Date of Birth: 27 May 1922, Belgravia, London, UK
Birth Name: Christopher Frank Carandini Lee
Nicknames: Christopher Lee
Sir Christopher Lee defined the macabre for a generation of horror film enthusiasts with his chilling portrayals of Count Dracula; in a career that spanned more than half a century Lee played the sinister vampire no fewer than nine times in productions including Dracula (1958), Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966) and The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973).
With his saturnine glamour and striking physique at a gaunt 6ft 4in he was a dominating physical presence with an aristocratic bearing, dark, penetrating eyes and a distinctive sepulchral voice Lee was an ideal candidate to play the bloodsucking Count. “Dracula is a very attractive character,” he insisted, “he’s so heroic erotic too. Women find him irresistible. We’d all like to be him.”
After almost 20 years of playing Dracula, Lee eventually tired of the role. He moved to the United States where he enjoyed a lucrative career in both films and made-for-television mini-series such as The Far Pavilions and Shaka Zulu. While in America, Lee resisted all offers of parts in soap operas including Dallas and Dynasty.
After decades in the film industry, Lee remained as eager as ever to take on new roles. At one point in his early seventies he appeared in 12 different films within 14 months. “I get restless and frustrated if I don’t work,” he explained. “I like a continual challenge.” In his eighties he gained a new audience, bringing sulphurous intensity to the role of Saruman in Peter Jackson’s epic Lord of the Rings films.
Lee’s one regret, he maintained, was his decision not to become an opera singer. “I was born with the gift of a very good voice,” he said, “and I have been asked to sing in various concerts but I’m too old now.” Late in life, however, he was persuaded to lend his rich bass tones as a narrator to various heavy metal records including those of the symphonic power metal group Rhapsody of Fire. In 2010 he released an album of his own, Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross, followed two years later by Charlemagne: The Omens of Death.
Christopher Frank Carandini Lee was born on May 27 1922 in Belgravia, London, the son of Lieutenant-Colonel Geoffrey Trollope-Lee of the 60th King’s Royal Rifle Corps. Lee’s father had fought in both the Boer and Great Wars and had later married an Italian contessa, Estelle Maria Carandini, a descendant of the Borgias whose parents had founded the first Australian opera company. Among Lee’s stories of his early life he claimed that his father was descended from a band of gypsies in Hampshire and that his mother was descended from Charlemagne.
Christopher’s parents were divorced when he was four and his mother remarried. Lee grew up in his stepfather’s house, where he was waited on by a staff of five (a butler, two footmen, a chauffeur and a cook). He attended Wagner’s in Queensgate and Summerfields, and sat for a scholarship to Eton before being sent to the more affordable Wellington College where he distinguished himself as a classical scholar.
Fluent in Italian and French, in later life Lee added Spanish, German, Russian, Swedish, Danish and Greek to his repertoire. When his alcoholic stepfather was bankrupted in 1938 Christopher was forced to leave school at 17 in order to find work. For the next 12 months he worked as a city messenger, licking stamps and making tea for a wage of £1 a week.
When the Second World War broke out, Lee joined the RAF and was promoted to flight lieutenant. He won six campaign medals, was mentioned in despatches and received decorations from Poland, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. He also worked for British Intelligence. “Serving in the Armed Forces was the best thing that ever happened to me,” he insisted. “I did not know how other people lived.”
After the war, Lee served with the Central Registry of War Crimes, work that took him to concentration camps including Dachau, but when he was demobbed at the age of 24, he remained undecided about which career to pursue. He toyed with the idea of becoming a ballet dancer, opera singer and diplomat before his cousin (at that time the Italian ambassador to the Court of St James) suggested he try acting.
Greatly against his mother’s wishes (“Just think of all the appalling people you’ll meet!” she warned him) Lee met the Italian head of Two Cities Films, part of the J Arthur Rank Organisation, signed a seven-year contract, and joined the Rank Company of Youth (otherwise known as the Rank Charm School) in 1946. He made his film debut with a bit part in Corridor of Mirrors (1948).
A succession of “walk-on” parts ensued until, in 1951, he appeared in a speaking part as a swarthy Spanish sea captain in Captain Horatio Hornblower RN. It was one of Lee’s last films for Two Cities and when his contract ran out neither he nor the Rank Organisation were eager to renew it. Instead Lee accepted roles in a television series made in Britain but shown first in America Douglas Fairbanks Presents, appearing in some 40 half-hour productions.
After a series of military film roles in the mid-1950s, including a lieutenant in Innocents in Paris (1953), a submarine commander in The Cockleshell Heroes and a captain in That Lady (both 1955), Lee landed his first horror role for Hammer Films. He played the Creature in The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), a part which required him to be coated in artificial gangrene and which left him looking, in his opinion, “like a road accident”.
Described as “the first gothic horror film made by Hammer”, The Curse of Frankenstein was graphic in its depiction of large quantities of gore. The film was extremely popular and Lee, playing opposite the studio’s resident star Peter Cushing, was enormously successful as the monster. Realising that a film about Bram Stoker’s vampiric Transylvanian nobleman might prove equally successful, a Hammer executive, James Carreras, offered Lee the role of the Count in their next production, Dracula.
The film proved to be one of the seminal horror movies of the 1950s. Lee looked the part (tall and thin, as in Stoker’s novel) and imbued the character with a dynamic, feral quality that had been lacking in earlier portrayals. With his bloody fangs and bright red eyes ablaze, Lee made a frighteningly believable vampire. In contrast with Bela Lugosi’s eerie, somnambulistic count of the 1930s, Lee spoke his lines with crisp assurance and tried to portray what he described as “the essence of nobility, ferocity and sadness”.
With Cushing cast this time as the vampire hunter, Dracula (retitled Horror of Dracula in America) was a box-office success for Hammer and horror aficionados at the time labelled it “the greatest horror movie ever made”. Lee also regarded it as the best of the series of Dracula films which he made with Hammer. “It’s the only one I’ve done that’s any good,” he recalled. “It’s the only one that remotely resembles the book.”
With the success of his portrayal of the Count, Lee treated himself to a grey, second-hand Mercedes and became established as a horror star for the first time. He was swamped with offers of film roles and took leading parts in several films throughout the late 1950s.
In productions such as The Man Who Could Cheat Death, The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Mummy (all 1959), Lee played characters ranging from Sir Henry Baskerville to a 2,000-year-old corpse. He later claimed that the make-up for The Mummy was so uncomfortable that he swore never to submit to special effects again. The exceptions were the essential red contact lenses for his appearances as Dracula. Lee found the lenses excruciatingly painful but, as he had worn them in the first film, continuity demanded that he wear them in all subsequent productions.
Lee continued to be in demand throughout the 1950s and 1960s, starring in more than 20 films in only six years. Although he accepted some unlikely projects (including The Terror of the Tongs and The Devil’s Daffodil, both in 1961), he was also able to make films in which he had a personal interest. He had long wanted to play the Chinese arch-villain Fu Manchu and in 1965 he was offered the title role in The Face of Fu Manchu. The film was so popular that a series of four more were filmed, including Brides of Fu Manchu (1966), The Blood of Fu Manchu (1968) and Vengeance of Fu Manchu (1968). After roles in horror films such as Doctor Terror’s House of Horrors and The Skull (both 1965), Lee returned to his earlier incarnation in Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966).
He was less happy with this second film. He had become too expensive a star for the Hammer studios, and in a cost-cutting measure his scenes were kept to a minimum and remained devoid of dialogue. Lee was reduced to making a soft hissing noise which drew laughter from audiences when the film was screened. He enjoyed more success with the lead in Rasputin, The Mad Monk (1966). Although the film was badly flawed, Lee was convincing in the title role.
After The Devil Rides Out (1968), a suspenseful adaptation of a Dennis Wheatley novel with Lee as an aristocrat in pursuit of devil-worshippers, he returned to the role of Dracula in Dracula has Risen from the Grave, on the understanding that he would have well-scripted dialogue. The film made more money than previous Hammer productions and Lee was persuaded to appear in the 1970 project, Scars of Dracula. But he had by this time become disenchanted with the role. He feared he was being typecast and that the quality of scriptwriting had deteriorated to an unacceptable level.
Nevertheless Hammer were eager to continue with Lee as their horror star and persuaded him to make two more Dracula films that year. After rapidly completing Taste the Blood of Dracula and The Magic Christian, Lee devoted himself to non-vampire roles for a period.
Later in 1970 he played Sherlock Holmes’s brother Mycroft in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (“so commandingly good,” reported The Sunday Telegraph, “that this must surely be the end of shabby Draculas for him”) and followed it with a tiny appearance as Artemidorus in Julius Caesar in 1971. After four more Dracula films, including a modern interpretation titled Dracula AD 1972 and The Satanic Rites of Dracula the year after, Lee was increasingly unhappy with the manner in which the character was being portrayed. “It’s ridiculous,” he complained, “you can’t have Dracula in a modern office block, it completely undermines the original idea.”
Taking another break from the Count, Lee appeared in one of his favourite films, The Wicker Man (1973), playing a Scots laird who practises human sacrifice in the 20th century. He then went on to play the evil one-eyed Comte de Rochefort in both The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers (1974) before appearing in his first Bond film as the assassin Scaramanga in The Man with the Golden Gun (also 1974). Lee was finally persuaded to make one more Dracula-style film in the 1970s, Dracula Père et Fils (1976), before giving up the role for good.
Despite his physical likeness to the Count, Lee’s affinity with his baleful character stopped there. Throughout his career he had a reputation for being a long-winded raconteur whose reminiscences tended to focus on himself. In 1976, when Lee left Britain for the US, the move prompted an acquaintance to joke that “the population of Los Angeles were dusting out their bomb shelters in anticipation of a barrage of anecdotes”. According to another account, on one occasion an actress got off an aircraft looking ashen and exhausted. Questioned about her health by airport staff, she explained that she had been seated next to Lee and that he had not stopped talking about himself during the 10-hour flight.
Through the late 1970s, Lee continued to make films at a prodigious rate, appearing in 10 in two years. He accepted roles as diverse as Captain Rameses in the science fiction film Starship Invasions (1977) and that of the head gypsy in the Second World War drama The Passage (1979).
In the 1980s, Lee combined his film career with a return to television, appearing in mini-series including Charles and Diana: A Royal Love Story (1982) and The Far Pavilions (1984). In 1985 he suffered a heart attack, returned to London and underwent heart surgery. Instead of seeing this as a signal to retire, Lee was back at work within a year and had returned to the horror genre for the dreadful The Howling II (1986), subtitled Your Sister is a Werewolf in America.
Although Lee continued to work prolifically throughout his life, he never again enjoyed the same success as when playing Dracula. He made some fatuous comedies in the mid-1980s such as Rosebud Beach Hotel (1985) and Jocks (1986), and continued into the 1990s with a starring role in the spoof horror film Gremlins II The New Batch.
He starred in the title role of Jinnah soon after the 50th anniversary of the founding of Pakistan in 1997, and was Count Dooku in Star Wars: Episode II Attack of the Clones (2002). He returned to the same role in Star Wars: Episode III Revenge of the Sith in 2005, and was the wizard Saruman in two of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films (2001-2002), in two of his Hobbit series (2012-14) and in various video games.
With Uma Thurman, Lee was due to appear as a retired surgeon in The 11th, a film about the lead-up to the September 11 terrorist attacks, to be shot this autumn.
Reflecting near the end of his life about the role of Dracula, Lee said: “There is a lot of misunderstanding about me in that role. It had never been played properly before that. With me it was all about the power of suggestion to make the unbelievable believable.”
He published two volumes of autobiography Tall, Dark and Gruesome (1977) reissued as Lord of Misrule (1997) and was appointed CBE in 2001. He was knighted in 2009 and made a fellow of Bafta in 2011.
Date of Birth: 20 August 1916, Raton, New Mexico, US
Birth Name: Petro Vlahos
Petro Vlahos, developed the blue- and green-screen technique that made memorable visual effects possible on films such as Mary Poppins and Ben Hur.
While others had grappled before with so-called “composite photography”, overlaying shots of separately-filmed actors on background sets, the results were never totally convincing, with actors often appearing to glow in a halo of light that spoiled the effect.
Vlahos moved the process forward, first for the spectacular chariot race in William Wyler’s 1959 remake of the epic Ben Hur, and later for the charming penguin dance in the Disney musical Mary Poppins (1964). For the song Jolly Holiday, Walt Disney had decided that one of the choruses should be sung by animated penguins dressed as waiters.
Although Disney had spent £164,205.72 buying the rights to Vlahos’s blue-screen process “chicken feed”, he called the money technicians had to accommodate the animation with live footage that had already been shot, which meant major revisions. That did not prevent Vlahos working with the Disney studio on The Love Bug (1969) and Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971), both of which also relied on special effects.
The techniques that Vlahos perfected in such pictures were applied in many subsequent science-fiction and fantasy films, including the first Star Wars trilogy between 1977 and 1983. Unfortunately, shooting for some of the special effects in Star Wars took place during the hottest British summer for many years. The blue-screen process required giant arc lights, making the sets stiflingly hot: electricians fainted, and the actor playing Chewbacca, clad in a body suit of angora wool and yak hair, collapsed from heat exhaustion and dehydration.
Vlahos and his collaborators won an Academy Award for their composite processes in 1965, and with his son, Paul, he shared another Oscar in 1995 for the blue-screen advances made by Ultimatte, the company he founded in 1976.
His original concepts and innovations have been enhanced and expanded over the years, making possible entirely seamless composites which preserve fine details such as hair, smoke, mist, motion blur and shadows while automatically suppressing “blue spill” (whereby light from the blue screen behind washes across the foreground subject).
Refinements of Vlahos’s pioneering technique were used to make many of the blockbuster films of the 1990s, notably Titanic (1997), in which scenes that had hitherto been too dangerous, expensive or difficult to film were finally possible.
Special effects triumphs in contemporary films like Avatar (2009), in which blue-skinned Na’vi dwell among floating mountains, and Life of Pi (2012), in which the tiger, the ocean, and sometimes even the boy Pi himself are digital creations, also derive from Vlahos’s work.
Petro Vlahos was born on August 20 1916 at Raton, New Mexico. After graduating in Engineering from the University of California at Berkeley in 1941, he became a designer at Douglas Aircraft during the Second World War.
After working as a radar engineer at Bell Laboratories, he joined the Motion Picture Research Council, spending six months devising a complex laboratory process that separated blues, greens and reds before recombining them. The result his patented “colour-difference system travelling matte scheme” created the breathtaking visual effects in Ben-Hur .
Having minimised the unwanted “halo” side-effect that had dogged earlier attempts, he modified the technique to work on green screens as well as blue.
On television, technology based on Vlahos’s work was regularly seen in episodes of Doctor Who, and made it possible for weather presenters to point at sun and rain symbols that only their viewers can see.
In all Vlahos held more than 35 patents for film-related gadgetry, and in 1978 received an Emmy for his work.
Date of Birth: 14 January 1934, Merton, Surrey, England, UK
Birth Name: Richard Briers
Richard Briers, played the engaging free spirit who strove for a self-sufficient lifestyle in Surbiton in BBC Television’s classic 1970s comedy series The Good Life.
Although acclaimed on television for a style of dithering comedy which reminded an earlier generation of the Aldwych farceur Ralph Lynn, Briers also proved adept in serious roles in the classics. In Kenneth Branagh’s 1997 film of Hamlet, his Polonius was praised by one critic for its “conspiratorial edge”.
In The Good Life Briers played the hapless Tom Good, a draughtsman who decided to abandon the office rat race and live off the land. Instead of moving to the country, however, he and his wife Barbara (Felicity Kendal) eviscerated the lawn at their suburban home, planted vegetables and kept livestock all to the horror of their relentlessly middle-class next door neighbours Margo and Jerry Leadbetter (Penelope Keith and Paul Eddington).
With his omnipresent grin and boyish mannerisms, Briers proved perfect for the role. The Goods’ attempts to be truly self-sufficient were constantly thwarted by the machinations of the snobbish Margo, who feared that they were lowering the tone of the neighbourhood beyond repair; but Tom and Barbara always laughed in the face of adversity, and never lost their affection for their tormentor.
Written by John Esmonde and Bob Larbey and screened in 30 episodes between 1975 and 1978, The Good Life was probably Briers’s most famous vehicle on television. It was “a happy and somewhat rare combination of intelligent writing and superb playing”, judged the television critic of The Daily Telegraph.
From 1984 to 1987 Briers starred in another popular sitcom, Ever Decreasing Circles. Also written by Esmonde and Larbey, it featured an obsessive, middle-aged fusspot whose settled routine is unexpectedly threatened by a flashy rival for his wife’s affections. Penelope Wilton played his long-suffering wife and Peter Egan the too-smooth neighbour.
It all seemed a far cry from Briers’s earnest portrayal of the Dane in a student production at Rada of Hamlet, when his naturally rapid delivery led WA Darlington of The Daily Telegraph to liken him to “a demented typewriter”. Yet with his sense of timing, air of hapless innocence and his ability to keep the straightest of faces amid the mayhem typical of his brand of embarrassed humour, it was no great surprise that Briers went on to become one of Britain’s leading practitioners of farce and light comedy.
Briers continued to be offered television work, and starred as the Rev Philip Lambe in All In Good Faith (1985-88). Lambe, the former vicar of an affluent rural parish, had to knuckle down to life in a tough Midlands city and meet its challenging problems. But after Briers’s conspicuous success at the BBC, this series his first for ITV was reckoned a disappointment.
Richard David Briers was born on January 14th 1934 at Merton, Surrey. His father, Joe Briers, was, among other things, a bookmaker, but found it hard to hold down a job and frittered away money in pubs. “[He was] a smashing man,” his son recalled, “but he was never settled in one job, and he was not as ambitious or acquisitive as I am. We were always on the edge, so I grew up in a slightly tense atmosphere.”
The family lived at Raynes Park, south-west London, and occasionally received handouts from a wealthy relation. Richard was educated at Ridgeway School in Wimbledon, where he failed to shine scholastically “I never even got a Z-level” but showed an interest in acting. The family’s flat overlooked a Rialto cinema, and he could hear the sound of the films playing below. His screen idols as a boy were James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart.
His first job, at 16, was as a filing clerk in the Strand, and after two years he endured “a further two years’ hard grind” doing similar work for the RAF during his National Service. He relieved the boredom by taking part in amateur dramatics and was encouraged in this by the actor Terry-Thomas, his father’s cousin.
Briers was offered a place at Rada, where he was a contemporary of Albert Finney and Peter O’Toole. For the first time in his young life he found himself excelling, and he won Rada’s silver medal for his portrayal of Hamlet. “Until then, I could just see failure staring me in the face,” he recalled. “Now there was a glimmer of hope.”
He made his professional debut at the Playhouse Theatre in Liverpool, where he met his wife, Ann Davies, herself an actress. “My first professional part,” Briers recalled, “was as a botanist who was mad about getting rare plants from America, and I’ve played fanatics on and off ever since.”
After touring in a farce, Something About A Sailor, and spells in rep at Leatherhead and Coventry, Briers made his first London appearance opposite one of the West End’s most famous theatrical couples, John Clements and Kay Hammond, in Lionel Hale’s comedy Gilt And Gingerbread (Duke of York’s, 1959). Other early West End work included Double Yoke (St Martin’s), It’s In The Bag (Duke of York’s) and Noël Coward’s Present Laughter (Queen’s).
Unlike some actors, Briers was not content with the notion of “resting” between jobs. His childhood poverty made him yearn for financial security; he seized every opportunity that came his way, and was careful with his money.
His break into television came in 1962, as a troubled pupil barrister in Henry Cecil’s Brothers In Law in a 13-part adaptation by Frank Muir and Denis Norden. Although he was a success in the first series, he declined to take part in a second, despite being offered double the money. “I wanted to be an actor rather than a TV personality,” he explained, although in the event it was television that drove his career forward.
Created specially for him, Marriage Lines (1963-66) was the series that established him in the public eye. Briers starred as a young man adjusting to married life with his former secretary in a small flat in Earl’s Court, south-west London. The series ran for 45 episodes and helped Briers to establish the amiably enthusiastic comic persona that became his signature.
His stage career continued in parallel, his most notable parts being Mortimer Brewster in Arsenic and Old Lace (Vaudeville, 1966); Moon in The Real Inspector Hound (Criterion, 1968); and two of his favourite roles as Butley in the play of the same name in 1972, and Sidney Hopcroft in Absurd Person Singular at the Criterion in 1973.
In 1972 Briers returned to Shakespeare in the title role of Richard III on a provincial tour for Toby Robertson’s Prospect Productions. A decade or so later he earned further critical respect, particularly as Hjalmar Ekdal, the naive father in Ibsen’s grim masterpiece The Wild Duck (Lyric, Hammersmith, 1980), and as Uncle Vanya, for Kenneth Branagh’s touring Renaissance Theatre Company.
Briers’s television career continued to flourish with parts in The Other One (1977-79); One-Upmanship (1976-78); and the Alan Ayckbourn trilogy The Norman Conquests (ITV, 1977). When he befriended Kenneth Branagh, the young actor cast Briers in stage productions of Twelfth Night (1987), King Lear, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (both 1990) and Coriolanus (1992), and in his film versions of Henry V (1989), Much Ado About Nothing (1993), Frankenstein (1994) and In The Bleak Midwinter (1995). Hitherto Briers’s film career had been comparatively low-key, with appearances in A Matter Of Who (1961), All The Way Up (1970) and Rentadick (1972).
Between 2000 and 2005 Briers played the engagingly dotty laird Hector MacDonald in the BBC Television series Monarch of the Glen, alongside Susan Hampshire, Alastair Mackenzie and Julian Fellowes.
Off camera, Briers’s pursuits were essentially suburban: gardening or drinking in the garden, golf, entertaining friends and reading. He took a particular interest in theatre history, and was a member of the Garrick. He published four books, Natter Natter (1981); Coward and Company (1987); A Little Light Weeding (1993); and A Taste of the Good Life (1995).
For many years Briers and his wife divided their time between a house in Bedford Park, west London, designed by Norman Shaw, and a country cottage to which he escaped as often as he could.
He was appointed OBE in 1989 and CBE in 2003.
Diagnosed with emphysema in 2008, he estimated that he had smoked half a million cigarettes before giving up the habit in 2003.