For generations of moviegoers, Christopher Lee (1922-2015) was the embodiment of cinematic evil. From his early days as Hammer Films’ resident Count Dracula to more recent roles like the evil wizard Saruman from The Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies – by way of the Star Wars prequels’ Count Dooku, The Wicker Man’s Lord Summerisle and James Bond’s triple-nippled nemesis, Scaramanga, from The Man with the Golden Gun – Lee’s imposing 6’5” frame, piercing eyes and mesmerising voice made him one of cinema’s most enduring and iconic screen villains.
And, during a remarkable career that spanned 57 years and more than 200 movies, he even found time to accidentally position himself at centre of the Hollywood universe.
Lee was a high-performer in the Centre of the Hollywood Universe chart, a variation of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, the quirky parlour game that was all the rage amongst movie geeks in the 1990s. Inspired by the ‘six degrees of separation’ concept, the game’s purpose was to connect via film roles any given actor or actress with Kevin Bacon in six moves or less.
For example, only two films separate Kevin Bacon from Laurel & Hardy:
- Kevin Bacon appeared in JFK (1991) with Jack Lemon.
- Jack Lemon appeared in Luv (1967) with Cap Somers.
- Cap Somers appeared in Way Out West (1937) with Stan and Ollie.
The Centre of the Hollywood Universe chart took this concept one step further by using a computer algorithm called The Oracle of Bacon to rank a movie star’s connectivity at any given time. At one stage, Lee was the chart’s highest ranking living actor. Given the fact his acting career spanned seven decades, over 200 films and three of the most popular movie franchises of all time – Lord of the Rings, Star Wars and Bond – it’s hardly surprising.
Returning to the earlier example, only one film stood between Christopher Lee and Laurel & Hardy:
- Christopher Lee appeared in (amongst many other things) 1958’s Dracula with Peter Cushing .
- Peter Cushing appeared in A Chump at Oxford (1940) with The Immortal Duo.
In fact, despite his reputation as one of history’s greatest movie villains, Lee was rarely more than one film away from a slapstick comedy A-lister. Vaudeville legends The Marx Brothers are a case in point:
- Christopher Lee appeared in Steven Spielberg’s 1941 (released in 1979) with Robert Stack.
- Robert Stack appeared in 1950’s Mr Music with Groucho Marx.
Or The Three Stooges:
- Christopher Lee appeared in Private’s Progress (1957) with Terry-Thomas.
- Terry-Thomas appeared in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) with The Three Stooges.
In fact, let’s go all the way back to Charlie Chaplin:
- Christopher Lee appeared in the somewhat unfortunately-titled Babes in Bagdad (1952) with Paulette Goddard.
- Paulette Goddard appeared in Modern Times (1936) and The Great Dictator (1940) with her then-husband, Charlie Chaplain.
There are similar connections between Christopher Lee’s filmography and many of the greats of British comedy. Take Morecambe and Wise, for instance:
- Christopher Lee appeared in The Devil-Ship Pirates (1964) with Johnny (Mike Baldwin from Coronation Street) Briggs.
- Johnny Briggs appeared in The Intelligence Men (1965) with Eric and Ernie.
Or Tommy Cooper:
- Christopher Lee appeared in Dr. Terror's House of Horrors (1965) with Roy (Record Breakers) Castle.
- Roy Castle appeared in Eric Sykes’ The Plank (1967) with Tommy Cooper.
Or even Benny Hill:
- Christopher Lee appeared in Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) with Irene (Metal Mickey) Handl.
- Irene Handl appeared in The Italian Job (1969) with Benny Hill.
At the epicentre of this Christopher Lee comedy conundrum is a delightfully odd film called The Magic Christian (1969). It stars Peter Sellers as Guy Grand, an eccentric aristocrat who adopts a young, homeless Ringo Starr on a whim, then proceeds to educate him in the ways of the world through a series of increasingly outrageous pranks.
The comedy is broad and the satire far from subtle, but what makes it interesting in this context is that it featured appearances from Spike Milligan, John Cleese, Graham Chapman and Hattie Jacques. And there, in the midst of this weird collision between Goons, Beatles, Pythons and the Carry On team, we find Christopher Lee – on board a luxury cruise liner, terrorising the upper echelons of society in the somewhat typecast role of ‘Ship’s Vampire’.
Given his close proximity to so many comedy greats throughout his filmography, it seems apt that Lee was once offered the chance to play a truly iconic comedy role. He later admitted that turning down the part of Dr Rumack in the movie Airplane! was one of the biggest regrets of his career. That role went to Leslie Nielsen, of course, and the chief reason why he was so damn funny in that damn funny film was because – like the rest of the actors in Airplane! – he was cast against type. Up until then, Nielsen was best known for strait-laced dramas, but Airplane! transformed his career, turning him into a late-blooming comedy star.
Could the same thing have happened to an erstwhile Prince of Darkness?
It’s a tantalising thought: if things had worked out differently, Christopher Lee – history’s greatest screen villain – might now be remembered for another infamous character whose name begins with a ‘D’.
Lieutenant Frank Drebin of Police Squad.
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