It was only right that the entire audience at Sunday night’s Bafta Awards rose to its feet when Christopher Lee walked hesitantly onto the stage to accept the Academy’s Fellowship.
Lee, who will be 89 in May, is one of the few surviving veterans of the halcyon days of the British film industry. He is a CBE and a knight of the realm, the last honour bestowed upon him in 2009. Now he has received the British Academy’s highest honour, joining the likes of Hitchcock, Fellini, Bergman and Chaplin in the annals of greatness. Yet I feel very strongly that it is all too little, too late. Christopher Lee has enjoyed a 10-year-long Indian summer. Featured roles in both the Star Wars prequels and The Lord of the Rings saw him thrilling an entirely new generation. He’s now entered his eighth decade as a viable character actor.
Yet throughout his entire career he has struggled for appreciation and respect. As a young man he was turned down for parts because, at 6ft 4in, he was “too tall”. He was also dismissed as “too foreign-looking”. Later when he became a success in Hammer’s horrors – first as Frankenstein’s creature and later as the finest screen Dracula – he became typecast.
For a decade Lee lived in Los Angeles after a succession of American actors warned him he would never achieve greatness working in the UK. The reason, they said, was the British film industry’s limited view of its actors. Lee had it harder than most. Dracula, The Mummy, Fu Manchu and the rest made him an international star, but after 12 years the mantle began to suffocate him. The Brits had him cast as a black-hearted villain. Period. The Americans, on the other hand, saw the versatile actor behind the cape and fangs.
In the next few years he became a genuine trans-Atlantic movie star, jetting from one big-budget movie to the next. His co-stars included Jack Lemmon, Richard Widmark, Donald Sutherland, Chuck Norris, Raquel Welch, Bette Davis, Anthony Quinn... the list goes on and on.
“After 10 years, I had nothing left to prove,” Lee once told me. “There are still people who say I’m too tall. That I’m always the heavy. Not true.”
Aged 50, Lee was fighting for recognition. Aged 78 he was part of two of the biggest franchises in movie history. Now, pushing 90, he has finally been accepted by an establishment that once rejected him.
“I have proved an awful lot of people wrong. I have to admit to a feeling of satisfaction,” he said in a comment tinged with bitterness.
All bitterness was banished on Sunday night. Instead a genteel old man, humbled before his peers, basked in the glow of adoration.