Six years ago the great Christopher Lee passed away at the ripe old age of 93. Legend of the 7th Art with iconic roles, the actor also had a life that was more than once confused with great history. Here are some examples.
For the most cinephiles, he was the very incarnation of Count Dracula in the horror classics of the Hammer. Unforgettable Scaramanga in The man with the golden gun facing agent 007, Christopher Lee has also passed down to posterity – at least among the younger generations – for his incarnation of the sorcerer Saruman in the river saga of the Lord of the Rings, at Peter Jackson.
Prolific actor with such a serious and distinguished voice showing on the counter more than 230 roles just for the cinema, this giant of 1m98, big fan of metal music in front of the eternal even to the point of recording a symphonic metal album in 2010 at the age of 87, was a true jack of all trades. Actor of course, but also producer, speaker, musician, opera singer, and even photographer.
Leaving us at the ripe old age of 93 in 2015, Christopher Lee has had a life that has more than once blended with great history; witness and sometimes actor of incredible slices of life. Here are some examples.
He witnessed the last public execution in France
On June 17, 1939, in Versailles, a murderer of German origin, Eugen Weidmann, aged 31, was sentenced to death for six assassinations committed in France, with the help of three accomplices. Villainous crimes aimed at robbing the victims, sometimes for derisory sums.
The scaffold is planned in front of the gates of Saint-Pierre prison, in the center of Versailles. The execution is public: for several hours, people have already started to gather, between journalists and photographers who elbow to be in the front row of the show; the simple curious, and, already, the partisans of the abolition of the death penalty.
Usually, executions take place at dawn. But on this day of June 17, 1939, the sun is already very high. It is because a grain of sand has come to thwart a process that has hitherto been rather unchanging. An error, unless it is a disagreement between the executioner named Jules-Henri Desfourneaux and the prosecutor of Versailles about the time of the execution, causes a delay of 45 minutes. When Weidmann appears in front of the crowd, he is strafed by photographers and even extensively filmed, making it the largest series of images of an execution ever made.
Here is a filmed extract of the execution … And to think that there, somewhere in the crowd, is the future interpreter of Saruman …
Very agitated, the crowd even manages to overwhelm the security service. Among her, a young British teenager is at the forefront of the disastrous scene: Christopher Lee. Then aged 17, the future actor was brought in by a journalist friend of his family, without really knowing what to expect …
The interested party recounted the scene in his autobiography, Lord of disorder. Describing the “mighty wave of howls and screams” rising from the crowd when the condemned man arrived, Lee confided that he had not been able to watch the execution himself, looking away; also evoking the spectators who “had rushed towards the corpse, uttering horrible cries. Some had not hesitated to soak handkerchiefs and scarves in the blood spilled on the pavement, as a souvenir”. Already in 1998 at the microphone of France Culture, he evoked in perfect French (he was a polyglot) this memory which will haunt his memory. “I turned my head, but I heard”, imitating the sound of the ax falling on the condemned man’s head.
This public execution turns into a political scandal. So much so that on June 24, 1939, the President of the Council Édouard Daladier promulgated a decree-law suppressing public capital executions, after that of Eugène Weidmann. These must take place within the confines of the prisons out of sight of the crowd. The display at the entrance to the place of execution for a period of 24 hours of the copy of the execution report of the convicted person will henceforth remain the only legally authorized advertising.
He met Rasputin’s assassin!
Like a tasty and macabre irony, many years before he lent his features to Rasputin, the mad monk in 1965, one of his famous roles, Christopher Lee had the opportunity to meet during his youth the one who murdered the monk fanatic one evening in December 1916: Prince Félix Ioussoupov, husband of Grand Duchess Irina Alexandrovna, niece of Tsar Nicolas II. So…