Supernal Dreams: CHRISTOPHER LEE – Now you see him… Now you don’t

You can barely see Christopher Lee in THE GOLDEN COMPASS

Christopher Lee has been delighting aficionados of the genre since his appearance in Hammer’s Curse of Frankenstein fifty years ago. Since that time, Lee has gone on to enjoy the kind of late career success that eluded most of the other big genre movie stars.  Unfortunately, the flip side to all the renewed interest in casting Christopher Lee in big-budget fantasy movies,  seems to be the rather alarming trend of having his scenes end up on the cutting room floor!   

You can barely see Christopher
Lee in THE GOLDEN COMPASS.

The most drastic example of this occurred a few years ago when Peter Jackson cut Lee’s incredibly important final scene as Saruman from The Return of the King.  Now, for all intents and purposes, Lee has been cut from New Line’s The Golden Compass, as well.  Presumably Lee never had a very large part as the First High Councilor of the Magisterium to begin with, but now, what remains of his part is little more than a joke!  A single line, in a throwaway scene lasting no more than 30 seconds.  To add insult to injury, director Chris Weitz totally botches what could have been quite a dramatic entrance for Lee’s character.  

Thankfully, Christopher Lee is not even mentioned in the billing for The Golden Compass.  Presumably Lee asked that his name not appear.  Here’s what Mr. Lee told me about a similar case, when he almost appeared in William Wyler’s 1965 thriller, The Collector

LAWRENCE FRENCH: When Roger Corman was directing, did he ever ask you to be in any of his horror films?

CHRISTOPHER LEE:  No, although I know Roger, and I’d like to work with him. I think he’s a very talented man. Strangely enough, the first time I met him, was when I first came to Hollywood, and did one of the Alfred Hitchcock television shows. It was from a story by Robert Bloch called “Return to the Sabbath, which was changed to The Sign of Satan.  I did it at Universal, and while I was there I got a call from the producer, Mike Frankovich. He wanted me to come over to Columbia and see William Wyler about playing the artist in The Collector. Now I didn’t know anything about The Collector, but I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity of meeting William Wyler.  So I went to see him, and he explained the entire story of The Collector to me. What I didn’t realize, and I don’t think William Wyler realized either, was that someone at Columbia had already asked Kenneth More to play the part. So he played it, and was subsequently cut out of the picture!

LAWRENCE FRENCH: That’s right. There were really only four main characters in the film.

CHRISTOPHER LEE: I think there was one shot of him sitting in the bar. I’m sure his name wasn’t on the credits. If it happened to me, I’d ask for my name to be removed as well!  So I didn’t do the film, of course. 

Now, in the same vein as Christopher Lee’s supposed appeareance in Darryl F. Zanuck’s The Longest Day, quite ironically, many sources are still crediting Lee as appearing in Sweeney Todd.  Although Lee was originally cast in the film, he never actually filmed his part. Lee was set to play the role of the Gentlemen Ghost, who would sing “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” in Tim Burton’s version of Stephen Sondheim’s bloody good musical.  But unfortunately, Lee’s fourth collaboration with Burton was not to be. Burton was already trimming songs and material from the three hour musical, and while still clearly trying to add a small part for Lee, it was ultimately decided that his ghostly narrator role was expendable.  However, in this case, at least Lee didn’t actually shoot any scenes.  ”It would have been worse if I had done the scenes,” said Lee, “but I never got to film them.  It’s a shame as the lyrics were wonderful, but these things happen.” 

Mr. Lee wasn’t quite as forgiving in the case of being cut out of The Return of the King. After being informed by producer Barrie Osborne that he would not make the cut for The Return of the King, Lee wrote a heart felt letter to Peter Jackson, who was too busy to call Lee himself.  As an indication of his disappointment, Lee said his letter to Jackson ”burst into flames!”  

About the Author

Lawrence French

LAWRENCE FRENCH celebrated his 20th anniversary as a contributor to Cinefantastique Magazine with his cover story on the making of THE RETURN OF THE KING. As Cinefantastique’s longtime San Francisco correspondent, he has written numerous stories about Pixar and Lucasfilm, and interviewed such genre stalwarts as Vincent Price, Tim Burton, Ray Harryhausen, John Lasseter, Phil Tippett and Ray Bradbury. He is also the editor of the highly regarded website on Orson Welles, Wellesnet.com. His book as editor of Richard Matheson’s Edgar Allan Poe scripts for THE HOUSE OF USHER and THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM was published by Gauntlet Press in 2007, with a second volume on TALES OF TERROR and THE RAVEN due out in the future. For Cinefantastique Online, he currently writes the regular column Supernal Dreams.

One Response to “ Supernal Dreams: CHRISTOPHER LEE – Now you see him… Now you don’t ”

  1. Christopher Lee may not be mentioned in the billing for THE GOLDEN COMPASS, but he is in the trailer (as you can see from the screen-shot I added at the top of this article. Of course I am disappointed that he has little screen time in the film, but to be fair, GOLDEN COMPASS is probably setting up characters to reappear in the sequels.

    One should also note that Lee’s sequence as Saurman was reinstated for the longer DVD cut of RETURN OF THE KING.

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