Now 86 and with more than 300 films to his name, Christopher Lee has a work ethic that puts younger actors to shame, as well as the distinguished bearing of a man who can truly be described as a legend. For a man who has come to represent the cinematic embodiment of purest evil - whether feasting on the blood of virgins, wielding Force lightning, or spawning Orcs - Lee is charming company. He took time to reminisce with Empire Online about golden-gunned assassin Scaramanga, soon to stalk our in screen glorious 1080p.
Why have you chosen to play villains so often in your career?
They’re more interesting, because there’s a greater variety you can apply: you can be very cruel or charming, amusing or dangerous. But one of the most important things to get over to the audience is that some of these people are doing things they can’t really help. There’s a sadness about them. Anthony Hopkins used to say, “I don’t play villains, I play people,” and it’s a quote I use all the time. There’s not much attractive about Hannibal Lector though, although he’s obviously charming and there’s a side to him that’s like Scaramanga, although far, far worse. He was quite stomach-churning.
How did the role of Scaramanga come about?
Well, Jack Palance turned it down, so Guy Hamilton phoned me up and asked me to lunch. He said, ‘I’m doing a Bond movie, I’m directing it and we’d like you to play Scaramanga… here’s the script. Scaramanga is actually a real name – there was a boy at Eton who Ian Fleming didn’t like at all, so he used his name.
And you were related to Fleming…
We were distant cousins. I played a lot of golf with Ian at Royal St. George’s and it was while we were playing there that he came up the idea for that famous golf match in Goldfinger. He changed the name from St. George’s to St. Mark’s, and the famous short hole, from The Maiden to The Virgin. Is he true he originally wanted you to play Dr. No? I was playing golf with him one day and he said, “They’re going to make a film out of one of my books - Dr. No - and I think you’re the perfect person to play him. Would you consider it?” I told him I’d love to, but Ian wasn’t the sort of person who would do things the next day and I think he forgot. By the time he mentioned it to Broccoli and Saltzman, they’d already cast Joseph Wiseman.
Is he true he originally wanted you to play Dr. No?
I was playing golf with him one day and he said, “They’re going to make a film out of one of my books - Dr. No - and I think you’re the perfect person to play him. Would you consider it?” I told him I’d love to, but Ian wasn’t the sort of person who would do things the next day and I think he forgot. By the time he mentioned it to Broccoli and Saltzman, they’d already cast Joseph Wiseman.
The Golden Gun was stolen from Elstree Studios at the end of last year, and Roger Moore joked that the police should search your house…
It’s a bit of a mystery to me, this gun. There were actually three of them: one which you couldn’t take apart; one you could fire with a cap; and one that I had to take apart and put back together again, which was extremely difficult. I don’t know who has the third one - it certainly isn’t me. I do have a wonderful replica that was made for me by some fans. On one side of the cigarette case which forms the butt is an ‘S’ for ‘Scaramanga’ and, on the other, a ‘C’ for ‘Christopher’. I wouldn’t keep a thing like that at home. It’s in the bank.
In his autobiography, Moore reminisces about how you would sing while you were washing off your make-up during the Thailand shoot…
I didn’t have a lot of make-up - only that famous third nipple. I had to get some sort of colouring by stripping totally and wandering about on the beach, but I didn’t get the kind of colour he had because he’d come from Palm Springs. We stayed in a house in the village in Phuket, and Roger was in the room next door. I’d sing all the time – I still do. He was very long-suffering about it.
What do you think of the recent Bond villains?
I haven’t seen the new one. I did see Casino Royale on television - they didn’t do much with the bad guy if I remember rightly. It was a Dane I think? With Scaramanga the important thing was that he had a sense of humour: he could be charming, particularly towards the ladies, some of whom, like darling Maud Adams, were terrified of him. He was totally lethal, totally ruthless. Scaramanga – a million dollars a hit. Sounds like my daily rate…
Have you spoken to Guillermo del Toro about a possible return for Saruman in the Hobbit?
No, I haven’t heard anything. Only on the fan forums and websites, but I’d be happy to. I could be the voice of Smaug.
Bond Season airs on Sky Modern Greats HD from 8th-28th February