A young couple are driving through the night in Italy when their car has a puncture. The husband urges his heavily pregnant wife to stay put while he searches for a phone. In the dark, the man plunges down a ditch at the edge of the road. He claws his way back up, covered from head to toe in muck, and trudges across muddy fields in search of help. Finally he reaches a house and knocks.
"The owner opened the door," recalls Christopher Lee, "took one look at me - this ghastly figure, obviously straight out of the grave - shrieked `E lui!' and fainted." The unfortunate householder had been watching Lee play Count Dracula only the night before.
Lee is quick to add that things like that don't happen often. Despite making his name in such gore-blimey Hammer horrors as The Mummy, The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Face of Fu Manchu, Lee has also played the likes of Scaramanga in The Man with the Golden Gun, Rochefort in The Three Musketeers and, most recently, Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, in a film of the same name. "I haven't done a horror film for 26 years," he stresses. But the fact that he is best known for his talent to scare is the cross he has to bear.
Now 75, Lee has been in show business for 50 years, clocking up 175 roles on the big screen and 60 on the small. He recently published an entertaining autobiography, Tall, Dark and Gruesome, to coincide with the centenary of Bram Stoker's classic Dracula novel.
It's easy to see why Lee was originally cast as Vlad the bad. He's 6ft 4, with a sepulchral voice. "People probably don't think I have a smile or ever laugh," he says jauntily. "They don't realise that, to have played some of the roles I've played, you need a tremendous sense of humour and of the ridiculous. You have to know how far you can go in making the unbelievable believable. Walk over that line and you lose the audience's suspension of disbelief."
It was humour that he shared with his great friend Peter Cushing, with whom he starred in 22 films. When the two first met, on the set of The Curse of Frankenstein, Lee complained that he hadn't any lines. "You're lucky," Cushing replied. "I've read the script."
Patience and stamina proved essential for horror acting. In his time, Lee has burst through glass windows while clad only in exploding bandages; muscles have been torn from carrying a moribund maiden through a swamp with his arms fully extended; bird-eating spiders have strolled across his shoulders. He has thrashed through hawthorn bushes and been impaled enough times to rival any self-respecting pin cushion.
The uncle of actress Harriet Walter and cousin (through marriage) of author Ian Fleming, Lee comes from an extraordinary family. His mother, a beautiful Italian contessa, could trace her roots back 2,000 years. Her grandmother had been born in Brixton, the daughter of a coachman; at 17, she had gone to Tasmania, met Lee's aristocratic great-grandfather, who had fled Italy, and married him. "She sang with her daughters in a covered wagon to the miners and was called The Tasmanian Nightingale."
Lee's father (who abandoned his family when Lee was just four) was a professional soldier. "Lee is a gypsy name. The word comes from the old English word meaning wood."
Once, when the actor was filming in Ireland, a man with a nose "like a pharaoh" approached Lee, asking about the origins of his family. "I was a bit alarmed when I saw all these men, with their blue-black hair and dark skins, looking at me from the other end of the pub. But then they all started nodding when I said my name."
Lee didn't begin acting until after the war. His talent to entertain lay mainly in his ability to throw knives the way others throw darts. And, over the years, he has buckled his swash with the best of them. An Italian uncle, a diplomat known as Il Conte Rosso from his political leanings, suggested that his nephew become an actor. "It certainly wasn't a question of being dazzled by the glamour of it," says Lee.
This was just as well, for despite some first-rate chillers like The Wicker Man, Lee's CV lists quite a few clunkers. He takes umbrage at the suggestion that he may have "got stuck in rotten films". He says he always felt that the only way to learn the job was to do it. "Having been turned down for looking too foreign and too tall, I realised I had to take everything I was offered simply for the experience in front of the camera."
Thoughtfully stroking his silver beard, he adds: "I have been in some very indifferent films, but I don't know any actor who hasn't. I remember one very distinguished actor saying to me after two days on set, `We've got ourselves into a terrible situation. This is crap. But we're going to make sure it's the best crap possible.'"
Lee's real break came in the late 1950s when Hammer started re-making in colour the black-and-white horror classics of the Thirties. It revived a genre that had once been a major part of the studios' output. For Lee, the secret of good horror is "terrorism without risk. The fact is that people know that, when they leave the cinema, it can't really happen. I never set out to terrify people. Never."
Lee quit making horror movies when he felt they were becoming "nauseating". Stakes through the heart are one thing, he says, severed eyeballs quite another. "In the films we did, you didn't see anything." Lee's old friend and colleague Boris Karloff used to tell him, "Leave it to the audience. They'll always think of something worse."
Those early Hammer films are now considered classics. At the time, though, they were dismissed as "vulgar", "repellent", "revolting". According to Lee, critics "had to eat their words. Hammer has been very influential, one of the most successful independent production companies of all time." Dracula grossed around $75m and Universal's president once told Lee that it had saved the company from bankruptcy.
"If you were to look at the history of films, you'd be surprised at some of the actors who have played in this kind of movie." Jack Nicholson was once the juvenile in films featuring Peter Lorre and Karloff; more recently, such stars as Ralph Richardson, Donald Sutherland and Charlotte Rampling have crept through crypts and vamped in vaults.
And not only actors have been horrified. "Spielberg, De Palma, Scorsese, Coppola," says Lee, counting them off on his fingers. "They all told me the same thing: `We were brought up on your movies.'"
If Lee has any regrets, it's that he never got to sing. The Swedish tenor Jussi Bjorling - the Placido Domingo of his day - once told him, "You've got the voice. You should do something with it."
Now Lee has at last released his first CD. On Devils, Rogues and Other Villains, the actor sings a collection of songs ranging from cowboy ballads to Russian opera arias. It's enough to make the Count writhe in his grave.
Christopher Lee stars in `Dracula - Prince of Darkness' at 11.05pm tomorrow on Channel 4. His autobiography, `Tall, Dark and Gruesome', is published by Victor Gollancz at pounds 15.99Reuse content