It was Boris Karloff who gave Christopher Lee his credo.
The horror icon and the up-and-coming character actor were working on a movie called Corridors of Blood. Karloff was a misguided doctor – one of many he played in a long career – and Lee was a bodysnatcher named Resurrection Joe.
The two men were comparing their careers. Karloff was established as a horror king. Lee was wary of following in his footsteps.
“Do something other people won’t do – or can’t do – and you’ll be a success,” said the older man.
Recalled Lee: “Boris told me that, and Lon Chaney said it to him. I’ve never forgotten it. In fact it became my watchword.”
He took the words to heart and over nearly 20 years became the screen’s definitive Count Dracula. He was also Fu Manchu, Rasputin the mad monk, Kharis the mummy, Mr Hyde (and Dr Jekyll) and Frankenstein’s monster.
But if the films were variable, the acting wasn’t. And just as Karloff embraced the Grand Guignol, so did Lee as long as the scripts were of sufficient quality.
“It’s been the story of my life as an actor,” he once told me. “I’ve always tried to do something unconventional, unexpected. I’ve always tried to surprise the audience, always. I haven’t always succeeded, but I think I have succeeded in quite a lot.”
Horror has attracted a rogues’ gallery of memorable, quality villains. Lee took his place alongside his friends Peter Cushing and Vincent Price. And at 93 he outlived them all and enjoyed a much longer career, being rediscovered by younger audiences in the Star Wars and Lord of the Rings series, and in the films of Tim Burton.
As a young man he was frequently turned down for roles on the basis that, at 6ft 4ins, he was “too tall” or “too foreign-looking”. Later, having become a mainstay at Hammer, he sought to break the shackles of typecasting. And he did. Roles such as Rochefort in The Three Musketeers and its sequels, Mycroft Holmes in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (for Billy Wilder), dead-eyed assassin Scaramanga in The Man With the Golden Gun, Bailey the gunsmith in Hannie Caulder (a western starring Raquel Welch) and even a gay Hell’s Angel in Serial all served to shatter the illusion that he was “just a horror star”.
One of his most challenging roles in later years was Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of modern Pakistan. It was a great part, a great man and he accepted it to prove a point.
He told me: “It’s not how tall or how short you are. It’s whatever presence you possess that comes out of the screen. You can be fat, you can be thin, you can be short, you can be almost anything, which has been proved by a great many actors and actresses over the years.
“You can be good-looking; you can be ugly. You can be plain, you can be blond; you can be brunette. It doesn’t matter. What comes out of the screen and has an impact on the audience is what counts.”
Christopher Lee, the last of the horror greats, was knighted in 2009. He died on June 7 just 11 days after his 93rd birthday.