Ian McKellen: When we weren't facing off on-set, Christopher Lee was a true gentleman and touchingly nervous

As Saruman he had the air of a stern yet benign Pope, that belied his ambition to rule Middle-earth with cruelty and spite

Ian McKellen
Friday 12 June 2015 19:10 BST
Sir Christopher Lee and Sir Ian McKellen in 2001
Sir Christopher Lee and Sir Ian McKellen in 2001 (Rex)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


When I arrived in New Zealand to start filming as Gandalf, in the first week of the 21st Century, Peter Jackson held a dinner for some of the cast. I was happily next to Christopher Lee who I had known of throughout my actor-admiring life. He'd been cast as the white wizard Saruman but his opening line to me was: “I've always thought I should play Gandalf. I read Lord of the Rings every year – sometimes twice.”

He then treated me to a snatch of the black speech of Mordor and I felt inadequate. Not that that was Chris's intention: he was 78 and well practised in the art of gentlemanly rectitude. The epitome of “tall, dark and handsome” kept any inner demons for his acting Dracula, Frankenstein's monster and, once, as Sherlock Holmes.

It's what made his Saruman so effective. With his long beard and white robes, he had the air of a stern yet benign Pope that belied his ambition to rule Middle-earth with cruelty and spite.

Between our facing-off on the set, he could easily be persuaded to reminisce. After all there were over 200 films on his CV and a couple of singing albums. His earliest intention was to be an opera bass. Touchingly, he was a little nervous at the outset. “Peter made me do my first speech 10 times!!” But I told him not to worry, as the previous day I'd had to repeat a scene 27 times. His dark eyes widened and glinted but he didn't complain again.

Peter was tickled to have his Hammer Horror hero as the villain, and devised a spectacular death to acknowledge his vampiric past – falling onto a spike which pierced his dastardly heart. Chris didn't much approve, and I think the episode can only be seen in the extended Director's Cut.

It's an odd pity that he didn't work in the theatre, nor direct a film, like his idol Laurence Olivier, who had Chris as a spear-carrier in his film of Hamlet. But he was justly proud of the span and success of his career in movies, and when knighted must, like all of us, have been pleased to share a title with Sir Larry.

The last time Saruman and Gandalf filmed together was around a table in Rivendell. But while Galadriel, Elrond and I were in the Wellington studio, Sir Christopher's interjections were filmed in London some months later. You can't tell. In movies, all is not as it seems.

Yet when he joined the “Star Wars” cast, he said he did all his own stunts without benefit of a stand-in. That certainly wasn't true of his gravity-defying fight with Gandalf. I suspect he just wanted to declare he was in old age fit for purpose. He needn't have worried. His acting prowess never declined.

This article has been republished with the kind permission of its author. You can read the original piece here

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