Saturday 22 February 2014

interview: Christopher Lee

I interviewed the legendary Christopher Lee on 29th January 1996 in a hotel in London. He was promoting the documentary video The Many Faces of Christopher Lee, which gave me the opportunity to ask about many different parts of his career. This was of course well before Lord of the Rings or Attack of the Clones - his most recent credit at the time was John Landis' children's film The Stupids. Christopher Lee is very tall and quite scary and unfailingly polite but firm. He's the last of the horror greats. (He also has the most extraordinary CV which constantly throws up surprises, as witness the 1992 British animated version of Beauty and the Beast, which was still largely undocumented when I found a copy in 2005.)

Whose idea was the new video? How did they approach you?
"I got a call to my agent from Lumiere, who anyway have brought out quite a lot of my films on video. They wanted to do a video on me: clips of some of my films, and me talking on screen about the films. So in a sense it's an autobiography on celluloid. As far as I know, it's never been done. And there is easily enough for a second one. Because they had to cut a lot of course to get it down to 55 minutes. It took two days to shoot. Somebody had the idea - I didn't suggest it - and the approach was made to me and my agent. When I was told about this I said, 'Of course.' It's a great privilege for an actor to be asked to discuss his or her career on film.

"I did it in a book called The Films of Christopher Lee, which came out in America from Scarecrow Press, but of course that only goes up to about 1983. There were stills from every film, many of which were not chosen by me, and the reproduction in some cases was terrible. The brought this book out, and the interesting thing about it, it wasn't just the film, the cast, the crew. They'd got the reviews in. And I discussed each picture. So we're doing this again, but this time we're doing it on film."

To many people, the one face of Christopher Lee is still Dracula. Do you think your identification with the role has been a help or a hindrance?
"Let me tell you something, and it was proved only the other day. Wherever I go in the world - and that's nearly everywhere over a period of time - people come up to me and they do one of three things. First of all: 'Are you Christopher Lee?' 'Yes.' The next comment is, 'I'm a big fan.' The next question is, 'Can I shake your hand?' 'Of course.' The next question is, 'Can I have your autograph?' 'Of course.' I've never refused one. The final comment - this is worldwide, 99.9 times out of a hundred - and this is the public, not the press: they say, 'I enjoy your films. You have given me so much pleasure over the years.' They do not say, 'I like your Hammer movies,' or, 'I loved you playing that particular part.' They don't say that.

"The letters I get; it's amazing that at my age, after all these years, I'm still getting at least 20 a day. Which is a lot - it works out at 150 a week - when you're my age and you've done all the things I've done. From all over the world - Uzbeckistan I had one from the other day. I'm trying to work out what on Earth they saw. Probably in the old days of the Soviet regime, when the sailors went ashore they saw things they normally weren't allowed to sea in Russia. So that explains it to a certain extent. But that's what they say.

"Now, I said this to this journalist, who looked a bit dubious. As we walked out of the place where I was being interviewed, two people came up and said, 'Can I have your autograph?' The journalist was standing right beside me, and the next thing was, 'We do enjoy your movies so much.'

"Let me explain something to you: the reason why people associate me with that particular character is three reasons. One: it was a tremendous launching pad for me as an actor. There's no question about that, I've never denied it, I shall always be grateful. It made my name known and my face known, the two went together. They don't always, but they did then, all over the world. Secondly, by force of circumstances, it became very effective, all over the world. Thirdly, people who saw the original films, of my generation or older - we're talking 38 years ago, the first one, and we're talking about 25 years ago for the last one - they remember them, but not to the exclusion of everything else. The other people latch on because of television and video. These are of course repeats all over the world.

"As we are talking now, somebody is watching one of those films. Some people may not look at the date. They think, 'Oh, that was made a couple of years ago,' or something like that. They do associate me with that character in a contemporary sense which is wildly out of date. Next, some of them - not all of them - became classic films and are shown as an ideal example of how to make a movie of that kind. Lastly, it's the old familiar story of sloppy journalism, because it's so easy to put a label on somebody, which is what they always do with everyone. They still refer to Sean Connery as 007, and they will do the same with Pierce Brosnan, no matter what else he's done. He was far more famous as Remington Steele in his television series, in terms of viewers. Far more people watched that than will ever watch Goldeneye; that's bound to be the case, isn't it? Look how many millions watch television.

"When I hosted Saturday Night Live in New York, the share was 39, which didn't mean anything to me. There were 30-35 million people watching that show. They still show it, and it's still, so far as I know, the third highest rated show they've ever had. So a lot of people in America associate me with Saturday Night Live and remember it very vividly. I think it's a question of what people remember you for in terms of the impact that each performance has made. It's not a question of trying to deny it, but I try to tell people that the public does not come up to me and talk about Dracula all the time because they don't.

"But the press will not accept it. As far as they are concerned, that's the label and you'd better conform. I won't conform and I never have. When people ask me what I do, I say I'm an actor. I leave it at that. It's extraordinary how people won't let go. Another thing is that there was a period between about 1957 and 1970 when I did The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes which completely cracked the type-casting situation. There was a period between those years when I was typecast, not in playing that character, but being in that kind of movie. I was, but so is everyone when they make their name. Connery played Bond seven times, I think Roger did too, and how many times did Peter Sellers play Inspector Clouseau? But look at what else they did! Everybody remembers Clouseau and talks about, 'Is this your dog?', and everybody talks about Sean and Roger in terms of Bond. It could not be more inaccurate, but it's the press that does it. I'm not trying to justify, I'm not making excuses, I'm simply saying that it isn't accurate. There was a time when I did suffer from typecasting, there's no question about it. But I broke that totally by doing The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes and subsequent features: westerns, The Wicker Man, and virtually all the work I did in America between '75 and '85. Half of it was comedy which is not even seen over here. So where's the typecasting? If I was to go through a list of the pictures that I've done in the last 20 years, you would have to agree with me."

Another prevalent name in your CV is the Sherlock Holmes canon: The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace...
"Oh, that was a disaster. That was shot in black and white, and actually in many respects it was excellent. Really good. A marvellous cast; all the top actors in Germany who spoke very good English, and Thorley Walters was my Watson. To this day, nobody can begin to believe that when the film came out it wasn't my voice, in English. But it was shot in English! I've played Holmes twice since then."

You also played Fu Manchu five times. These are both classic Victorian characters, and Sherlock Holmes continues to be popular, people are still making Holmes movies. But apart from that Peter Sellers spoof in 1980 and a couple of other obscurities, nobody has made a Fu Manchu movie since your last one. They're both classic adventure.
"They're melodrama. I can't really answer that. I can only assume that films have now moved away in another direction where, instead of it being an imaginary story about imaginary people, now the public appears to demand far more realism. I didn't say 'reality', I said 'realism'. There was no sex in the Fu Manchu films, the violence was very limited. It was a fairy story, it was a fantasy like many of the Hammer films.

"Also there might possibly be a racist element involved, with people who are Chinese objecting to a power-mad character being Chinese. Although when I played him, as I've said many times, I always tried to play him with an honest dignity, like an old-style war-lord. Like an emperor, with great dignity and with a brilliant brain. In other words, I read the Sax Rohmer books, I met his widow, and I tried to play him the way the author described him, just as I did in the Dracula pictures. Because of the scripts and the stories, I was prevented from doing so. It's as simple as that.

"The subsequent Dracula stories, after the first one, got so far away from the original conception, not only in the character but in the stories themselves, which had absolutely nothing to do with Stoker. The same thing happened with the Fu Manchu films. The producer bought the rights to all Sax Rohmer's stories about Fu Manchu, ignored them and then wrote his own. Something quite beyond me, I can't understand it. But I had read the books as a boy. I knew what the character was, because I knew how the author described him, so I played him the way that the author described him. It wasn't necessarily what was in the script. And the same thing applied to the character that I played in the Dracula movies. I tried to play the character the way that the author described him, but it wasn't in the script.

"I can't really account for that. I really don't know, unless it's a question of being politically correct. These sort of films still have tremendous appeal. What's the difference between a film like that and a melodrama like The Last of the Mohicans, which is also a melodrama based on imaginary people and imaginary stories."

You made Count Dracula in 1970.
"Ah, now that was the nearest to the correct appearance. The film was a disaster. I did all my scenes with Herbert Lom without him being there. He played Van Helsing, we had Klaus Kinski as Renfield: it's not bad casting. And I played all my scenes without anyone. I was playing to absolutely nothing behind the camera, an experience I have had quite frequently, one way or another. There was nobody there, so I was playing to talking to thin air. And so were they, because by the time they arrived, I'd gone.

"I did at least manage to get a bit of one of the great speeches in, because I insisted. And I did at least - and I think it's the only time it's ever happened - portray the character exactly as Stoker described him. As an old man with a white moustache, dressed entirely in black, getting younger and younger throughout the film. Because the film was made on a shoe-string, it was a mess, but it's the only occasion - as far as I know - in the history of the cinema, where he's been properly portrayed physically. Because Gary Oldman didn't do it. He didn't have a moustache, for God's sake! And the first time you saw him he was wearing what looked like a red dress! If you read the book: 'dressed from head to toe in black without a single speck of colour.' That's the quote from the book. Why did they do that? It's something I don't understand."

What did you think of Jess Franco as a director? There's been a heck of a lot written about him in the past few years.
"Yes, and I found out things about Jess that I didn't know, after a period of some years: that he'd made some rather strange films."

To say the least!
"Yes, so I gather. But I didn't know that, and I don't know that it would have made much difference to me. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that quite a few of the major directors in the world have done some questionable films. and a great many of the top directors in the world have done commercials. I don't know whether that would be considered as a step down, but even David Lean did commercials. To do a commercial, of course, is slightly different, to put it mildly.

"But Jess Franco, or Jesus Franco as he is in Spain, is under-rated in my opinion as a director, mainly because, I think, of these other films that people say he's done. As I said, I didn't know. And just because somebody has been involved in the making of what I gather were pornographic films, doesn't mean to say they can't direct, and it doesn't make much difference to me, because that's not the movie we're making. He has a great deal of experience under his belt as a director. After all, I think I'm right in saying he did the battle scenes in Chimes of Midnight for Orson Welles. Welles doesn't choose somebody who doesn't know what they're doing. That's a feather in his cap.

"He's done some very worthwhile things. He's a most amusing man with a great knowledge of the cinema. He's good with actors, he knows what he wants. But he has been so constricted over the years by the budgets: we haven't got time to turn the camera round and put the wall in again, so zoom - instead of close-up, instead of cutting. Everything is zoom to close-up. I remember the first time I met him, it was in the days of Franco, I said with two names like that - Jesus and Franco - you shouldn't have too much trouble in Spain! But he has a great sense of humour. I haven't seen him for years. I think he's under-rated, I've always said so, because he's not just a hack director. It's always a question of material; the same thing applies to actors."

The director you're most associated with from the earliest part of your career is Terence Fisher.
"Well, my career actually started with A Tale of Two Cities, which I think was just before those. That was the first really good part I had. Ralph Thomas directed that."

You worked with Terence Fisher in 1948 on Song for Tomorrow. Was that part of the reason you got the Frankenstein role?
"People ask me, you know, they ask me how did it come about that I was offered the Frankenstein part? Well, I think for once they actually did need a tall man. because I was always told, as you know - I've been quoted enough, and it's true - when I first started as an actor I was told by everybody I was far too tall to be an actor and far too foreign-looking to be in British domestic pictures. Had I been born in the United States, I think my career would have been different, because many of the actors out there were - and are - very tall people. But here, the average British star was considerably shorter than me, and even the taller ones were still an inch or two shorter than me.

"They were the ones who were even more concerned. I'm talking about the men, I'm not talking about the women obviously, because generally speaking women are smaller than men. But that's what I was told, and along comes this character where they wanted a tall man who knew about movement and could express things without dialogue. I honestly don't know. I've been asked that question many times, and I've also been asked how come they asked me to play Dracula, because I think I'm right in saying that the next film I did after the Frankenstein film, I think, was The Mummy or The Hound of the Baskervilles. The Hound of the Baskervilles was, I think, the film after Frankenstein and I played the romantic lead in that. Then The Mummy and then Dracula, or then Dracula and then The Mummy. I can't remember, it's so long ago.

"But people ask me this: 'Why did they ask you to play that part, and then why did they ask you to play that part?' I've no idea, nobody ever told me. There's a marvellous story that I can tell you, because it's true. I don't say things to the press that aren't true. It has been known to happen but not with me. Some years ago, my agent was Dennis Sellinger - still a dear friend, still a busy agent. He said to me, 'You know who Raquel Welch is?' I said, 'Oh yes, I've been reading the papers.' He said, 'Well, she's over here to do a film called One Million Years BC for Hammer with her husband, Patrick Curtis, and they'd like to meet you.' 'Fine, great.'

"So I went along to Dennis' house and Raquel - with whom I subsequently made four films - came in with Patrick Curtis and they were extremely courteous and said some extremely nice things. She turned to her husband and said, 'Tell Christopher what Hammer said about me.' He said, 'Oh yes, you're not going to believe this, but we were talking to one of the Hammer executives' - whom I'm not going to name - 'and one of us said to this man, "You know this actor Christopher Lee who does these films for you, he's enormously popular in the United States, a very big name in the United States." And the answer that came back was, "Yes, we know, but for God's sake don't tell him".''"

Was that because they thought you'd want more money?
"Oh yes, of course. And that leads me into another comment. I turned down - after the first two - every other Dracula film for Hammer because they said, as always, 'Of course we can't pay you, you know?' So I said, 'Well, if you can't pay me, then let's find another way.' I said, 'Anyway the script is terrible. It's further and further away from the character, further and further away from Stoker. You're bringing him into the modern disco age, which I think is quite wrong.'

"So I said to my agent, another person who is dead now, John Breakwell, so I can say this: I said to him, 'John, Hammer wants me to do this.' This went on every year. 'They want me to play the part again. I don't want to do it, because there's nothing in the script. They write the story first and try to fit the character in, which is of course absurd. Totally the wrong way of making the film. I don't want to do it, and now they're saying there's no money. I'll tell you what we'll do, John. You tell them I'll do it for a percentage.' 'Ooh,' he said, 'I can't do that. They'd never agree. Waste of time even asking.' I said, 'John, I'm telling you. You're my agent. I want you to ask for a percentage.' 'Oh, no no no. Wouldn't dream of that. There's no point me even asking about that. You'll never get it, never get a percentage. The idea of getting a percentage out of Hammer...'

"I said, 'Wait a minute. I'm not talking about Hammer. I'm talking about Warners or Universal or whoever - they all put out Hammer pictures.' He practically keeled over. And I kept on saying to him, 'John, ask! They can only say no. Ask! Blame me. Say I'm an impossible client and a difficult man who's greedy and avaricious, or whatever way you like to put it, and you tried to tell me that it wasn't possible, you tried to dissuade me. Say whatever you like so that you don't get any flak. I'll take it all, my shoulders are broad enough. I'll take all the flak, but I don't want to do it unless I am properly rewarded, and as they think only in terms of money, and so do the American distributors, this is one occasion - or two or three or four or five - when I'm going to think along the same lines because it's the only thing they understand.'

"He wouldn't do it, because he felt that if he did, Hammer would have hysterics and say, 'Well, we're not going to use any of that chap's clients.' We live in an industry which is riddled with fear and ignorance, more so now than ever before. Somebody in Hollywood said out there the very air reeks of falsehood. You can actually smell it. When you go to some of these studios, it's true. A very, very important major American director said to me only last year, 'It's getting worse.'

"I'll give you an instance of that: a television executive - I'm not going to name him, and I'm not going to name the network - asked for me to do a series. Because I've turned every single one down, during the time I lived there, ten years. I was always asked to be Guest Star or Special Guest Star. I said, 'I'll be one of 15 special guest stars, and knowing the industry they'll say, "Oh, he's given up movies. He's now TV."' Because you're either films or TV, generally speaking. They won't accept the fact that you've proved them wrong by doing both, any more than some of the producers and casting directors, to this day, won't accept the fact that I've proved them totally wrong for a very long time. I'm not on their lists. Anyway, they asked me to do this, and for various reasons I declined, and that same person who has ultimate authority, he is the person who says yes or no. Even if the rest of them all say yes, he is the one person who says yes or no. My agent in Los Angeles, in the course of discussions about me to do this, he said, 'This executive asked me if another one of my clients, by name James Coburn, had ever done a feature film?'"

Makes you wonder, doesn't it?
"It doesn't make me wonder because that's the way it is. The sheer ignorance, the fact that they don't do their homework, the fact that they don't see the rushes, they don't see the finished product. The fact that casting's now done in terms of salary. If you get 15 million and the next person gets twelve, you'll get it. If you get five million and I get four, you'll get it. You must be better, you get paid more! You must have a bigger deal! The lunatics really have taken over the asylum, they really have, and it's been the case like that for many years."

What about the British film industry?
"Well, there isn't one!"

You've done a couple of low budget movies in the past few years.
"And one of them was one of the best pictures I've ever been in."

A Feast at Midnight.
"It's a completely enchanting and delightful film of which I am very proud, and everybody should be who was concerned with it, because everybody worked for nothing. This is one attempt by a group of people - technicians and cast - to make an impact with a picture which can be referred to as a film made totally in Britain with British money, British technicians, British cast, and it's good! And we can make more and more and more. Let's roll over and make another one.

"But the London press; there were four reviews that I shall never forget. And these are reviews! One said the budget was so low, how could a British film with such a low budget possibly compete with the equivalent made in the United States for young people, with enormous budgets like Jurassic Park. In other words, how could we hope to compete with Jurassic Park? That is a review!"

But it's not trying to compete with Jurassic Park.
"I'm still saying: that is a review! Another review was: the production qualities weren't all that good. We shot it in a real boys' school. Oh no, the production values weren't good enough. We shot it in the school. That's a review. I'm not suggesting that because it's a British film, the British press - 'critics' if you want to call them that - should all say it's the best film ever made. What I am saying is that they should point out the positive aspects of the film, rather than what they think are the negative aspects. To say in the review that the film wasn't expensive enough - which is effectively what somebody was saying; that the budget wasn't big enough - when the idea is to make it as cheaply as you can, so you make a profit and can then make another movie, is not a review.

"The other one - to say that production values weren't very good - is not a review, when it's shot in a real school. You begin to think that we don't deserve to have an industry if the critics - these were London critics, who gave me an award, the year before last. I received an award from the London critics. And yet the next year, three or four of them come up with reviews of a film which aren't reviews at all. Nothing about the technical work, nothing about the performance, nothing about the script, nothing about the director, nothing. Those were reviews!

"How are we ever going to have an industry? How are we ever going to make a picture that's successful, which then rolls over into another one and another one, and gradually builds up the industry from scratch, if this is going to be the reaction of some of the critics. I think it's inexcusable, I think it's unforgivable. They're perfectly at liberty to say that they didn't like me or my acting or something like that, but that isn't a review of a film either. Somebody else said the boys weren't very good. Well, I've got a quote from Joe Dante: 'The kids were terrific!'

"What do they expect? As long as they continue to knock British pictures, we will never have an industry. Again, I am not saying that they must say that everything we make is wonderful. The real reason we haven't got an industry is for far too long, for far too many years, we have made far too many films which cost far too much, and which have not been successful. As long as we concentrate on the domestic market and domestic stories, we will never have an industry. We have got to make films with international appeal, in terms of the story, and we've got to put people in who are more known outside this country. We've got to! Or we won't ever ever ever have an industry.

"Four Weddings and a Funeral was one movie, and I honestly wonder what would have happened if that had come out here first instead of America. One of the other reviews, which I've just remembered: 'Let's face it, this film is all about privileged people, and who cares?' That was a review! So when I read this, I asked the PR people - and you can quote me - 'I would be very interested to know what that particular reviewer' - I won't call him a critic - 'said about Four Weddings and a Funeral.' Because logically he had to have said the same thing, exactly: 'Let's face it, this film is all about privileged people, and who cares?' Oh no, he didn't because by that time the film was a huge success."

There has been talk for years of Hammer reviving itself.
"I've heard that many times. I've no idea. Hammer basically consists of one man."

Roy Skeggs.
"Yes. He is Hammer, as far as I know. I had lunch with him. We talked about The Devil Rides Out, and he said that they were going to remake some of their films. I said, 'Well, I hope that you do not consider remaking the ones that really made you famous. In other words: FrankensteinDracula, The Mummy.' 'Oh no. We wouldn't do that. I think we might consider remaking Quatermass, because of the advances in special effects.' And of course The Devil Rides Out would be a huge hit! Because it was pretty good at the time. Think of what you can do with special effects now in a story like that which is all about apparitions and hallucinations, possession and evilness and Satanism. But all I've ever heard is talk, and all I've ever seen is, 'Yes, we're going to do this,' and, 'Yes, we're going to do that.' But to the best of my knowledge it's never gone any further. Certainly, nobody's approached me."

What about this Edgar Allan Poe TV series that you've made?
"I was asked if I would host a 13-episode series. There's always thirteen. I've never really found out why, but obviously there is a reason. I was asked by the South Africans if I would go to Croatia, where I'd already made a film with Pierce Brosnan which was on last night on Satellite. It was called Death Train by Alastair Maclean. I spoke only Russian in 99 per cent of the picture. I was watching it last night because I couldn't remember having seen it. When it went out in America, the producer told me that it went out on the USA Network and that they had subtitles for all the Russian I was speaking, which was very important in terms of the plot. I watched this film last night; I can't believe what I'm looking at.

"Because there's the film, there I am, speaking Russian, non-stop; no subtitles whatsoever. How is anyone supposed to follow it? The only people who will follow it are people who speak Russian. Extremely important, vitally important, because it explains everything that I was doing. No subtitles. Amateurs, amateurs.

"Anyway, I was asked to host or introduce thirteen - well actually twelve - classic stories of Edgar Allan Poe. Because ‘The Masque of the Red Death’, in which I actually appeared was two episodes because it was very long. So I went to Croatia, I did all the introductions, and then I left. Then they made six or seven films in Croatia with British actors and actresses: Freddie Jones, Susan George, Simon MacCorkindale (I think). The remainder were made in South Africa. I actually did do ‘Masque of the Red Death’ last April. I've no idea what's happened to it."

I'll chase up what's happening on that, try and get some stills
"I wouldn't mind some too. I was promised some stills of ‘The Masque of the Red Death’, which I was not very happy about actually. It was all very well performed, but the real star was the cameraman, Rod Stuart, because he made it all look so good. But when you find yourself shooting in a house in Johannesburg, and you suddenly realise that there are doors behind you with glass windows and doorknobs, and this is supposed to be around 1200. And heavy, Dutch, dark wood furniture. I thought, 'God, I hope they don't show too much of this.'"

Another project you've done recently is doing the voice of Death for the Discworld cartoon.
"Oh yes, but I haven't finished that. I've got two more recording sessions. There are three books, I understand, and I've been told that when I've completed the voice - it's very amusing, by the way, extremely amusing. When I've completed the voice of the first book, which I'm doing in three sessions, that I'll be asked to do the second book and the third book, provided that various questions can be resolved as to who owns what, in terms of rights and things like that. Very amusing indeed."

Had you read any of the books?
"No, well I have to say I hadn't but I have now. And Death is very amusing, and of course he's in all three books."

He's in every book in the series; they're up to 18 now, and he's in all of them.
"Oh, well it looks as if I might have a good future then!"

What do you remember of your role in Space: 1999?
"Interesting. I'm not sure about this, but I have a feeling that it was one of the first television series ever made - certainly in this country - about outer space. Television shows, not films. It may have been one of the very first ever. Because I don't know if Star Trek had started then. This was 1973."

Star Trek was actually late '60s.
"Well, then it wasn't the first in the world, by any stretch of the imagination. But I have a feeling it was the first here. Martin Landau, and his wife, Barbara Bain. The sequence I did was with Roy Dotrice. I think I was one of the first persons to play an alien on British television. But you'd need to check that. But then of course, in my career I've been the first actor to do this or that a great many times. It's very strange; a lot of the pictures I've been in or been connected with have become cult films. They were before their time."

One such cult film that I was pleased to see covered on the video was The Return of Captain Invincible.
"Yes. The story itself is a very amusing and witty story. You can't ask for anyone better than Alan Arkin who, apart from Peter Ustinov, is I think quite honestly the most all-round talented man I've ever met in my life. He's a writer - I've got some of his books - he's a composer, he plays several musical instruments. He produces, he directs, he acts. The man is amazing. He's also a wonderful person, and I'm devoted to him. Marvellous sense of humour. Quite apart from anything else, the songs were so good.

"And one of my great friends, who's probably the number one opera singer in the world today, he's a bass so you'd have to say the number one opera bass in the world today, is an American called Samuel Ramey. He wrote to me and said, 'I've just seen this.' I said, 'Well, I don't want any critical comments about my singing, thank you, from an opera singer.' He said, 'It's terrific.' And I said, 'What you're really saying is that the song, the number in it about the drinks, it's brilliant!' It was written by O'Brien and Hartley and there are about 36 drinks in the song. It's a mixture of rock, operatic, anything you like.

"You see, if you don't promote a picture, if you don't do any publicity on it, if you don't advertise it, if you don't have the right kind of posters, or if you don't talk about it or the people don't appear on television or talk like I'm talking to you, who's going to know it's on? I remember Francis Coppola talking to me: 'What would anybody know about The Godfather if they didn't read about it or see people talking about it on television.?' If you don't promote something, who's going to know about it?"

They never even put out a soundtrack album.
"Wonderful music, wonderful music. But that's very much the story of my life as an actor; films that are before their time. Cult movies, if you like."

One role I was surprised to find that you'd played was Faust. What was Catharsis in 1963?
"A very strange film. It was done in black and white. I don't think anybody, including myself and possibly the director, quite knew what it was all about. I was playing an old man, without the right kind of make-up, who turns, in a sense, into the Devil. It's so complicated that I can't remember the story. I remember the director apparently committed suicide not very long after making the film. Whether that was as a result of seeing the rushes or the rough cut or whether it was what somebody said, I really don't know.

"It's a very strange film. I've never actually seen it but I've got some stills from it, where I'm the old man with white hair and a young face. They didn't have the time to do 'old' make-up, so to speak. And there's some marvellous stills of me as the Devil. But I've no idea what happened to the film, except that I did make it."

Are all your films still in existence, or have any of them been lost?
"I know one picture where the negative was lost."

The Wicker Man.
"Well, if you believe that. I can't say that I do. I'm firmly convinced, for various reasons that we won't go into, that the negative of that film and the out-takes do exist somewhere but are being deliberately hidden, and have been ever since we wanted them. Because we shot every word of that brilliant script. Oh, wonderful. What you saw on the screen, marvellous as it is, it's almost a shadow of what was in the script, what we shot, because we shot every word. Of course it's not possible to have every word we said used in the film. It would have been too long. But if we'd done a little bit of retouching, a bit of this and a bit of that, the film would have been a masterpiece.

"It's close to that already. And that is a cult film. And it became one from the first time it came. That is an incredible story. In fact, if you ever read the magazine Cinefantastique, they devoted an entire issue to the film and the story behind it. It went through seven distributors or something, and there's a long version, there's a short version. The negative has never been seen again since the time we first looked for it."

The version that's out on video is even shorter. Does it annoy you when your films get cut like that?
"Well, it does the case of that film. I think it's disgraceful. Because it's a remarkable and outstanding picture; one of the best pictures ever made in my opinion, and most people would agree with that. When you say, 'The Wicker Man', everybody all over the world says, 'Ah.' And I've presented it in countries like Spain and Italy and Egypt at various film festivals as the best picture I've ever been in and the best part I've ever had, because it was written for me. If something goes wrong with some of the films I've been in, or they don't turn out the way you hope they'll turn out, which frequently happens: 'This is not the film I made. This is not the performance I gave.' If it's been cut to ribbons, or badly put together or badly shot or whatever, you have to accept that because that's the way the industry functions or doesn't function. There's an awful lot of amateurs still around. So you say to yourself, 'What a pity' because on the printed page it was good. So that's happened. You just have to be resigned to that sort of thing. There's no point getting upset about it.

"But as far as The Wicker Man is concerned, to this day - and that's 24 years later - to this day I'm outraged about what happened to that film: the disappearance of the negative and the out-takes. That is an outstanding and remarkable and brilliant film, and it should have been recut, in my opinion, then we really would have had something, which we're proud of anyway, but even more so. I'd even be prepared to pay for the film to be recut if we could find it."

That was the interview proper, but one regular feature of an SFX interview in those days was always a section where the subject summed up their memories of particular films or books or, in this case, roles:

"A character that is romantic, heroic and erotic, doomed to immortality, a terrible fate. Sadness is the main element in a character like that, and that's the right way to play a character like that. And I read the book. It's all there in Stoker's book, and I put that onto the screen, because nobody could tell me how to play that part and nobody ever did."

Frankenstein's creature
"We weren't allowed to copy the famous make-up that Boris wore because that was Universal copyright, so we were shooting in the dark totally. One of the critics said that I looked like a road accident, which actually is what one would look like if you were literally patched together from bits and pieces of other people. Provided you accept the fact that those sort of transplants could take place. And God knows, since we made that film, they have taken place. The only transplant, as far as I know, that hasn't happened - and it certainly will one day - is a brain transplant. But everything else - put together from bits and pieces of other people - has virtually happened.

"That was important to me because up till then I had been told I was too tall and too foreign-looking. So I decided, quite specifically and quite carefully that I would play that part where I would become completely unrecognisable. Then if it was successful, people would say - as they did - 'I wonder what he really looks like.'"

Sherlock Holmes
"I'm one of - good heavens - how many actors have played Sherlock Holmes? The first time I played him was in Germany in 1963. You know the story of that. They put somebody else's voice in, but it was pretty good actually, along those lines. The second time I was in a Holmes film, I had the great privilege of working with one of the greatest directors of all time, Billy Wilder. I played his brother Mycroft. Dear Bob Stephens was Holmes. Then I played him twice on television with Patrick Macnee.

"Holmes is Holmes. What can I add to it? I had to try and suggest the amazing brain, the analytical ability - based on Dr Joseph Bell, we are told - and still portray what the author wrote. People seem to forget that so often. They give their interpretation. Holmes was a drug addict; he was therefore slightly unbalanced in some respects. He had a brilliant brain; he was physically very courageous and a master of styles combat. He could be charming when he wanted to, but there was a very cold side to Holmes, sarcastic and unkind, even to Watson.

"I try always, where there is a book or a story, to be the character that the author wrote about. Holmes is an immortal; Dracula is an immortal; Fu Manchu, to a certain extent, is an immortal. And so I've been fortunate enough to play a lot of immortal characters, who won't ever die."

Fu Manchu
"He happens to be Oriental. A man like Holmes describes Moriarty: 'the Napoleon of crime' with a brain to match. A man of great power, of great ability, amazing brain and all that, who happens to be Chinese. I tried to play him like a superior warlord, almost like a priest. Because you must always do that, you must never condescend to those sort of characters."

The Mummy
"That was very difficult, because of course that was done without speaking. I don't speak for the entire picture. Or did I? Maybe I did say something at the very beginning when the princess was buried. I may have come up with some of the prayers. But of course after I'd had my tongue cut out there wasn't very much I could say.

"That was a very difficult film, very demanding, probably physically the toughest picture I've ever had to make, because I do everything with body movement, in terms of suggesting feelings, reactions. All you could see were the eyes. Physically very, very tough because I had to smash through glass, had explosions all over my body, smashed through a locked door which was bolted with a chain on the inside, which somebody had done without thinking. Then I had to carry these girls out here, to the full extent of my arms. Because they were unconscious they couldn't put their arms around my neck to help me, and I had to carry them both eight yards several times.

"Then at the end I had to carry Yvonne Furneaux, hold her above the water and the mud at the full extent of my arms, crashing into all these pipes and things underneath the mud in the tank. That was a really tough picture. Physically tough and difficult in terms of performance because it could only be done with the eyes and the body."

"Ian Fleming was my cousin. Ian Fleming wanted me to play Doctor No. By the time he got around to suggesting it, the producer said, 'Well, we've already cast another actor.' By the time I came to play Scaramanga, Ian was gone. I just hope that he enjoyed it. The important thing about playing Scaramanga - who incidentally was a boy who was at Eton with Ian, who disliked him so much he decided to make him into one of his villains.

"Ian wrote the book and the character was just a thug. What the director and the writer did was to make him into a man who was totally lethal but who had great charm and was most amusing and could be very witty. In other words, a human being. So many of the Bond villains have been cardboard cut-outs and they've just been irredeemably bad from start to finish, but Scaramanga was completely different because he got the chance to be entertaining, attractive, polite, amusing and lethal. With every part I've played, I've always tried to produce something unexpected on the screen, something unconventional that people won't expect. And I think to a great extent I've succeeded."

"I can only go on what I've read, and what I've been told by people who knew him. When I was a small boy, I met two of the people involved in the assassination: Prince Yusupoff himself and the Grand Duke Dimitri, cousin of the Tsar. Many years later, I played the character in '65.

"In '76 I met Maria Rasputin, the daughter; he had three illegitimate children. She'd seen the film, she said I looked like him. I said, 'Surely Madam, your father wasn't quite as tall as me and he had blue-grey eyes.' She said, 'That's not what I mean: the expression.' Don't ask me what she meant by that. Then in 1981 my wife and I went to the house in what is now Saint Petersburg where the whole thing took place.

"The story of the dreadful Rasputin is very well known and I believe it's been done recently again in Saint Petersburg, with Alan Rickman, on a much bigger scale of course. This was a Hammer film. I tried to play the man as he was: an enigma, a mystery, a misty creature - you couldn't really find him. He was part saint, part sinner, like we all are - more sinner than saint - who had extraordinary authentic powers of healing, who was a terrible lecher and a fearful drunk. But that's the way he was. And that's the historical Rasputin. How else could I play him?

"You're always confined by what's in the script, but I played the character that most of the world recognises as Grigori Rasputin, the monk who had the influence over the Tsarina and through her over the Tsar, who could cure the haemophilia of the heir to the throne. He even did it by telegram once, and then wrote a letter which I've seen: 'Russian Tsar, if anything happens to me ... the Romanoff house will come to an end.' That was probably the most interesting character I've ever played because we really don't know the answer, even now. His daughter gave me a book she'd written about him. She was so nice to me, I had my picture taken with her. She looked just like him, except for the beard of course. She said, 'You came very close.' She wasn't particularly sympathetic to the portrayal."

Mr Sender
"I'm not sure that I can discuss that because the film hasn't come out. The film is called The Stupids. Tom Arnold plays Stanley Stupid, and he has a wife and two children, all called Stupid. I think it's a very funny movie. I play their adversary, not a very big part, but that doesn't matter. This is very European, as opposed to American. Some of the big stars will happily do a day in a film - Orson Welles said that - if it's an important contribution and people will remember it. But you won't get that from an American leading actor because the agent won't allow it; not enough commission. All I can say is that it's most amusing. That's all I can say at the moment because if I say anything else then I'm giving the story away.

"But the most important part of all was Lord Summerisle because it was written for me by one of the best writers of all, who'd just had tremendous success with Sleuth."

interview originally posted before November 2004

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