(The announcement of Lee’s death from respiratory problems and heart failure was delayed by his wife until family could be notified.)
Lee played Dracula nine times, mostly for the British horror factory, Hammer Films, but was also Frankenstein’s Monster, the Mummy, “Rasputin, the Mad Monk,” the evil Darth Tyranus in two “Star Wars” films, and in Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, Saruman, the white wizard who is corrupted by a lust for the ring of power. He played Saruman again last year in Jackson’s “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies.”
Gaunt and 6’4” tall, with a deep and almost melancholy voice, Lee was a compelling presence even in films that did not offer him the power that lurks behind the grave, most notably as the title character in the James Bond movie, “The Man With the Golden Gun,” (1974) an assassin who loves to kill and who considers Bond the only person in the world who is as expert at killing and whose death would be the assassin’s masterpiece.
Born in London on May 22, 1922 to Lieutenant-Colonel Geoffrey Trollope-Lee and an Italian contessa, Estelle Maria Carandini, a descendant of the Borgias, Lee grew up fluent in Italian and French in the home of a wealthy stepfather. (As an adult he would add fluency in Spanish and German and a working knowledge of Russian and Greek.) After his stepfather went bankrupt, Lee’s luxurious life suddenly ended and, at 17, he had to leave school and find work. Then came World War II. He was a flight lieutenant in the RAF and also worked for British intelligence. “Serving in the Armed Forces was the best thing that ever happened to me,” he told one reporter. “I did not know how other people lived.”
After the war he spent a year with the Central Registry of War Crimes. Discharged at the age of 24, he seriously considered being an opera singer before his mother’s cousin, the Italian ambassador to Great Britain, suggested he try acting.
Although his Italian connections got him a seven-year contract with the prestigious J. Arthur Rank Organization in 1946, his first years as an actor were not auspicious. It was not until “The Curse of Frankenstein” for Hammer in 1957 – he described his makeup as Frankenstein’s monster as the equivalent of “a road accident” – that his career took off. “Dracula” was Hammer’s and Lee’s next film.
In 1977, partly in an attempt to put horror behind him, Lee left for America. His friend Billy Wilder (Lee had played Sherlock Holmes’s brother Mycroft in Wilder’s 1970 movie “The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes”) had warned him that, if he stayed in England, he would never be able to shake the horror label.
Lee never stopped being a working actor. In 1990, after open heart surgery, he made 12 films in the next 14 months. The Internet Movie Database lists 281 credits for Lee, the last ones being the movie “Angels in Notting Hill” completed in 2014 and the 2014 video game “Lego The Hobbit” as both the narrator and the voice of Saruman.
Lee was knighted in 2009 and given BAFTA’s Fellowship, a life achievement award, in 2011. He is survived by his wife of 54 years, Birgit “Gitte” Kroencke Lee, a daughter Christina, and a niece, the British actress Harriet Walter.