Christopher Lee, fantasy's dark knight, dies at 93

The iconic actor, who portrayed Dracula, Saruman in "The Lord of the Rings" and Count Dooku in "Star Wars," left an astonishing legacy in cinema.

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Bonnie Burton
Journalist Bonnie Burton writes about movies, TV shows, comics, science and robots. She is the author of the books Live or Die: Survival Hacks, Wizarding World: Movie Magic Amazing Artifacts, The Star Wars Craft Book, Girls Against Girls, Draw Star Wars, Planets in Peril and more! E-mail Bonnie.
Bonnie Burton
3 min read

Sir Christopher Lee: a man of many talents. Charlemagne Productions

The veteran actor Christopher Lee, best known for his roles in "Dracula," "The Man With the Golden Gun," "The Wicker Man," "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy and the "Star Wars" prequels, has died due to heart failure at the age of 93.

Lee died Sunday, June 7, but a public announcement was not made till Thursday morning, at the request of his wife, Birgit Kroencke -- to whom he'd been married for more than 50 years -- so she could first notify family and friends, the Guardian reports. He is also survived by their daughter, Christina.

While the prolific actor began his film career in 1947 with "Corridor of Mirrors," Lee became famous when he played Bram Stoker's vampire Dracula in a number of Hammer Horror films from the late '50s all the way through the '70s.

Even though horror was most definitely Lee's specialty -- his role as Lord Summerisle in the classic "The Wicker Man" (1973) was particularly memorable -- he also took the lead as the great detective in "Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace" (1962) and later as Sherlock's brother Mycroft in Billy Wilder's "The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes" (1970).

The imposing Lee, who stood 6 feet, 5 inches tall, made an indelible impression as the deadly assassin Francisco Scaramanga in the James Bond film "The Man with the Golden Gun" (1974). He re-made the role written by Ian Fleming, author of the Bond novels and Lee's step-cousin, into something more than just a stereotypical mercenary.

"In Fleming's novel he's just a West Indian thug, but in the film he's charming, elegant, amusing, lethal," Lee told Total Film magazine in 2005. "I played him like the dark side of Bond."

Much later, from 2001, Lee found fame with a new generation of film fans with his role as the corrupted wizard Saruman in "The Lord of the Rings" and "Hobbit" trilogies. He was the only cast member to have met the author of the Middle Earth novels, J.R.R. Tolkien, who died in 1973. A genuine Tolkien aficionado, he reread "Lord of the Rings" every year.

Lee continued his late-career villainous streak as the fallen Jedi gone the way of the dark side as Count Dooku in "Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones" (2002) and "Episode III: Revenge of the Sith" (2005).

This is where Lee came into my life, indirectly. I had always known him as Dracula from the Hammer films, but when I worked at Lucasfilm as senior editor of StarWars.com, I would learn more about Lee from co-workers who were lucky enough to visit the legendary actor on the "Star Wars" film set. I was told when Lee reminisced about his early career, he would often start off stories with phrases like, "When Errol Flynn and I..."

Lee said during his role as Count Dooku that he was impressed by the "brilliance of George Lucas." StarWars.com

One can only imagine the kind of noteworthy hijinks Flynn and Lee got up to while filming "The Dark Avenger" (1955), or when Lee starred in four episodes of "The Errol Flynn Theatre" (1956-57).

I know that the role of Count Dooku in the "Star Wars" prequels was especially important to Lee, since his good friend and fellow actor Peter Cushing -- whom he acted alongside in numerous films -- played Grand Moff Tarkin in the original "Star Wars."

"What makes Star Wars so extraordinary is that all the stories, the special effects, the whole concept, comes from the mind of one man: George Lucas," Lee said in past interviews compiled on the "Star Wars" fanzine TheForce.Net. "The vision is quite amazing."

Lucas was a mutual fan of Lee as well. "Christopher was a great British actor of the old school; a true link to cinema's past and a real gentleman," Lucas said in a statement released earlier today. "We will miss him."

Lee went from fighting Jedi knights to becoming a real knight, when Prince Charles conveyed the honor in 2009.

When Lee wasn't battling wizards or Jedi, he was, amazingly, releasing heavy metal concept albums such as "Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross" and " Charlemagne: The Omens of Death." Just last year, he released a record in honor of the fictional character Don Quixote.

While Lee will be missed, fans can still see him anew on the big screen in the fantasy film "Angels in Notting Hill," which has yet to be released. Lee plays "a godly figure who looks after the universe," according to the Guardian.