I awoke this morning to news of a most unwelcome kind, that of the passing of Sir Christopher Lee. Given that he had reached the age of 93, it’s impossible to say that Sir Christopher passed away before his time, but somehow it still feels true.
Born in 1922, Christopher Lee, long before the Sir was added, had a childhood that sounds like something from a far-bygone time. Born to a Gibson-era beautiful mother, who was the subject of painting and sculpture by notable artists, and a father who was a veteran of the Boer War and World War I, he grew up with a mostly privileged upbringing that included a few roles in school plays.
The true legend of Sir Christopher, at least as we have now come to know it, begins during World War II, where he was attached to the Special Operations Executive and worked as an intelligence operative. In characteristic fashion, he declined until his death to talk about his work, but a now-famous special feature on one of Sir Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films reveals that Lee knew the exact sound a person makes when he’s stabbed in the back. As usual, there’s just enough revelation and mystery to the tale to keep us guessing about the true nature of his wartime activities.
Lee’s acting career began in the late 1940s upon his return from war and his realization of his disinclination to office work or teaching. His accomplishments and accolades in the years following almost defy belief. He appeared in Sir Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet; he became a horror film legend as Frankenstein’s Monster and Dracula; he played a Bond villain; he did whatever else he wanted to do, and he did it well, thank you very much. Along the way came American acclaim and glittering recognition, including the honors that eventually led to his knighthood.
Sir Christopher entranced a new generation of fans with his iconic roles in the Star Wars and Lord of the Rings franchises, but Sherlock Holmes fans will, undoubtedly, always remember him as the man who played Sir Henry Baskerville, Sherlock Holmes, and, most notably, Mycroft Holmes in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. His portrayal of the elder Holmes brother as an intelligent, mysterious, and very involved part of the narrative continues to influence portrayals of Mycroft to this day. Notably, best-selling author Laurie R. King and Sherlock showrunners Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss cite it as a major influence, and countless other authors and adaptors echo them.
Few people live long enough to see themselves become legends in their own lifetimes, and on the rare occasion that it happens, even fewer manage to keep from being made into something both more and less than human at the same time. Sir Christopher Lee was a lot of things–spy, actor, heavy metal musician, and international celebrity. What he never stopped being was eager–to work, to learn, and to try new things. He passed away with an “Upcoming Projects” section on the Internet Movie Database that is still populated with titles. According to The Guardian, he’d signed on to a new film a month before his death. That’s who Sir Christopher Lee was, a man who never lost his human passion for doing the things he loved, the things he was so good at doing that they entranced the world.
He will be missed.
By Amy Thomas, The Baker Street Babes