Some younger fans will cite Star Wars and Lord of the Rings among their favorite films starring Lee, but with a career spanning nearly 70 years (and 281 credits to his name), it’s only a small portion of what he’s accomplished on film. Before he became a sci-fi and fantasy villain, he made his name in horror films spanning decades. He said that he’d never retire in an acceptance speech in 2011, and he kept his word; when he died, he was attached to the film The 11th, which would’ve started filming in November.
And Lee’s favorite role? It’s one you’ve probably never heard of and we haven’t been able to find: Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, in the 1998 biopic Jinnah. Here’s Lee talking fondly of the role.
Watching those films are a given (go with the extended editions of LOTR since it includes Saruman’s death scene in Return of the King), but where do you start once you’ve finished those? We’ve started a list of some of our favorites, from Lee’s most famous earlier roles to the more obscure.
1) The Curse of Frankenstein (Amazon)
Lee played Frankenstein’s monster opposite Peter Cushing’s Baron Victor Frankenstein in the first of more than 20 film collaborations and his first film with production company Hammer; it was the launch of his career in horror. The success of the film led to a horror revival on the big screen as well as films such as Dracula to be remade.
2) The Horror of Dracula (Amazon)
Count Dracula would become Lee’s most famous role, one he played 10 times from 1958 to 1973. A remake of the film from the 1930s, Lee’s Dracula transformed what people thought about the character, and the first one, in which he only shows up for a small amount of time, was both a critical and commercial success. By the ’70s, the films flopped and Lee performed as the Count for the last time.
3) The Mummy (iTunes)
Back before people associated The Mummy with Brendan Fraser, Lee started as the titular Mummy who’s accidentally brought back from the dead by archaeologists and wreaks havoc on those who desecrated his love’s tomb.
4) The Wicker Man (iTunes)
Once called “the Citizen Kane of horror films,” the story of The Wicker Man zeroes in on a police sergeant searching for a missing girl in a town taken over by Celtic paganism, and it remains a cult classic 40 years after its release. Lee, as the lord of the island, is as creepy as ever. Lee would later call it the best film he’s been in.
5) The Three Musketeers (Amazon)
Rochefort, the character Lee portrayed in this take of the classic, is about as classic villain as you can get: He’s got an eyepatch, a mustache to twist, he can fight with a sword, and we can’t take our eyes off him. Of course, showing even more of his talents, Lee could also fence in real life.
6) The Man With the Golden Gun (Amazon)
Lee, playing an assassin who pays large sums for kills, faced off against Roger Moore’s James Bond. He admired him just as much as he wanted to kill him. They’re not so different, you know.
7) That one time he hosted Saturday Night Live (Hulu Plus)
After moving to the States to try something new, Lee showed off his comedic chops and hosted an episode of the third season of SNL with Meat Loaf as the musical guest. Although most of it is hidden behind a paywall, he adorably introduces “Loaf” to perform. The hosting gig got him a role in Steven Spielberg’s 1941 and an offer for Airplane!, one he turned down (and later regretted).
8) Sherlock Holmes and the Incident at Victoria Falls (Hulu)
He already played Sherlock’s brother Mycroft in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, but he put on the deerstalker cap in two films of his own: The Incident at Victoria Falls and The Leading Lady.
Bonus: Kingdom Hearts (PS2, PS3)
He’s acted in movies spanning decades, but he’s also done voiceover work as animated or CGI characters (e.g., Alice in Wonderland) and lent his voice to video games. He reprises Saruman in LOTR-related games, but he also voices Ansem the Wise in the Kingdom Hearts series, which is both unexpected and exciting for fans playing through for the first time.
If the character appears in the long-awaited Kingdom Hearts 3 and pulls some heartstrings just by speaking, we’ll know why.
Photo via Siebbi/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0)