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Christopher Lee: How a new generation learned about him with 'Lord of the Rings'

Lee portrayed evil wizard Saruman in the 'Lord of the Rings' trilogy, which was released between 2001 and 2003, as well as the later 'Hobbit' films. He was a big fan of the book series himself and recalled how those on set would ask him obscure 'Rings' questions. 'They never caught me out – not once!' he said.

Tony Gentile/Reuters
Christopher Lee poses on the red carpet during the Rome film festival in 2009.

Actor Christopher Lee, who died earlier this week, became known to a new generation and became part of an Academy Award-winning film series when he took on the role of evil wizard Saruman in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. 

Lee was an extremely prolific actor and is famous for his roles in the Hammer horror films, for which he played such creatures as Count Dracula, Frankenstein, and the titular Mummy, among other characters. He also faced off against James Bond in the 1974 movie “The Man With the Golden Gun” and starred in the horror film “The Wicker Man,” appeared in Steven Spielberg’s comedy “1941,” and appeared in such Tim Burton movies as “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “Alice in Wonderland,” among many other works.

But he became well known to a generation who may have missed the Hammer horror movies when he played the villain Saruman, a wizard and former ally of good wizard Gandalf who turned to evil in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. According to an interview he did with Cinefantastique Magazine, Lee actually met Tolkien once at a pub. “I was very much in awe of him, as you can imagine, so I just said, ‘How do you do?’” Lee said. He called “Rings” “the greatest literary achievement in my lifetime” and said he first read a scene as Gandalf. “I would have loved to play Gandalf, but I don’t think [director Peter Jackson] ever had me in mind for Gandalf, because by that time I was too old,” he said. 

Lee described Saruman as “a very complex character, superbly written by Tolkien,” and recalled how others on the set of “Rings” would ask him obscure bits of trivia from the series. “Members of the cast and crew where always trying to catch me out,” Lee remembered. “They’d ask me questions like, ‘What was the name of Frodo’s father?’ or ‘What was the name of this or that sword?’ Things like that. Well, they never caught me out – not once! They tried, but they never did.”

Following the news of Lee’s death, many on Twitter are remembering his portrayal of the dark wizard.

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