Christopher Lee: Last of the legends

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When I heard earlier today that Christopher Lee had died at age 93, I thought, “That can’t be right, can it?”

After all, it was only within the past few years that he was playing the evil wizard Saruman in the “Lord of the Rings” and “Hobbit” movies, and just a few years before that when he played Count Dooku (sigh) in the “Star Wars” prequels.

This was a man who – even though he had certainly earned his rest at 93 – had always seemed invincible.

During World War II, Lee fought on the side of the angels, serving in various British military roles and, most amazingly, as a Nazi hunter for Britain’s Registry of War Criminals.

His film career was as lengthy and varied as his contemporary and frequent co-star, Peter Cushing, who often played Van Helsing to Lee’s Dracula in Hammer films beginning in 1958.

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Although Lee had a busy career in recent years, it was as Dracula – and Frankenstein’s monster and the Mummy – in Hammer films that made his reputation as an actor in horror outings. Sometimes Lee’s Dracula was little more than a snarling creature, but in his last outing as the Count – “The Satanic Rites of Dracula” – he had something of a dual role, playing a reclusive billionaire who wanted to bring about the end of the world … and just happened to be Dracula.

I still vividly remember going to see the 1973 movie, which was released stateside as “Count Dracula and His Vampire Bride,” at a theater here in Muncie. I was almost alone in the theater. Maybe Hammer’s brand of horror seemed old fashioned by that point. After all, “The Exorcist” was released that year and introduced a new type of horror movie to the masses.

But Lee – and Cushing, and Vincent Price, and all the rest, gone now – will always typify the horror genre to me.

We’ll miss you, Mr. Lee.

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