Tim Walker

‘Never be terrible in a terrible movie’

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The waiters at Le Caprice in St James’s have never had to go out to see the world. The world has always come to them. Just after the war, Humphrey Bogart used to dine at the ineffably glamorous establishment with Lauren Bacall and, since then, just about every major headline-maker of the past century — and the start of this one — has had a regular table, including the late Diana, Princess of Wales.

Over the past two decades I have broken bread there myself with a variety of political, social and show-business figures and, needless to say, the waiters never batted an eyelid. Until the other day, when I lunched with a man who almost brought the place to a standstill. Every eye was trained upon this regally tall, imposing figure as he made his entrance. When he left, the waiters lined up to bid him farewell. They had never done that even for Diana, but they did it for Christopher Lee.

He celebrated his 84th birthday on 27 May and, unlike most octogenarian actors, he can genuinely say that he is at the height of his career. He has had parts in two of the most successful blockbuster franchises of our times — Lord of the Rings and the Star Wars sagas — and has also found the time to strike up an unlikely but artistically profitable relationship with Tim Burton and Johnny Depp, with whom he has collaborated in Sleepy Hollow and more recently Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

‘When he holds up his right hand, displaying a permanently crooked little finger, and says “Errol Flynn did this to me”, you realise Christopher is himself a legend,’ says Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson. He recalled how, after Lee had completed his final scene as Saruman the White on a cold day in Wellington, New Zealand, in 2003, the entire crew burst into spontaneous and sustained applause. ‘Looking around the room, I realised that we weren’t just his fans,’ Jackson adds. ‘We were saluting an icon.’

In person, Lee is as self-deprecating and unshowbizzy a man as you could hope to meet. He describes himself matter-of-factly as a ‘survivor’ and seems uneasy with people who seem to know too much about him and his work. He says, as he sits down, that he has never been to Le Caprice before. ‘Oh yes, you have,’ I replied. Aida Young, the Hammer Films producer, had taken him here in 1969 to persuade him to do Taste the Blood of Dracula. Lee is momentarily stunned into silence. The look on his face said the obvious: oh dear, a fan.

Lee lists only a few of his Hammer films in his Who’s Who entry and even edits down some of their more lurid titles: thus he says he appeared in Rasputin rather than Rasputin — the Mad Monk, which was that potboiler’s actual title. You get the impression that he has spent a lifetime trying to live them down, although some of them are now regarded as classics. He says someone gave him a video of The Mummy the other day and he sat down to watch it with his Danish-born wife, Gitte, and found it ‘unexpectedly good’.

That was, however, one of the early ones, made in the 1960s. It is hard to imagine quite how depressing it must have been for Lee, by the time he was making his final Dracula for Hammer in 1974, to have to get up on those cold winter mornings to travel to Elstree Studios and listen to the news about Watergate and the miners’ strike on the radio, knowing that he was about to have yet another stake driven into his heart.

Hammer had won the Queen’s Award for Industry scarcely half a dozen years earlier, but by the time The Satanic Rites of Dracula was in production, it was very obviously about to go bust. Desperate for a success, the company had turned its most famous monster into a pantomime figure with a scarlet cloak and ladled on the gore and sex. Always a stickler, Lee would stalk the set with a copy of the original novel, despondently pointing out that Bram Stoker’s Dracula had come to have at best a nodding acquaintance with Hammer’s. Some lines he refused to say. Mostly he was required only to hiss. And bite. And gurgle.

Allowed so little dignity as an actor, Lee made the decision to ‘Draculate’ — as he put it — no longer and made the shrewdest move of his career: to relocate to Los Angeles. He immediately found work in such high-profile ventures as the James Bond film The Man with the Golden Gun — as Scaramanga — and a doomed passenger in Airport ’77. Like the character that had made him famous, he found that it was possible to rise from the grave.

And so to different generations, Lee is different people. To people under 40, he is Saruman the White or Count Dooku, but to people over 40 he remains, stubbornly, Count Dracula and a ‘horror film star’, a breed of actor that, with the passing of his old friends Vincent Price and Peter Cushing, is now all but extinct.

One wonders why there aren’t horror film stars today. ‘Probably because no one could possibly have replaced Peter or Vincent,’ says Lee, modestly but unreasonably omitting himself from the list. The critics tended to talk with disdain about their horror films, but now — and this makes Lee smile wryly — they are suddenly in fashion. All three men have hugely successful websites devoted to them. The National Theatre recently revived one of Price’s classic films, Theatre of Blood, as a homage to the actor and, writing in The Spectator the other day, Gyles Brandreth asserted, remarkably, that he considered Price to have been one of the four most charming men he had ever met, along with Bill Clinton, Desmond Tutu and John Profumo.

Lee worked with and loved both Price and Cushing, and says that, while they, too, often had to work with pretty ropey material, their professionalism and charm always got them through. ‘Every actor has to make terrible films from time to time,’ Lee says, ‘but the trick is never to be terrible in them.’ Conscientious old Wellingtonian that he is, he has always tried his best. And always — except with perhaps one exception — he has gone about his business with an old-fashioned sense of courtesy and good manners.

The behaviour of a lot of young actors today dismays him but he doesn’t blame them. ‘Films are now made by accountants. They pick a pretty young female or male face out of the air and give them a part not because they think that person is right for it, or is ready for it, but because they think that person will make them money. All too often these youngsters can’t cope — and they don’t know how to conduct themselves — and all too often they disappear as quickly as they appeared.’

It was Johnny Depp’s behaviour on, as well as off, camera that endeared him to Lee when they first worked together in Sleepy Hollow. Lee recognised in Depp a fellow survivor and a man who has, like him, reinvented himself once or twice, too. ‘Johnny has, almost single-handedly, restored my faith in young actors: he is inventive and has enormous versatility. He is without doubt a great film actor. And he is kind and courteous, which is why he is also a friend.’

Lee has been garlanded with industry and artistic awards in recent years, but still has his frustrations. The two relatively recent films of which he is most proud — Jinnah, in which he played the founder of Pakistan, and A Feast at Midnight, in which he did an amusing turn as a teacher at an old-fashioned prep school — were not given proper distribution. The first he did for a nominal fee because the part appealed to him, and he worked for nothing on the second. ‘The director, Justin Hardy, was the son of Robin Hardy, who directed me in The Wicker Man. Those Hardy men make great films, but I’d be a bankrupt by now if I had depended on them for my income.’

Over the past 18 months Lee has been off ered ten parts. ‘A lot of them very good scripts indeed. But when my agent phones to say I am interested, it becomes clear that it is just people trying to get enough “names” together and take them to the money men for them to give the project the thumbs up or the thumbs down. The whole thing is a lottery these days.’

Most likely we will next see Lee on the television screen in a biopic of the late Pope John Paul II, in which he plays Cardinal Wyszynski opposite Jon Voigt in the title role. It has been shown to good reviews in America but, oddly, not yet in Britain. After Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, there is also talk of another collaboration with Burton and Depp.

The Guardian once called Lee ‘the coolest actor on the planet’. But Lee admits that he did once lose his cool. The year was 1972. He was making a forgettable film called Horror Express on a shoestring budget in a studio just outside Madrid. Cushing was his co-star. ‘I went into our so-called dressing-room and said to Peter, “I can’t stand this any more.” “Oh, what is that, dear fellow?” Cushing replied.

‘Then I went into a tirade about the food they served us in their awful canteen. “I feel I am going to die of this frightful food. This ghastly studio....” A massive whinge. Peter looked at me and peeled the apple he was eating. He just said, “Well, there’s no use bellyaching about it, you know.” That was about as severe as he could be. He was the most tolerant of men and this was the only time he had said anything that brought me up short. Coming from him, it was shattering.’

Lee never ‘bellyached’ again after that. ‘Peter was absolutely right, of course, as he was about everything,’ says Lee. ‘We don’t always get the kind of work we want, but we always have a choice of whether to do it with good grace or not.’

Tim Walker edits Mandrake in the Sunday Telegraph.