Christopher Lee remains movie heavy

Tuesday, May 28, 2002

NEW YORK -- From Count Dracula to Count Dooku, Christopher Lee still counts.

Two generations after he played the Transylvanian terror in the classic Hammer horror films, Lee remains one of the most imposing heavies on the big screen.

In the past six months, he has appeared as the Osama bin Laden-like evil wizard in "Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings" and the villain of "Star Wars: Episode II -- Attack of the Clones."

"Star Wars" creator George Lucas said he picked Lee for the role of fallen Jedi Count Dooku because of the actor's legacy of suave, calculating evildoers.

"I was looking for a villain ... more elegant and sinister than scary. He's a more sophisticated kind of villain," Lucas said.

Lee, who turned 80 on Monday, required a stunt double for only a few shots in which his character leaps and flips through the air in a climactic light-saber duel.

"He's a really brilliant swordsman. He was doing sword fights back when the films that we are trying to mimic were real films," Lucas said.

'A career moment'

Samuel L. Jackson, who plays Jedi master Mace Windu in "Attack of the Clones," said Lee inspires awe in many baby boomers who watched his sinister characters when they were young.

"In my wildest imagination, after watching him forever, I never even thought I would end up on screen with Christopher Lee," Jackson said. "Come on, how do you beat that? That's a career moment. ... He's such a cool guy."

What keeps Lee going?

"What else would I do?" the actor replied.

"I can't play golf in England in the winter -- I don't want to get double pneumonia. I'm useless with my hands. I can't paint. I can't draw. What would I do?" said Lee.

At 6-foot-4, Lee is a commanding figure in person as well as on screen.

The instrument, as actors like to call their body and voice, seems as fine-tuned as ever.

And he's quite protective of it. Being interviewed during late-afternoon tea in a Manhattan hotel, he recoils when a woman a few tables away coughs continuously.

Some 250 movies

His conversation ventures hither and yon, ranging over such topics as the wit and talent of Oscar Wilde, his chance encounter with "Rings" author J.R.R. Tolkien years ago, the worthlessness of critics, his appreciation of Celine Dion's singing and his opinion that Gene Hackman is the best actor in movies.

After appearing in some 250 movies, Lee admits he can't remember them all.

"And certainly some of them you want to forget," he says.

Lee has especially fond memories of the ones he did with Peter Cushing, playing Dracula to Cushing's Van Helsing numerous times. Many of those Hammer Films Productions were made with the same crews, and sometimes the same directors and cinematographers. "It was a family. It really was a family. And as far as I know, a very happy one."

Cushing, who died in 1994 at age 81, also played a villain in the first film in the "Star Wars" series.

Lee spent a decade in bit parts until breaking through as the monster in 1957's "The Curse of Frankenstein."

"Boris Karloff said to me ... 'Do something other actors cannot do, or will not do, and if it makes an impact, you will never be forgotten.'"

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