There are not many people who will defend Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones. Clunky, overwrought with exposition and somehow not beginning with the violent death of Jar Jar Binks, George Lucas’s 2002 prequel is painful. But it also served an invaluable purpose at the time of its release, especially for a still-impressionable youth like me: It introduced the grand cinematic villainy of Christopher Lee.
As the Sith Lord Count Dooku (god, those movies were stupid), Lee got to ham it up in spectacular fashion, easily overshadowing any other performance (CGI or otherwise) on screen. His enunciation, his stare, his mere presence – Lee was such a compelling force that I just had to know more about him. Attack of the Clones was my gateway drug to a Christopher Lee addiction, a struggle I’m still working my way through more than a decade later.
It hasn’t been easy. Lee’s filmography was scattered, to put it delicately. Over the course of his six-decade-plus career, he’s popped up in more than 250 films and TV series, ranging from genre-defining masterpieces (the Hammer Horror series) to quick payday jobs (Police Academy: Mission to Moscow). Yet no matter the quality of the project, Lee could be counted on to deliver. He was just as terrifying as Count Dracula as he was tender in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, and often concocted an uneasy, but captivating, brew of the two. Lee’s deep baritone, intense stare and perfectly sculptured features – especially effective in old age – made him the perfect avatar for whatever a director desired, no matter the filmmaker’s actual skill.
Most tributes to Lee, who died Sunday at the age of 93, will make great hay of the actor’s off-screen exploits, of which there are many: He served a stint with a British spy force in the Second World War, spoke at least five languages and was an accomplished singer, producing albums ranging from opera to heavy metal (why he wasn’t cast as Dos Equis beer’s Most Interesting Man in the World is anybody’s guess). But to me, Lee’s life belonged to the movies. He was classically trained, but knew how to adapt to the times. He may have taken almost any job that came his way, but he elevated the craft at every opportunity. And damned if he didn’t look like he was enjoying himself.
Even if you only look at the latter half of his career, Lee’s output is remarkable. Who else has been involved in such medium-defining properties as Lord of the Rings, James Bond and Star Wars? Lee was one of the medium’s greatest linchpins.
After I heard Thursday morning that he had died, I tried to scribble a list of Lee’s top 10 performances. It’s impossible, though. For every vaunted turn as Count Dracula, there was an equally silly cameo in something like Gremlins 2 that I loved just as much. There is no defining role for Lee – he was just a consistent, excellent presence, film after film. We wanted him in everything, and he obliged.