Christopher Lee‘s association with Bond goes beyond Francisco Scaramanga from his role in The Man With The Golden Gun. Lee was in fact step-cousin to Ian Fleming and knew each other fairly well. His mother, Evelyn, then married Harcourt George St Croix Rose, a banker and uncle of Ian Fleming.
Lee’s military past was just as illustrious as Fleming’s. As well as fighting for the Special Operations Executive or SOE, he also volunteered to fight for Finland in the Winter War prior to WW2. During WW2 he fought in North Africa, and saw the concentration camps first hand while working for the Central Registry of war Criminals and Security Services. Here, he was tasked with helping to track down Nazi war criminals.
“We were given dossiers of what they’d done and told to find them, interrogate them as much as we could and hand them over to the appropriate authority … We saw these concentration camps. Some had been cleaned up. Some had not.”
Of Fleming, Lee had this to say in his autobiography:
“His mind was dry and cool – one might wonder if he had ever ben shaken or stirred. Like the hero of his thrillers, he could sometimes seem heartless in shrugging away the praise given to able people who had served him well. And he was 14 years my senior: surveying me quizzically with the cigarettein its tortoise shell holder set a a slant, he could seem daunting.”
Possibly the first and only time any one could out-daunt Christopher Lee!
It was golf however, that would begin the realization of bringing Lee closer to Bond’s world. Both he and Ian were members at the Royal St. George golf club in Sandwich; they played a round that Fleming actually drew inspiration from, for his golf scene in Goldfinger.
Lee on being approached for the role of Dr. No:
“I used to play golf with him, and I remember him asking me on the links if I wanted to play Dr No, which was about to go into production.”
Fleming asked Lee:
“One of my books is to be filmed. Have you ever read Dr. No? I want you to play Dr. No if you will. You’d suit the part! I asked them to offer you the part.”.
Lee goes on to say:
“But by the time he got round to mentioning it to [Bond producers] Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, they’d cast another actor.”
That actor was Joseph Wiseman, who admirably portrayed Dr. No but it would have been fascinating to have seen Lee play the role. In the end, Lee did become a Bond villain, portraying Francisco Scaramanga opposite Roger Moore in The Man With the Golden Gun. Lee said of his performance,
“In Fleming’s novel he’s just a West Indian thug, but in the film he’s charming, elegant, amusing, lethal… I played him like the dark side of Bond.”
Chris Nashawaty of Entertainment Weekly argued that Scaramanga is the best villain of the Roger Moore James Bond films. Moore said of working with Lee:
“Oh, Christopher’s lovely. I met him first in 1948. I’d just come out of the army with 30 other hopeful young actors playing stage-door Johnnies in a film called Trottie True. I remember Christopher looking down his nose at me and saying, “If you’d been in the forces with me, you would have stood to attention whenever you spoke to me!”
Some thirty years later he would reprise the role by providing the voice of Scaramanga in the video game GoldenEye: Rogue Agent.
Was Christopher Lee a spy himself?
It has been rumoured, that he was in the Special Operations Executive, part of an elite “secret army” charged with encouraging sabotage behind enemy lines.
Lee: “I don’t go into that. If I had any deadly secrets I wouldn’t still be alive. I remember being on Terry Wogan’s programme once, with John Gardner, who was the first man to get permission to write new Bond novels. Ian Fleming was my cousin, you know. He was in naval intelligence. And my sister worked for Ultra [the top secret code-breaking enterprise based at Bletchley Park] in the war. I didn’t know until years later. Anyway, Terry Wogan said, ‘Of course, you were a spy, weren’t you?’ I said, ‘Terry, do you mind if I stand up?’ I stood up. And I said, ‘Do you consider that I would blend inconspicuously into a crowd?’ A spy?” (Lee makes the word “spy” last several seconds, using all his actorly prowess to convey the absurdity of the suggestion.) “I wasn’t a spy. I’d have been spotted in five seconds. Yes, I was in intelligence, but that covered a multitude of things.”
Lee is fluent in English, Italian, French, Spanish and German, and moderately proficient in Swedish, Russian and Greek.