British actor Sir Christopher Lee dies at age 93

Sir Christopher Lee, the prolific, aristocratic British actor who brought dramatic gravitas to the low-budget thrills of Hammer Studios’ horror films, has died at age 93.

Sir Christopher Lee died aged 93 on June 7, 2015. Carl Court / AFP Photo
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LONDON // Christopher Lee, the English actor who found fame as Count Dracula in the 1950s and whose career was resurrected a half century later with villainous roles in the Star Wars and Lord of The Rings franchises, has died. He was 93.

His death was confirmed by the Associated Press, without citing any details.

With his deep voice, towering height and brooding stare, Lee was an imposing and foreboding actor. Too tall at 6-foot-5 to play the leading man, he instead portrayed screen monsters and villains. Early credits included Dracula (1958), and The Mummy (1959).

He found wider recognition playing James Bond's nemesis Scaramanga in The Man With the Golden Gun (1974), Saruman in The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003) and the The Hobbit trilogies (2012-2014), and as Count Dooku in the final two films of the Star Wars prequels (2002, 2005).

Lee's acting career started after the Second World War as a contract player with London-based Rank Organisation, the UK's No 1 filmmaker, but did not take off until 1957 when he was cast as the creature in The Curse of Frankenstein made by a smaller competitor, Hammer Film Production.

“I was asked to play the creature chiefly because of my size and height which had effectively kept me out of many pictures I might have appeared in during the preceding 10 years,” Lee said on his personal website.

He fought in more staged sword duels than any other performer, and amassed more screen credits than any actor alive, according to his website, which lists appearances in more than 250 film and television productions.

Whether as a malevolent wizard, a rogue Jedi knight, a Bond bad-guy or a blood-sucking vampire, Lee regarded evil characters as more compelling than heroes.

Villains are "more interesting, because there's a greater variety you can apply," he said in an interview for Empire Online, an entertainment website. "You can be very cruel or charming, amusing or dangerous. But one of the most important things to get over to the audience is that some of these people are doing things they can't really help. There's a sadness about them."

Christopher Frank Carandini Lee was born in London on May 27, 1922, to Geoffrey Trollope Lee, an officer in the King’s Royal Rifles Corps, and Contessa Estelle Marie Carandini di Sarzano, whose family is one of the oldest in Europe, according to his website.

His parents divorced when he was a child and his mother wed banker Harcourt Rose, a step-cousin of James Bond author Ian Fleming.

He attended Summer Fields preparatory school and received a scholarship to Eton College and Wellington College where he studied Greek and Latin, according to his website. After leaving school before graduating due to Rose’s bankruptcy, he worked as an office boy and messenger in the city of London for the salary of 1 pound a week.

During the Second World War he joined the Royal Air Force, serving in North Africa, Sicily and Italy. While Lee has said he’d worked for British intelligence services, he declined to give details.

"I was attached to the SAS from time to time, but we are forbidden -- former, present, or future -- to discuss any specific operations," he told the (UK) Telegraph newspaper in a 2001 interview. "Let's just say I was in Special Forces and leave it at that. People can read in to that what they like."

He was also briefly part of the Central Registry of War Criminals and Security Suspects, an organization established in 1945 to track down Nazi war criminals.

Afterward, he entered the film industry under contract to the Rank Organisation. He had minor roles in Laurence Olivier's Hamlet (1948) and John Huston's Moulin Rouge (1952), both also featuring his future partner-in-horror Peter Cushing. After 10 years of minor TV and film roles, Lee found stardom during a long association with Hammer, starting with The Curse of Frankenstein. Other successes followed, including Dracula, The Mummy and The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959), all co-starring Cushing.

He returned to playing a vampire in Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966) and reprised the role in several formulaic Hammer sequels throughout the 1960s and early 1970s. Although he was asked to deliver little beyond a menacing presence and demonic stare, the films were so successful he risked becoming typecast.

Lee branched out with mainstream movies such as The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), The Three Musketeers (1973), The Four Musketeers and The Man with the Golden Gun, both 1974.

Following those successes, Lee moved to the United States. and appeared in Airport '77" (1977), a star-packed disaster movie, and Return From Witch Mountain" (1978), a Walt Disney science fiction film.

Hosting Saturday Night Live led to a role in Steven Spielberg's 1941, a box-office flop in 1979. He turned down Leslie Nielsen's doctor role in the hit spoof Airplane! (1980), and said his greatest regret was passing on the part of the psychologist that eventually went to Donald Pleasence in Halloween (1978).

Lee considered one of his few heroic characters to be his most important -- Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan's founder, in the biopic Jinnah (1998). He regarded his best role as that of Lord Summerisle in the British classic The Wicker Man (1973). He also considered it to be his best film.

"I'm still asked a great deal about The Wicker Man because it's become one of the great cult movies of all time," Lee told Total Film magazine in 2005. "That's the story of my career really, making cult movies. And I've always said it's the best film I've ever made."

Lee was knighted in 2009 for services to the dramatic arts and in 2011 received the BAFTA Fellowship, a lifetime achievement award from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts.

He is survived by his wife, the former Birgit Kroencke, now known as Gitte Lee, a Danish model he married in 1961, and their daughter Christina Erika Carandini Lee.

* Bloomberg