NEW YORK — From Count Dracula to Count Dooku, Christopher Lee still counts. Two generations after he played the Transylvanian terror in the classic Hammer horror films, Mr. Lee remains one of the most imposing heavies on the big screen.
In the past six months, he has appeared as the Osama bin Laden-like evil wizard in “Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings” and the villain of “Star Wars: Episode II Attack of the Clones.”
“Star Wars” creator George Lucas says he picked Mr. Lee for the role of fallen Jedi Count Dooku because of the actor’s legacy of suave, calculating evildoers.
“I was looking for a villain [who] was more elegant and sinister than scary. He’s a more sophisticated kind of villain,” Mr. Lucas says.
Mr. Lee, who turned 80 last week, required a stunt double for just a few shots in which his character leaps and flips through the air in a climactic light-saber duel.
“He’s a really brilliant swordsman. He was doing sword fights back when the films that we are trying to mimic were real films,” Mr. Lucas says.
Samuel L. Jackson, who plays Jedi master Mace Windu in “Attack of the Clones,” says Mr. Lee inspires awe in many baby boomers who watched his sinister characters when they were young.
“In my wildest imagination, after watching him forever, I never even thought I would end up on-screen with Christopher Lee,” Mr. Jackson says. “Come on, how do you beat that? That’s a career moment. He’s such a cool guy.”
What keeps Mr. Lee going?
“What else would I do?” the actor replied during a recent trip to the United States.
“I can’t play golf in England in the winter I don’t want to get double pneumonia. I’m useless with my hands. I can’t paint. I can’t draw. What would I do? Sit and listen to music all day and drive my wife mad?” Mr. Lee has been married 41 years.
At 6-foot-4, he is a commanding figure in person as well as onscreen.
The instruments, as actors like to call the body and voice, seem as fine-tuned as ever, and he’s quite protective of them. Being interviewed during late-afternoon tea in a Manhattan hotel, he recoils when a woman a few tables away coughs continuously. “Why does somebody come in here with a cough and hang out and infect everybody in the room?” he wonders aloud, showing his annoyance.
His conversation ventures hither and yon, ranging over such topics as the wit and talent of Oscar Wilde, his chance encounter with “Rings” author J.R.R. Tolkien years ago, the worthlessness of critics, his appreciation of Celine Dion’s singing and his opinion that Gene Hackman is the best actor in movies.
After appearing in about 250 movies, Mr. Lee admits he can’t remember them all “and certainly some of them you want to forget,” he says.
He has especially fond memories of the ones he did with the late Peter Cushing, playing Dracula to Mr. Cushing’s Van Helsing numerous times. Many of those projects from Hammer Film Productions were made with the same crews and sometimes the same directors and cinematographers. “It was a family. It really was a family. And as far as I know, a very happy one,” Mr. Lee says.
That’s when he and Mr. Cushing became friends, though they had worked together before: once in Laurence Olivier’s 1948 adaptation of “Hamlet,” when Mr. Lee literally was a spear-carrier while Mr. Cushing played Osric, and also in John Huston’s “Moulin Rouge” in 1952.
(Mr. Cushing, who died in 1994 at age 81, also played a villain in the first film in the “Star Wars” series.)
With special effects better than ever, Mr. Lee notes, “I have no idea what’s going on behind me in the scenes that I’m playing” in “Attack of the Clones.”
He says that might have been nice back when he was playing Dracula because the role could be physically grueling he had to crash through doors and windows and carry women 80 yards. “The way they do these things now, it’s all tricks, special effects. But I had to do it,” he says.
Mr. Lee was typecast for a while after Dracula, but the sheer volume of his body of work drove a stake through that problem.
He may be the only actor to have portrayed three Sherlock Holmes characters (Holmes, Mycroft Holmes and Henry Baskerville). He filled the title role in the 1974 James Bond flick “The Man With the Golden Gun.”
During World War II, Mr. Lee served in British intelligence and special forces.
He had minimal performing experience (school plays with chum Patrick Macnee, best known for television’s “The Avengers”) when he got into acting through a family contact. He spent a decade in bit parts before breaking through as the monster in 1957’s “The Curse of Frankenstein.”
“Boris Karloff said to me ‘Do something other actors cannot do, or will not do, and if it makes an impact, you will never be forgotten.’”
“I didn’t have dreams of being a romantic leading man,” he says, “but I dreamed of being a character actor, which I am.”