Christopher Lee is easily the best screen Dracula behind Bela Lugosi. In a series of nine Hammer Dracula films, Lee starred as the iconic monster in eight of them (he stepped out of The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires). Lee's Dracula was not campy (as some of the films most certainly were) but imposing and terrifying, especially in the 1958 Technicolor original, wherein Dracula was depicted as physically powerful for the first time in cinema history.
A good 20 to 30 of Lee's films were made for Hammer studios, where Lee starred in several Sherlock Holmes films as well, once again tackling one of fiction's most cinematically adapted characters.(As far as I know, he never played Tarzan.) Lee had previously played Lord Baskerville to Peter Cushing's Holmes, but in 1962, he played Holmes himself, who got embroiled in with case of Cleopatra's missing necklace. Lee would also go on to play Mycroft Holmes in the 1970 film The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. Oddly enough, he never played Moriarty.
The current generation may not be familiar – or even racially comfortable – with the famous villain of Fu Manchu. Fu Manchu, introduced in 1933, is essentially one of the first modern supervillains, and all criminal masterminds with cults and thugs at their disposal – especially those in faraway exotic locales – can be directly traced to him. Many movies, books, radio serials, and the like featured Fu Manchu, and many actors played him. None better than Christopher Lee. Sure, he was given offensive “slant eye” makeup, but if one can look past the dated racial stereotypes (a big "if"), one can still find Lee standing tall, being deliciously villainous.
Robin Hardy's 1973 classic The Wicker Man is often called one of the best horror films of the 1970s, and it often makes its way onto lists of the best horror films of all time. A feckless cop is called to a remote island off the coast of Scotland to investigate a disappearance, only to discover a bizarre modern cult of human-sacrificing druids. Lee plays the Lord of the isle as a distressingly friendly, yet standoffish kook. Like most of his roles, Lee lends authority to an already scary movie.
Richard Lester's two-part adaptation of Alexandre Dumas' The Three Musketeers remains - sorry, Disney fans - the absolute best version of this swashbuckling adventure. A big part of that is the thrilling sword fights (all of them are marvelous), but mostly it's the cast: Michael York, Oliver Reed, Richard Chamberlain and Frank Finlay play the Musketeers, and Charlton Heston, Faye Dunaway and Christopher Lee play the dastardly villains. Lee is particularly smug and devious as Rochefort, the one-eyed henchman who humiliates D'Artagnan and keeps coming back to destroy him further. Lee clearly has a lot of fun playing this aristocratic fiend, who unlike many of the actor's most memorable villains isn't so much a monster as an amiable, corrupt jerk.
He has a powerful weapon. He charges a million a shot. An assassin that's second to none: the man with the golden gun. Although the ninth of the James Bond movies (and the second with Roger Moore) is rarely praised amongst James Bond fans, I would like to defend it as being immensely entertaining, mostly due to Lee's wonderfully sleazy performance as the open-shirted, beach-dwelling super-assassin Mr. Scaramanga, that man who really does use a golden gun. He also has a dwarf assistant played by Hervé Villechaize.
Many of Lee's fans know that he was a prolific singer and heavy metal musician in addition to being an actor. (There was nothing he didn't do; ask about his military career sometime.) Despite this, Lee only made one outright musical in his life, a 1983 oddity called The Return of Captain Invincible, directed by Philippe Mora. Lee plays the film's villain, natch, a man named Mr. Midnight who mocks the good captain (Alan Arkin) for his alcoholism. In song. Yeah, this one is weird enough to seek out.
Would you believe that, up until 1985, Christopher Lee had never been in a werewolf film? That was, at least according to some interviews, the only reason Lee agreed to appear in this pretty off-the-wall lycanthropy film with more bare breasts than your average Zalman King movie. Although many of his roles are deathly serious, Lee can never be accused of not having a bonkers sense of humor. The man always knew what he was doing. I picture him chuckling at the screenplay in his backyard, sipping tea, and thinking “Why the heck not?” Also, he got to lay one on Sybil Danning.
Actually, this movie is pretty bad. It was made at a time when Alejandro Jodorowsky was no longer a cult icon, and was struggling to get films made. When he did, well, they were confusing mishmashes like The Rainbow Thief, a movie about a friendly criminal who babysits a mad aristocrat in the sewers. Lee, however, seemed eager to work with well-known and interesting auteurs, so it only make sense that he agreed to make a film with Jodorowsky. Lee only has a small part, but he is no less authoritative.
Case in point, by the time the 1990s had rolled around, Lee had shifted many of his performance into self-tribute, as evidenced by his roles in Joe Dante's Gremlins 2: The New Batch and Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow. The former is a swirling childish sugar rush or awesome monster effects, and Lee parodies many of his old roles by playing a clueless mad scientist who tampers with genetics just for fun. Sleepy Hollow was clearly a tribute to Hammer films of old, so it only makes sense that Lee should appear in a cameo, kind of putting his unofficial Hammer stamp on the project.
Playing an elderly evil wizard in the long-awaited Lord of the Rings film adaptation seemed like a logical step for Lee, and it may be an entire generation's introduction to him. As Saruman, Lee tapped into his own film history, his talents, and his imposing stature to bring a fantasy villain to disturbing life. He was the perfect counterpoint to the relatively gentle Ian McKellan's Gandalf.
And speaking of evil wizards, the sci-fi equivalent of Saruman would have to be the amusingly named Count Dooku, one of the evil emperor's minions in George Lucas' oft (and perhaps justly) maligned Star Wars II. The movie itself is a mess, of course, but there came a point where Count Dooku was forced to face off against the little green wizard gnome Yoda. The movie may have been sloppy, but there is a strange campy thrill in watching Christopher Lee in a black cloak having a lightsaber battle with a bouncing Yoda cartoon.