Anyone who has seen the Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit films will know that Saruman the White is played by Christopher Lee. Anyone who has seen the modern era Star Wars films will know that Count Dooku is also played by Christopher Lee. Lee was born on May 22, 1922 in Belgravia, London, United Kingdom. He had an extraordinary line of ancestry, being related to Confederate general Robert E. Lee, and having a link from his mother to Charlemagne, the first king of a briefly united Europe.
When Lee was four years old, his parents separated, and two years later, they divorced. Soon after, his mother married Harcourt George St-Croix Rose, a banker and uncle of Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond novels, thus making Fleming Lee’s step-cousin. The family then moved to Fulham. While there, Lee was introduced to Prince Yusupov and Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, the future assassins of Grigori Rasputin, a Russian monk with great influence over the Czar Nicholas II of Russia. Lee would later play Rasputin in a play many years later.
At age 9, Lee was sent to Summer Fields School, a preparatory school in Oxford. He acted in school plays and was frequently beaten, including at Wellington for being “beaten too often”. However, Lee accepted the beatings as “logical and therefore acceptable” punishments for knowingly breaking the rules.
At age 17, Lee’s 1939 summer term at Wellington was his last, for his step-father had gone bankrupt, owing $25.000. His mother separated from Rose, and Lee had to find a job, his sister already working as a secretary for the Church of England Pensions Board. With most employers on or preparing to go on summer holidays, there was no immediate opportunities for Lee, so he was sent to the French Riviera, where his sister was on holiday with friends. On his way there, he stopped briefly in Paris, where he stayed with the journalist Webb Miller, a friend of Rose, and witnessed the execution of criminal and murderer Eugen Weidmann by guillotine, the last public execution carried out in France.
On the outbreak of the Second World War, Lee enlisted in the Royal Air Force (RAF) and fought alongside the Finnish Army. After the Invasion of Italy, Lee visited Rome and nearby relatives while on leave. Lee also climbed Mount Vesuvius three days before it erupted. After the war, Lee had trouble finding a particular line of work. While having lunch with his cousin Nicolo Carandini and detailing his war wounds, Nicolo asked Lee, “Why don’t you become an actor, Christopher?” While initially struggling to become an actor, Lee eventually managed to become very successful at acting, his career lasting from 1947-2015, 2015 being the year of his death at age 93 from cardiac and respiratory problems. Although Lee has passed, his legacy endures in all forms of acting and the film legacy.