Camp David

CAMP DAVID APRIL 2007: CHRISTOPHER LEE

By • Apr 1st, 2007 • Pages: 1 2 3 4

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THE AMERICANIZATION OF CHRISTOPHER LEE

“You’re writing an autobiography? Who is it about?”

That priceless remark was spoken to actor Christopher Lee by a PR woman from United Artists as he toured America promoting THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN. Christopher played the title character in that installment of the Roger Moore/James Bond films.

In May of 1958 I was sitting in the balcony of one of those splendid old movie palaces from the “roaring twenties” that still existed in downtown Los Angeles at that time. I was the ripe old age of 11, with my mother in tow (she was compelled to accompany me as the theater would not allow anyone under 12 inside), preparing to see what was to be a life-altering experience as we watched for the first time THE HORROR OF DRACULA with Peter Cushing as Prof.Van Helsing and Christopher Lee as Count Dracula, in blood curdling Technicolor.

Up until that moment my viewing experience with Horror films were mainly the black and white movies I watched on television thanks to Shock Theater. (The glorious exception being the 3-D shocker HOUSE OF WAX in 1953.) I was already hooked on Boris Karloff and especially Bela Lugosi, in fact Lugosi had just died a couple of years before and left my childhood a little darker because of it. I was so enamored of Lugosi’s performance as the Count that his death was reported to me – then a rather intense seven year old – by my pal, the local theater manger (who had taken me under his wing) as I left a matinee performance of some current “giant bug flick” in 1956. He stopped me with the words “your friend the horror actor just died.” This was the first time I think I realized It would not be possible to meet all the actors I admired on the silver screen, so on that very day I vowed to never let any opportunity escape me to encounter my idols face-to-face and express what a difference their work made in allowing my imagination to soar and marvel at the sorcery that was the movie-going experience, especially in the young and obsessed.

Strange that I can still remember that afternoon in Los Angeles over forty years ago watching Christopher Lee, in less than ten minutes of actual screen time, reinvent the role of Count Dracula for an entirely new generation of Horror fans. At that age I had a coward’s habit of hiding behind the back of the theater seat in front of me just as something truly frightening was about to occur onscreen. When Dracula’s bride bares her fangs to feast on the mild mannered librarian’s neck, the poor soul(John Van Eyssen) had just arrived at Castle Dracula to sort out the Count’s books when suddenly the library door bursts forth and in strides Christopher Lee, his face gorged on human blood, his eyes filled with red contact lenses. Hissing like an animal, Dracula leaps across the library table, hurls the female vampire like a rag doll to the floor …it was a defining moment that liberated the Horror film as we knew it across the world.

I found myself both shocked and mesmerized by what I had just seen, I remained transfixed and somewhat frozen in my seat until the house lights finally went up and my mother took me, shaken and a bit stirred, from the theater, convinced her friends were right and horror films were indeed a bad influence on the minds of children. To her everlasting credit she never prevented me from seeing one during my whole misspent childhood. In my case it was far too late to save my soul from the damnation of Hammer films.

I kept faithful to that promise sworn in 1956. As the summer of 1971 unfolded, I found myself in London as Christopher Lee was about to give one of the then popular “John Player” lectures at the National Film Theater. At that time Christopher was still making films for Hammer and would wear those red contact lenses at least another year before moving on to more mainstream fare in international films. The theater was filled to capacity that afternoon so as soon as the film clips were at an end, Christopher Lee finished up his Q&A by informing his audience that “At the moment I have fourteen films on offer.” As he left the stage I made a beeline for the lobby and of course I walked right into him, surrounded by the faithful, signing autographs, and was soon engaging him in conversation. To my amazement he seemed aware that this was a preordained moment, so I was able to have my say, informing him once again what he must have heard dozens of times from fans my age – how his performance as Dracula was a defining moment in our childhoods…etc.. Lee thoughtfully listened to what I had to say and was very kind and generous with his time. Somehow I felt we would meet again.

Six years later the fates would decree that I would actually be working in the business and living in Beverly Hills no less, enjoying the good life as a talent agent representing the DEL VALLE, FRANKLIN AND LEVINE AGENCY in Century City. One evening I took some friends to see actress-turned-chanteuse Sally Kellerman trying out her “nightclub act” in West Hollywood at Studio One’s infamous Backlot cabaret. We arrived late and found ourselves seated at a table with what turned out to be a most colorful, somewhat closeted character named Terry James. It seems this gentleman was at one time the “Lord Mayor of London” very well connected to the British film colony in Hollywood and a real hoot in his own right. Terry acted the part and it was not unusual to see him dressed like a character right out of A PASSAGE TO INDIA, complete with pit helmet, walking about West Hollywood “inspecting the colonies” as Terry was fond of saying, hoping to put us “Yanks” in our place.

During one of our many lunches around town Terry was quick to discover that I was not only a devoted Anglophile, but that we shared a passion for film history as well. One afternoon he mentioned that he had dinner the night before with Christopher Lee and how difficult it was for him to adjust to life in Hollywood and so on. I seized the moment at once and told Terry about my encounter with him at the National all those years ago. Once Terry realized how much Christopher Lee’s films had meant to me growing up, he started to laugh, explaining how this information would amuse and inflate a certain British actor’s already enormous ego. Terry then and there decided it was time that Christopher Lee and I were properly introduced. Terry did make it clear that if it was my intention to make the transition from fan to Hollywood professional I should never bring up the “Count” or Hammer films unless the occasion warranted such a discussion. Terry then issued a warning about Christopher’s notorious way with money and that under no circumstances was I to pay for his meals beyond the ones I invited him to share with me. It seems that over the course of their friendship in Hollywood, Christopher had begun a habit of letting Terry pick up the check until one afternoon Terry let him have it by saying “if you think it is some sort of honor to be seen dining in your company then bloody well think again mate!” Frankly it was kind of an urban legend around town regarding the British and how tight they all were with a dollar, so this did not deter me. If I had to be imposed upon, who better then “Count Dracula” himself to drain my pocketbook.

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