At 93 years old, Lee had long since passed the age at which most actors accept roles. But even now, at the time of his death, he had a film in pre-production. And why not? Lee loved his job — and he was exceptionally good at it. His mind-blowing nearly seven-decade career began in 1946 with the TV series Kaleidoscope, and it never really slowed down. He has 280 acting credits to his name.
He credited his passion for his job with keeping him young. "At my age, the most important thing for me is to keep active by doing things that I truly enjoy," he said last year. "I do not know how long I am going to be around, so every day is a celebration and I want to share it with my fans."
Thanks to career-defining roles such as Count Dracula, the Frankenstein monster, and Fu Manchu, perhaps what Lee is best known for is his knack for the macabre. He was the quintessential cinematic villain, continuing in that vein later in life with sinister and memorable roles such as Saruman in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings and Count Dooku in the Star Wars prequel installments. And, you know, it worked for him.
He wasn't afraid to tap into his dark side for inspiration, even boasting a library of 12,000 books on the occult. "There is a dark side in all of us," he said during a 2003 interview. "And for us 'bad' people, the bad side dominates. I think there is a great sadness in villains, and I have tried to put that across."
While owning a library of occult books is a little out there (even for a guy who was admittedly fascinated by evil), even that pales in comparison to the surprise that came with Lee's announcement that he was fronting a heavy metal band. Sure, the strength of his deep voice was well-documented — he sang on The Wicker Man soundtrack, in the closing credits for Funny Man and on other cinematic tracks. But, after dabbling in the genre for a few years, Lee released his first full metal album in 2010. With his 2012 Christmas metal EP, he became the oldest heavy metal performer in history.
Lee wasn't a man known for lack of bravado. In addition to performing nearly all his own stunts — he was one of the most prolific on-screen sword fighters ever — he carried himself with confidence in, well, pretty much everything he set his mind to do. Rumor has it Lee had so much moxie, in fact, that he felt his golfing skills were on par (pun intended) with Tiger Woods, whom he offered advice to on how to play at The Masters.
There are many who would argue you can't put your past behind you without compromising your future, but Lee was proof that sometimes putting your past behind you is what keeps you sane. Although he served in the Royal Air Force and Special Forces during World War II, the veteran actor rarely spoke about his service. It is suggested part of this was in loyalty to an oath of secrecy he took, but he did on occasion reference the emotional toll his time in the war took — when told by Peter Jackson to imagine how a man being stabbed in the back sounds, Lee replied he didn't have to.
"When the Second World War finished, I was 23, and already I had seen enough horror to last me a lifetime. I'd seen dreadful, dreadful things, without saying a word," he confessed in 2011.
There's no arguing that Lee's calling card was the macabre. He spent a virtual lifetime dealing in dark and ominous characters. Who could forget the night he hosted Saturday Night Live, though? In an atypical departure from his trademark somberness, Lee reminded the world just how appealing his quirky wit was. Or, during his emotional acceptance speech for the 2011 BAFTA Fellowship for his outstanding career in film, when he joked, "I am thankful that I don't follow in the steps of the great Stanley Kubrick, whose award was posthumous."
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