|A Science Fiction Fanzine||Autumn/Winter 2003-2004|
The release of Return of the King brings to mind the one occasion on which I came in contact with a member of the cast of Lord of the Rings. Verbatim from a LASFAPAzine of 1977, behold.
Off on the black ship of horror, out on the seas of terror, cloaked in the deepest of nights, you sail on ... and you notice with dismay that the Captain of your frail vessel wears a long black cape, and files his incisors ... that the first mate is wrapped in rotting linen ... that instead of a figurehead, the prow of your ship is a wicker man ...
Panic! For well you might! Rush to the rail and gaze back to land, to the all-too-distant shore ... look toward the land, yes, look
On November 19, 1977, I took a seat in the fifth row of the Sena Mall Theatre in Metairie, Louisiana, adjacent to New Orleans. In that 5th row sat the Sons of the Sands, the NOLa fan group to which I belonged. About us, close enough for conversation, sat other friends and acquaintances. Amongst us, Clarence Laughlin, brilliant photographer (see his book, published by the Museum of Modern Art), septuagenarian sage, motor-mouth and book collector par excellance. Standing before the packed house, watching microphones being adjusted by the theatre crew, stood pudgy, full-grey-bearded Stirling Smith, local movie pundit and host of this midnight show. Usually a genial fellow (I'd appeared on his show the previous April), Stirling was tense and edgy tonight; he had just driven, at over 100 m.p.h., down from Jackson, Mississippi, over wet roads. And his guest was following in another car.
But finally Stirling received word from backstage. He lowered the mike way down, and introduced his guest with a rambling, semi-pointless story about Orson Welles (whose name Stirling pronounced "Arson").
And then the curtains parted near the exit and in walked a tall, thin, striking handsome fellow. Is it any mystery by now? Christopher Lee.
Very tall, Lee looked to be, also, very exhausted ... for after all, he'd been on the go all day, and the drive south from Jackson is harrowing enough in dry daylight. But striking nonetheless, Christopher Lee ...
A word or two of cinema criticism. Chris Lee is a pretty good actor who makes good B movies. He is almost always much better than his material. His best roles have been in the Richard Lester Musketeers movies and as Scaramanga in The Man with the Golden Gun, in which he so thoroughly outclassed Roger Moore's James Bond that one's sympathies were tipped entirely in the wrong direction ... hurting the picture. Mostly he has played in relatively weak flicks ... but he has been impressive in almost everything he has done. Tonight he appeared before us to hype The Wicker Man, a much ballyhooed suspense film which had premiered the night before ... and which would not be shown here. To a good deal of grumbling, it was announced as we had paid our moneythat instead of The Wicker Man we would see an unheralded new film called Dark Places.
But I wander.
Lee took the microphone and nervously, I thought, told an encdote of his own about Orson Welles, who directed him in an unreleased version of Moby Dick (Lee played the second mate to Orson's Ahab). He boosted The Wicker Man as the best film he'd ever done, mentioned that he had never seen Dark Places, and mentioned that his autobiography was coming out in England. The publisher's title, he admitted somewhat shamefacedly, was Tall, Dark and Gruesome ... whereas as all could see, was anything but. He then called for questions, and I pause to curse myself for not taking notes. His words deserve to be reported verbatim, whereas paraphrase will have to do. Throughout, Stirling chose the questioners from raised hands in the audience, and occasionally intruded on the answers by trying to repeat the query. But no matter. Lee, dead tired as he was, was fully master of the situation.
Would he play Dracula again? Probably not - he felt he'd done about all there was to do with his interpretation of the character and he was pleased to see that others were taking on the role ... including Louis Jourdan, he noted. He mentioned that he didn't regard many of his so-called "horror" films as that, but as melodramas ... Fu Manchu, for instance.
Is it true that he was once an opera singer? Yes it was. He mentioned that he sang a ditty in The Wicker Man, and urged us al to go see it, for the fifth time.
What was his favorite movie? Hard to say ... but Lee won my eternal devotion when he said that he would have to call Citizen Kane the best movie he'd ever seen ... and he could have had any part of my anatomy that he chose, pickled in alcohol, after he went on to say that Paths of Glory rated very highly with him as well. The man was obviously picking up GHLIII vibes from row 5, or else we share superior tastes in films.
What was his favorite book? Lee smiled and played with his ring. That one was easy. The Lord of the Rings, which he claimed to read "six times yearly." I had just finished my first reading of LotR a few weeks before ... and I loved it ... so again, the tall man before us struck home. And proved himself human (despite most of his roles) when he allowed himself to drop a name (I do the same thing all the time; hell, I'm doing it now): he recalled his own friendship with Tolkien with great fondness. And added some news: he'd been asked to play a part in the upcoming cartoons ... he didn't know which roles, but if ever there was a Gandalf or a Saruman, it is he. [2004 editor's note: Boy, can I call'em!]
What was his first film role? Lee smiled, embarrassed, and told us that he'd borrowed a tux from the director to make the movie and never returned it. I'm sure that Lee would be pleased to know that I've forgotten the title he told us, since he implied that the flick was a dog.
Someone who had heard a radio interview with him earlier that day asked if he'd heard any more Beatles records ... seems that he somehow never heard one before that afternoon "even though," he name-dropped, "I know all four of them quite well." At least he knew that there were four of them. He allowed that the song he'd been treated to earlier was right pretty.
Would he ever make another flick with Peter Cushing? The audience applauded spontaneously at the mention of Lee's old comrade in movie evil. Sincere affection filled Lee's golden voice as he confided in us that Cushing was mostly retired ... having lost his dear wife in 1970,he also lost most of his desire to work. He quoted a letter from Cushing ... "Dear Fellow," it began ... that was how Cushing always began his letters, Christopher Lee said. Lee had invited Cushing to come make films with him in America, where Lee now lives, and Peter had declined, kindly. "I'll write to him and tell him of the response his name drew here tonight. Perhaps that will change his mind. I know it will move him greatly."
Had he seen The Exorcist?, asked an asshole two rows down. No, Lee said, and there was a touch of ice in his voice. For purely personal reasons. "I have a daughter 14 years of age." "I thought it was funny," the boob pressed him. Lee ducked and swam on to the next question. How many languages did he speak? The answer: several ... and he reads and writes Greek.
Someone asked him if he was wearing Bela Lugosi's original Dracula ring, and he said no, just a replica, and that only as tribute to Lugosi. The real ring was in the possession of Forrest J Ackerman, and it was nice to hear the mention of a familiar name. When I muttered "Forry," despite myself, Lee looked up and said "Yes," acknowledging the familiar nickname. (I've seen that ring, at the first Famous Monsters convention in 1974, I went up to Ackerman and kissed it. You got your Pope, I got mine.)
From the back of the auditorium an inevitable, yet incredibly painful, question came. Did Lee believe in the occult? Groans stifled themselves throughout the theatre ... but Lee, thinking perhaps of The Wicker Man, perhaps not, said yes, he did believe that there were dark forces in the world ... he called them "the old religion" ... and to avoid tampering with them at all costs. Hype? Maybe. The Wicker Man deals in such matters. But he sounded serious, so serious that the next question was, had he ever met Anton La Vey? Yes ... who had sent him books inscribed "To a perfect devil."
And I asked a question. He'd made something significant of the difference between horror and melodrama. What then, was horror? What was his personal definition?
And if I do say so, I got the best and most interesting answer of the night. Lee dropped a name again, but it was one he of all people is most entitled to drop. Boris Karloff had told him something that Lon Chaney had said to him: "Whatever we do on the screen, the audience can imagine far worse. What we have to do to is suggest, and let them imagine the worst. Everything is suggestion."
Lon Chaney to Boris Karloff to Christopher Lee ... to me. And five or six hundred other people. (I, however, asked the question.)
Chris Lee stood before us for over an hour, closing, on Smith's suggestion, with the tale of how he won a special belt buckle from the Stunt Men's Association after dangerous underwater work in Airport '77, a beastly flick in which he was criminally wasted. Then he steeped back, accepting our thunderous applause.
There were autographs signed, of course. The man was obviously exhausted, but since he was very willing to sign for one and all, I joiend in, after borrowing the camera of a most beautiful young woman named JoAnn Dilworth to take some shots. He led us out into the lobby and there signed and signed while Dark Places began within, and when at last I was able to place before him the blank envelope filched from Justin Winston's house earlier that evening and secure the signature used in my logo, I managed to work in a namedrop of my own.
"This [autograph] will go well with my Fritz Lang," I said.
"Ah," Lee smiled. "I never met him, alas."
And though Christopher Lee dropped
his names without a trace of the repellant egotism with which
I always drop mine ... and though Christopher Lee filled that
room and that evening with an enormous grace and good will the
like of which such a cur as I could never approach ... I allowed
myself the thought that I had had two pleasures this gentle,
civilized master monster would never have: meeting Fritz Lang,
and discovering Christopher Lee.
Oh yes, the movies. I returned to my seat and enjoyed Dark Places, a pretty good haunted house meller with a nice surprise twist. Lee does little in the film, however, playing support to an unknown British actor and Joan Collins ... you know, of the 21st Street Mission.
The next day I took Lee at his word and drove the 90 miles to Baton Rouge. There The Wicker Man was in its third day. And despite a very hokey introduction I found that the film was quite intriguing, original, and even compelling, dealing with paganism from a rather unique standpoint. I hope that Britt Eklund's nude dance sequence isn't cut when the film has its general distribution, because not only is it extremely erotic, it's also subtly disturbing ... in a non-sexual way. Not the greatest thing since sliced salami, but an interesting movie ...
And I had to go see it, anyway. I felt as if I owed it to Christopher Lee.