Although today’s audiences remember him most as Saruman in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit epics and Count Dooku in George Lucas’s Star Wars prequels, the career of British actor Christopher Lee is now into its eighth (!) decade. Lee first appeared on television in the BBC show Kaleidoscope in 1946, when the actor was in his early 20s (he’s now 91), followed two years later by his feature film debut in Corridor of Mirrors, an early film by Terence Young (the prolific director who later made Bond films From Russia With Love and Dr. No; Lee later made his own Bond appearance as antagonist Francisco Scaramanga in The Man With the Golden Gun and was, in fact, related to Bond author Ian Fleming).
The British Film Institute will honor Lee and his impressive body of work at the BFI London Film Festival on October 19, where they will present him with a BFI Fellowship, the Institution’s highest honor. Past winners of the award (which was established in 1983) include Orson Welles, Laurence Olivier, Akira Kurosawa, Clint Eastwood, Michael Caine, and Judi Dench. Tim Burton and Helena Bonham Carter were both honored last year.
Lee achieved popularity in the 50s, 60s, and 70s portraying villains such as Count Dracula in Hammer Films productions of classic horror stories. His first such role was as Frankenstein’s monster alongside Peter Cushing’s (Moff Tarkin in the original Star Wars) Victor Frankenstein. As his career progressed, however, he moved away from horror, afraid of being typecast. He portrayed Sherlock Holmes on several occasions, and his body of work includes roles in The Wicker Man, The Three Muskateers, Steven Spielberg’s WWII comedy 1941, and, perhaps his most important film, Jinnah, a biopic in which Lee portrayed the founding father of the modern Pakistan.
Still an active player in Hollywood and other ventures (in addition to recent roles in Hugo, Alice in Wonderland, and the forthcoming Hobbit sequels, Lee recorded symphonic metal albums Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross and Charlemagne: The Omens of Death, released in 2010 and 2013, respectively), Lee has no intention of stopping anytime soon. “Making films has never just been a job to me, it is my life,” Lee said in an interview earlier this year. “I have some interests outside of acting – I sing and I’ve written books, for instance – but acting is what keeps me going, it’s what I do, it gives life purpose… I’m realistic about the amount of work I can get at my age, but I take what I can, even voice-overs and narration.”
Lee will become the 71st recipient of the BFI Fellowship.