Joe Dante and John Landis Remember Christopher Lee

Christopher Lee-Frankenstein-2


 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

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 like Screen 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 in The Three
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

Mike Finnell-Joe Dante-Christopher Lee

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 in Gremlins 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
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 ShadowsLM: 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

 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.


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

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

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.

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April 2024