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Friday, 2 March, 2001, 09:06 GMT
Count of the silver screen
Christopher Lee as Count Dracula in Dracula A.D.1972 (1971)
Christopher Lee as Count Dracula in Dracula A.D.1972 (1971)
By BBC News Online's Tim Masters

With an acting career spanning more than five decades and some 250 films to his name, one might expect Christopher Lee to be taking things easy.

However nothing could be further from the truth.

"I'm getting offered more scripts now than I have been in my entire career," says Lee, whose latest projects are set to be among the biggest box office smashes of all time.

Lee, who etched himself into the public consciousness as Hammer's Count Dracula in the 50s, 60s and 70s, is still an imposing and distinguished figure.

Dracula poster
The role that made Lee famous
He will be 80 next year - at about the time his latest project Star Wars: Episode II hits the big screen.

Lee plays Count Dooku, following in the footsteps of his old Hammer sparring partner, the late Peter Cushing - who appeared in 1977's Star Wars: A New Hope.

Director George Lucas says, in the foreword to the actor's newly-published screen history: "I knew that I needed someone who can convey evil.

"But in addition I needed someone to bring stature, strength and wisdom to the role."

Shroud of secrecy

Lee is reticent about the Star Wars project.

But he recalls: "When we were filming in the studios in Sydney there were people perched up on the top of the cricket ground with long-distance lenses."

As Flay in the recent BBC production Gormenghast
As Flay in the recent BBC production Gormenghast
There has been an equally fanatical quest for knowledge surrounding Lee's other major film project, Lord of the Rings.

"Lord of the Rings I think will create cinema history. I don't think anybody will have seen anything quite like it," says Lee, who holds Tolkein's epic work on par with Homer.

And Lee should know - he has read both the Iliad and Odyssey in the original Greek.

Peter Jackson's film trilogy sees Lee cast as Saruman the White, the wizard chief, alongside Ian Holm as Bilbo Baggins, Elijah Wood as Frodo and Sir Ian McKellen as Gandalf.

Lee says Jackson has met the challenge of transferring the books to the screen.

"His instincts and his stamina are amazing - something I can barely believe," he says.

One's dreams don't always come true, but this one has

Christopher Lee
For Lee, the Lord of the Rings project is the realisation of a long-held ambition.

"I remember thinking as a young man that wouldn't this make a fantastic film. At the same time I had this dream as an actor that I would be in it.

"One's dreams don't always come true, but this one has."

The good, the bad and gruesome

Lee is adamant that directors and actors shouldn't be labelled with particular genre because of their past work.

He points out that many of his films have been comedies. But his best known films cast him in darker roles: Dracula, The Curse of Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Wicker Man, Fu Manchu and The Man with the Golden Gun.

"I've appeared in so many films that were ahead of their time - some of them were very good," says Lee.

He pauses, and adds with a smile: "Some weren't."

Lee As Mohammed Ali Jinnah in Jinnah (1997)
Lee As Mohammed Ali Jinnah in Jinnah (1997)
Lee is particularly proud of his portrayal of the founder of Pakistan in the film Jinnah (1997).

"To say that we caused a controversy is putting it mildly," says Lee, recalling the daily attacks in the press which accused the production of blasphemy.

The film has never had a UK distributor, much to Lee's regret.

Interestingly, Lee followed Jinnah with the low-budget straight-to-video Talos The Mummy.

He reveals that he is currently developing a new film project with Robin Hardy, the director of one of Lee's most popular films, 1972's The Wicker Man.

Blue screen

During his long career, Lee has seen huge changes in the movie-making process.

On both Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, he has been working at the cutting edge of digital technology.

Christopher Lee: The Authorised Screen History
Lee's screen history has just been published
But he is wary of the pitfuls of acting surrounded only by blue screens - where computer-generated scenery will be added later.

"It's magic. You have to use your imagination a great deal more," he says. "But the danger is that you will be overpowered by the special effects and make-up."

This isn't something that should worry Lee. During the Hammer era, critics consistently praised his ability to portray the humanity beneath the evil exterior.

It's now almost three decades since he shuffled off his vampire cloak, but at six feet four inches tall and still a workaholic, Christopher Lee remains a true giant of the cinema.

Christopher Lee: The Authorised Screen History by Jonathan Rigby is published by Reynolds and Hearn

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