Christopher Lee's Olivier (and Gandalfian) ambitions

For all his villainous parts, Christopher Lee idolized an unlikely actor: Lawrence Olivier

Christopher Lee played well over 200 roles in his prolific career, including Lucifer, Dracula, Frankenstein's creature, Sherlock Holmes and the "Lord of the Rings" baddie Saruman.

But there was always a different J.R.R. Tolkien part he wished he could play: Gandalf.

The distinguished wizard was of course played by Ian McKellen, who inhabited the character for a total of six "LOTR" and "The Hobbit" films. But it was Lee‎ who had designs on the part. And he was not shy about telling McKellen.

"We both arrived late the same day to [the first] 'Lord of the Rings.' We were next to each other at dinner," McKellen recalled in an interview. "And his opening remark to me was 'I always thought I should play Gandalf.'"

The villainous British actor, who died last week at 93, eventually warmed to his given part‎ — mostly.

 "I remember once he said to me, 'I've done 230 films and Peter [Jackson] had me do the same speech 10 times yesterday,'" McKellen recalled with a laugh. "And I looked at him and said, 'Yesterday I had to do the same speech 27 times.'"

With an imposing presence and ominous voice, Lee was one of the cinema world's most famous bad guys, a reputation he played off in his career and public persona — his memoir, after all, was titled ‎"Tall, Dark and Gruesome." He was also something of a raconteur on set — "He loved telling stories. Not always originals," McKellen deadpanned.

Among those tales was of course how he once met Tolkien, in a pub, an anecdote that he worked to some effect on the "LOTR" and "Hobbit" sets. Lee was, after all, the only actor on the movie who could make that claim.

But despite his creepy character parts in commercial and genre films, Lee had other designs too.

“You know, Sir Christopher wanted to be an opera singer,” McKellen recalled. "His hero was Olivier. And so he’d tell stories of ‘Larry.’ He was in awe of Olivier. And I think that was why the knightship was a big deal to him. I think he wanted to be thought of on that level.”


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