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: 12 April 1914, Bushey Heath, Hertfordshire, UK
Birth Name: Gilbert Gil Taylor
Nicknames: Gilbert Taylor
The British cinematographer Gilbert Taylor was best known for his camerawork on the first Star Wars movie (1977). Though its special effects and set designs somewhat stole his thunder, it was Taylor who set the visual tone of George Lucas's six-part space opera.
Taylor said ”I wanted to give it a unique visual style that would distinguish it from other films in the science-fiction genre," Taylor declared. "I wanted Star Wars to have clarity because I don't think space is out of focus … I thought the look of the film should be absolutely clean … But George Lucas saw it differently … For example, he asked to set up one shot on the robots with a 300mm camera lens and the sand and sky of the Tunisian desert just meshed together. I told him it wouldn't work, but he said that was the way he wanted to do the entire film, all diffused." Fortunately for everyone, this creative difference was resolved by 20th Century Fox executives, who backed Taylor's approach.
Back in Britain at Elstree studios, Taylor found John Barry's sets, particularly the Death Star, were all black and grey, with little opportunity for lighting at all. "My work was a matter of chopping holes in the walls and working the lighting into the sets, and this resulted in a 'cut-out' system of panel lighting using quartz lamps that we could put in the walls, ceiling and floors. This lighting approach allowed George to shoot in almost any direction without extensive relighting, which gave him more freedom."
Despite his Star Wars fame, Taylor was a master of black-and-white cinematography. Witness the splendour of Stanley Kubrick's Dr Strangelove, Richard Lester's A Hard Day's Night (both 1964) and Roman Polanski's Repulsion (1965). Of this, Polanski wrote: "As I saw it, the only person who could do justice to our black-and-white picture was Gil Taylor, whose photography on Dr Strangelove had deeply impressed me."
Gilbert, sometimes credited as Gil Taylor was born in Bushey Heath, Hertfordshire. The son of a prosperous builder, he was expected to join the family business, but his mother was perceptive enough to persuade his father to let him take a camera-assistant job.
At 15, he worked as assistant on the last two silent films made at Gainsborough studios, in London. He soon went to Elstree studios, to the north of the city, where he was clapper loader on Alfred Hitchcock's Number Seventeen (1932). More significantly, he was assistant and camera operator to Freddie Young on Herbert Wilcox's Nell Gwyn (1934) and Paul Czinner's Escape Me Never (1935).
Taylor's apprenticeship was interrupted by the outbreak of the second world war, when he joined the Royal Air Force volunteer reserve, his primary mission being to photograph the targets of nocturnal raids over Germany after the bombs were dropped. "This was requested by Winston Churchill, and my material was delivered to 10 Downing Street for him to view. On the opening of the second front, I took a small operational unit of cameramen to cover every kind of news story, including the liberation of the concentration camps and the signing of the armistice."
After the war, Taylor returned to studio work as camera operator on two Boulting Brothers pictures, Fame Is the Spur and Brighton Rock (both 1947), for which he did some second-unit photography. This impressed John and Roy Boulting, especially his work on a deep-focus dream sequence in the former. As a result the producer-director twins gave Taylor his first job as director of photography on The Guinea Pig (1948), followed by Seven Days to Noon (1950).
It was then that Taylor started using bounced or reflected light. The indirect lighting of a subject or background gave the films a more naturalistic look, in contrast to the glossier direct light used by most of his contemporaries. This method was particularly effective in the realistic monochrome pictures directed by J Lee Thompson: The Weak and the Wicked (1954) a women-in-prison drama Yield to the Night (1956) with Diana Dors, without makeup, awaiting execution Woman in a Dressing Gown (1957) dowdy Yvonne Mitchell waiting for her philandering husband to return and No Trees in the Street (1959), set in a pre-second world war London slum.
In contrast, also for Thompson, was Ice Cold in Alex (1958), much of it shot in Libya, brilliantly capturing the heat and dust of the desert, as John Mills and company battle to get an ambulance to Alexandria after the fall of Tobruk in 1942.
Away from gritty realism, but still using black and white, Taylor linked up with Lester for two groundbreaking pop musicals, It's Trad, Dad! (1962) and the Beatlemaniacal A Hard Day's Night.
"Dick's enthusiasm for music and film-making blended in mad unison appealed to my mental and physical state at the time," Taylor commented. "When the Beatles came of age, I was given a poor script by Dick, who said we basically had to make it up as we went along. The only thing set was the music; the rest we had to invent daily! The raw quality of the shoot was there onscreen." A Hard Day's Night was shot documentary-style in several real locations, much of it with multiple cameras.
In the same year Dr Strangelove gave Taylor fresh challenges. "Strangelove was at the time a unique experience because the lighting was to be incorporated in the sets, with little or no other light used," Taylor explained. This strategy is exemplified by the elaborate scenes set in the war room, designed by Ken Adam, with a gleaming, black Formica floor and a wide circular table lit by a ring of overhead fluorescent fixtures.
When Taylor was asked to shoot Repulsion, he turned down the chance to make the James Bond movie Thunderball. "Our first day's shooting left me amazed and a bit perturbed by Gil Taylor's way of doing things," Polanski wrote in his autobiography. "He mostly used reflected light bounced off the ceiling or walls and never consulted a light meter. As the rushes were shown, however, he possessed such an unerring eye that his exposures were invariably perfect. We differed on only one point: Gil disliked a wide-angle lens for close-ups of Catherine Deneuve, a device I needed in order to convey her mental disintegration. 'I hate doing this to a beautiful woman,' he used to mutter."
Nevertheless, Deneuve looks extremely beautiful in many sequences, despite Taylor shooting much of the film with a handheld Arriflex with a very wide lens, as did her sister Françoise Dorléac in Polanski's Cul-De-Sac (1966), also with Taylor, whose third and last film with Polanski was Macbeth (1971). Although shot in colour, it is as near to black and white as possible, with its grey, misty landscape.
When Hitchcock invited Taylor to be his director of photography on his penultimate film, Frenzy (1972), he had no recollection of the 18-year-old clapper loader who had worked for him exactly 40 years previously. "Hitchcock never looked through the camera," recalled Taylor. "He would give me a list of shots and ask: 'Can we do this today?' I had to persuade him to go to rushes after nearly four weeks."
Taylor gave Richard Donner's The Omen (1976) a diffused, dreamlike look, which won him the British Society of Cinematographers award. After Star Wars, Taylor, who never made a film in Hollywood, went on various locations for Meetings with Remarkable Men (Afghanistan, 1979), Dracula (Cornwall, 1979), Escape to Athena (Greece, 1979), Flash Gordon (Scotland, 1980) and Green Ice (Mexico and New York, 1981), though the movies were not worth travelling any distance to see.
Taylor retired from films in 1994, but continued to shoot commercials for a few years. Most of his retirement was spent painting and farming, but he still got a kick out of being contacted by Star Wars fans for his autograph.
In 2001, Taylor, who made his home on the Isle of Wight, was presented with a lifetime achievement award by the British Society of Cinematographers, and an international award by the American Society of Cinematographers in 2006.
Date of Birth: 16 July 1946, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, US
Birth Name: Richard LeParmentier
Richard LeParmentier was an American character actor but in the 1970s moved to Britain, where he was cast as a young space station commander who is almost choked to death by Darth Vader in the original Star Wars film (1977).
Although LeParmentier appeared in more than 50 films and television series, it was the modest role of Admiral Motti, commander of the Death Star space station, who foolishly mocks Vader’s “sorcerer’s ways” and “sad devotion to that ancient Jedi religion”, for which he became best known.
Darth Vader (played by David Prowse) finds Motti’s lack of faith disturbing, and starts crushing his windpipe using the “Force” (a powerful form of telepathy), choking the young commander, but allowing him to live.
Devotees of the Star Wars canon have acclaimed “a brilliantly understated piece of cinema that showcased the true power of the Dark Side while highlighting the Empire’s main weakness over-confidence”. The scene remains a favourite with fans and has even spawned an online craze known as “Vadering”.
LeParmentier’s role may have been modest but it was also crucial. It was his character’s reckless act of defiance in standing up to Darth Vader that prompted the Rebel Alliance’s strike on the Death Star.
“I did the choking effect by flexing muscles in my neck,” LeParmentier recalled. “It’s one of the most famous Star Wars scenes and it’s the most parodied one too. Eddie Izzard does a bit on it in one of his routines.”
In 1988 LeParmentier played Lieutenant Santino in the animated classic Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) a role that furnished him with the celebrated line: “Now that’s what I call one seriously disturbed toon” and found steady work as an actor on British television.
During the 1980s and 1990s he was also a television screenwriter, scripting episodes of Boon and The Bill for ITV.
Richard LeParmentier was born on July 16 1946 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, but moved to Britain in 1974, settling in Bath. He appeared in the David Essex rock film Stardust (1974), and with James Caan in the futuristic Rollerball (1975). But it was a week’s work at Elstree Studios in 1976, in between playing bit parts on British television, that changed his life when he shot his scene as Motti in Star Wars.
“I thought the film was going to be a success as soon as I read the script, despite the fact people were laughing at us as we shot the thing,” LeParmentier recalled. Walter Murch, a friend of the film’s director George Lucas, explained that people thought it was laughable “because they couldn’t see the vision behind it. It was in pieces. It’s just that once you see the vision, then it all makes sense.”
For more than 30 years LeParmentier was a fixture at Star Wars conventions all over the world, often signing pictures of himself sporting his Imperial Officer uniform while being choked by Darth Vader’s “Force”. His role of Motti, although the briefest of episodes in a 40-year acting career, occupied most of his official website.
One section of the site called “Motti’s hotties” featured a series of photos of LeParmentier posing with female fans, one of whom wore a bored expression and a shirt emblazoned “porn star”. Interviewed on the site, LeParmentier said he would prefer to be known as a writer first and as Admiral Motti second. “But you can’t deny being part of [one of] the most popular and influential films of all time,” he explained.
In the 13th James Bond film Octopussy (1983), LeParmentier played an American aide.
While appearing as a reporter in Superman II (1980) he met the British actress Sarah Douglas, who was cast as the Kryptonian supervillain Ursa. They married the following year, but divorced in 1984.
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: 7 September 1914, Leytonstone, London, England, UK
Birth Name: Stuart Freeborne
His imagination and talent were central to the success of such pictures. For example 2001’s famous “Dawn of Man” sequence was only possible because of Freeborn’s pioneering work on ape suits. Though his techniques were new, the results were so polished that some viewers were convinced that the apes must be real. Meanwhile for George Lucas, the director of Star Wars, Freeborn created a cast of intergalactic monsters and heroes from the bloated reptilian villain Jabba the Hutt to the pint-size chartreuse Jedi, Yoda, which appealed to audiences every bit as much, if not more, than their human counterparts.
Yoda appears in the second of the Star Wars films, The Empire Strikes Back (1980), as tutor and mentor to the aspiring Jedi warrior, Luke Skywalker. Freeborn’s effects served to create an emotionally convincing character, and each of Yoda’s gnomic, grammatically-tortured musings was accompanied by expressive head-cocking, ear-twitching, lip-pursing and eye-rolling. The character, whose features Freeborn modelled on his own (with a dash of Albert Einstein thrown in for good measure) has become something of a cult figure.
The Empire Strikes Back combined old-school puppetry with animatronics that would come to dominate special effects thereafter. Animatronics would themselves be largely superseded by computer-generated images, such as those used in the recent Star Wars trilogy (1999-2005). Shot 20 years after the first three movies, the new films’ impressive but somewhat soulless effects had many critics longing for the characterful wizardry of the originals. For Freeborn’s ability to bestow the spark of life was acquired not at the computer screen, but at the mirror of the house in which he grew up, where he endlessly practised transforming the only model available himself.
Stuart Freeborn was born in Leytonstone, east London, on September 7th 1914, and grew up in Beckenham, Kent. His father was an insurance broker and keen that Stuart should follow in his footsteps. The boy had other ideas, and made himself up into a host of characters from Mr Hyde-like fiends to trilby-sporting, matchstick-chewing sleuths. He photographed the results and fired off the pictures to film studios, to no avail.
According to Nick Maley, a make-up artist who later worked alongside Freeborn, the aspiring special-effects man got his break as a 21-year-old by passing himself off in Beckenham as the Emperor Haile Selassie. Initially the impersonation was rewarded only with a police interview, but as the story spread, Denham Studios, headed by Alexander Korda, offered Freeborn a job.
He began on Wings of the Morning (1937), starring Annabella and Henry Fonda, and followed it with Victoria the Great (also 1937) and The Thief of Baghdad (1940). During the war he trained with the RAF but was forced to truncate his service owing to haemophilia. Instead he worked on The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943).
It was not until Green For Danger (1946) that he got his first on-screen credit, and two years later his career took-off with Oliver Twist. Required to transform Alec Guinness into Fagin, Freeborn produced two versions of the character for screen testing. One was subtle, one grotesquely exaggerated. Director David Lean put the tests to a vote, and the latter version won the day. “So that’s the way I had to do it, never mind how over the top it was,” Freeborn recalled. In New York, the hook-nosed villain was denounced as anti-Semitic and Oliver Twist was not shown there until 1951.
The controversy upset Freeborn, but his talent was no longer in doubt. He worked on several films a year, including, in 1957, The Bridge on the River Kwai. Again working with Lean, Freeborn flew out to Sri Lanka where, travelling one day to the set, he was in a car accident that killed all the vehicle’s other occupants. Thrown into the jungle, he lay semi-conscious, unnoticed by rescuers for several hours. After he was spotted he spent four months recuperating in hospital.
He transformed Peter Sellers into three characters in Dr Strangelove (1964) and four years later the director of that film, Stanley Kubrick, hired him again to mastermind the opening sequence of 2001, A Space Odyssey (1968).
The prologue captures the moment that, under the shadow of the unflinching monolith, apes learn how to use tools, a leap in intelligence prefiguring the rise of man. Freeborn’s genius was to craft lightweight foam skins for the headpieces of the ape suits that perfectly reflected the expressions of the mime artists inside them. The apes’ lips drew back to reveal teeth underneath. In each ape mouth, the tongue was operated by the actor’s own. Weaving the bodysuits from yak, horse and human hair, was simple by comparison. It was time-consuming, however, as in many parts of the costume each hair had to be punched into foam latex with a needle. Freeborn would deploy similar techniques to create the hirsute Wookie hero, Chewbacca, in Star Wars.
Also in the 1970s, Freeborn worked on the devilish Omen (1976) and the action-hero film Superman (1978). It was he who came up with the idea of parting Christopher Reeve’s hair one way when he was playing his shy alter ego Clark Kent, and the other when he was sporting his superhero’s cape. Before shooting, Freeborn also played a part in relieving Gene Hackman, cast as the villain Lex Luthor, of his treasured moustache.
Richard Donner, director of Superman, wanted Hackman cleanshaven for the part. So he asked Freeborn to make him up with “the greatest moustache you’ve ever done”, and then had a meeting with Hackman. Donner told the actor: “Do me a favour. The moustache has to go. You take off your moustache and I’ll take off mine.” Reluctantly, Hackman allowed Freeborn to shave him. Once the razor had done its work, Donner peeled off his appendage.
Freeborn continued to work until 1990. His last project was the television film Max and Helen. In 1984 he was nominated for a BAFTA for his work on Return of the Jedi.