It’s a very impressive performance.

LM:  When did you first get a chance to meet him?

JD:  I met him the first day that he came in to talk to me about being inGremlins 2. We had added this character to the sequel because Rick Baker, who we had hired to do the makeups, wanted to do different kinds of Gremlins and didn’t want to just repeat the designs that had been done in the first film. So we created a genetic lab where there were scientists who could create different breeds of Gremlins that Rick designed. The character who creates the Gremlins is named Doctor Catheter and he’s a researcher. When Chris came in to meet me for the first time, he had a Commander Whitehead beard and he looked very posh and staid. He told me he wanted to play it with a wig and a mustache and he played it like an antic professor, much like the one Jack McGowran played in The Fearless Vampire Hunters and that really wasn’t what I was looking for. So I took him down to see the set, which was very austere and full of metal and sharp edges. I said “Look, this guy is not a whimsical guy. He’s Christopher Lee in human mode. He’s the tall, imperious, seemingly unapproachable researcher who only cares about science and doesn’t give a shit whether he chops up little Gizmos.” He got it right away and he shaved his beard. What I think he didn’t get enough chance to do was comedy, because he was able to take a very humorless character and because of the absurdity of the situation played the humor of it.

In person he was actually an extremely funny man. I know he could be imperious with people. That was a part of his personality, but the part that I liked was that he was a very witty guy. A very dry wit. And he had an amazing fund of stories. He was extremely proud, although secretive, of his work in the service. It appeared that he had done a lot of things that he was just not allowed to talk about. But he did take me, pridefully, through his collection. He had a room in his apartment that was dedicated to his war memorials and war trophies and all that kind of stuff. Whatever he did in World War Two was a big part of him.

LM:  If you had met him socially, at a party, and didn’t know anything about him, what would your impression have been: a proper English gentleman?

DANTE: Yes, I think so. I had seen him at a party at Paul Bartel’s in the 70s when he was here, making those Hollywood movies, and I was to shy to approach him or say anything, but he exuded a certain class and style… Well, this is the classiest guy at the party! He was that kind of guy.

Christopher Lee-Dark Shadows

Seated but still powerful as ever in Tim Burton’s “Dark Shadows” (2012)

LM: Did it take a lot of nerve or was it part of your growing friendship that enabled you to ask him to record your outgoing voice-mail message?

DANTE: We did form a bond, and remained great friends after the movie. He was very kind; he not only did my voice mail once, but when it got erased, he did it again the next time he came through town. I really valued him as a friend. As much as I wanted to work with him again, and we had various projects—I had a terrific Sweeney Todd project with him Vanessa Redgrave—that Peter Snell was trying to shop around. I would go to him with things and he would sometimes demur and say, “Well, I’m really trying not to do genre right now.” I think as much as he couldn’t get away from his past and as much as I think he appreciated the fact that fans really loved him for it, it wasn’t enough for him. He wanted to do different kinds of things. When the Star Wars opportunity came up, not frankly that he had that good a part, but being able to be in a franchise that Peter (Cushing) had been in, and then The Lord of the Rings…  He would have loved to have played Gandalf, but he couldn’t because by then he was too old. He used to read the book, apparently, a couple of times a year.

LM: Did you ever hear him sing, in person?

DANTE:   Yes. I heard him sing because he gave me a CD of stuff he had done that wasn’t heavy metal. But then the last years of his life he started getting into heavy metal, which was pretty astonishing when you think about who he is and how old he was. Legend has it that he was the oldest person ever to sing heavy metal!  He had a terrific voice and could have been an opera singer. He had the baritone for it and he could really belt it out. He seemed to love doing it.

He always said that he wanted to die with his boots on and…he did, because he was making pictures up until the very end. He told me, “I can’t walk, I can’t go anywhere, but I can act while I’m sitting.” In the end he was in a wheelchair and was still acting and doing voice-overs. That was him; that was his life.

As disappointed as he may have been that he didn’t become a bigger mainstream star, to look back on that career and see how many times he reinvented himself and still managed to go out and generate the kind of response that his passing has done, is something all of us can hope to match.

LM: Not just working, but working at a very high level, in major films!

I also love hearing about his relationship with Peter Cushing.

DANTE:  They had a bond like no other. I don’t know how much of it was forged by just appearing together so often, but when I was a kid it was Cushing and Lee, Rex Reason and Jeff Morrow, and John Hoyt and Whit Bissell. You’d see a movie and those two guys were always in it. But they really were very, very close and I know that when Ted Newsom did that Hammer Films documentary and they sat down and started doing Warner Bros. characters—he and Peter loved Warner Bros. cartoons. To hear Christopher Lee doing Yosemite Sam—it doesn’t get any better.

JOHN LANDIS on CHRISTOPHER LEE

Someone like Chris Lee is irreplaceable. There’s no one like him. He had such a lengthy career…it’s extraordinary.

He was a lovely guy; he really was a sweet man. I used to talk to him every couple of weeks. In London I saw him all the time. I spoke to him just before he went into the hospital. And he was determined: “I’ll have to just act sitting down.”

Landis and Lee

Director Landis and a spirited Lee on the set of “Burke and Hare.” (2010)

I remember when he was 90 he was bemoaning that he wasn’t being offered parts. I had to remind him, “You know, you’re in two of the biggest films of the year! [Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings] That doesn’t happen very often.”

He very much liked working.

He was just delightful. He was very funny. He and Peter Cushing loved Looney Tunes cartoons and when they first came out on home video I used to send Chris all the Warner Bros cartoons on DVD. They loved them. They also both loved Laurel and Hardy.
He spoke perfect Italian, German, and French. He had quite a war, which was a secret. He was highly decorated and was on a lot of very scary missions. Once he let something slip and I thought, “Oh, he’s going to talk about the war.” He said, “No, John, I can’t.” And I said, “Oh, come on…” He leaned over—you can imagine that voice—and said, “Can you keep a secret?” I said, “Yes.” And he said, “So can I.”

I only had him in two of my movies, but I knew him for years, and he was a class act all the way around.

He was, I think, 89 when he appeared in Burke and Hare. He’s terrific, and in fact, that scene was longer; it was one of the things I fought with the producers about. What was quite fun on Burke and Hare, which was a British film, was that the crew acted as if royalty was visiting. Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis were literally bowing and scraping. He had stories about everybody, great stories.

One of his fingers was kind of crooked, and he would tell you the story of how it happened: it was in a swordfight in a movie with Errol Flynn!  Flynn was too enthusiastic. Chris was a genuinely great, champion fencer and probably fought more screen duels with a sword than almost anybody. Do you remember the great swordfight with Oliver Reed in The Three Musketeers? It was the real thing.

Christopher Lee-Burke-Hare-2

Playing a frail man but still as vigorous as ever in “Burke and Hare.”

Do you remember the first time you saw him?

Sure, absolutely, in Horror of Dracula. I saw it for the first time on television. His entrance is so dynamic. Jonathan Harker looks up and Chris walks down these stairs and when he gets to the bottom of the stairs he says, “I am Dracula; welcome to my house.” Whoa! He had such power.

He didn’t need dialogue; he had such presence.

It’s a great loss; this is a dear man. He was delightful; open and warm.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at leonardmaltin.com. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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