Whether you’re an actor, director, painter, or writer, it’s good to look at older artists and see what you can learn from them.
Christopher Lee, who sadly passed away in 2015, led an impressive career that included several Guinness World Records, many classic films, and a reputation as a gentleman.
With Halloween coming up, let’s see what we can learn from this horror icon and all-around legend’s life:
1. At First, You Almost Certainly Won’t Succeed.
When you start a career in the arts, you’ll probably spend several years trying to get work and critical attention, and it seems nothing’s happening. The only way you'll succeed is if you persevere through this period.
Lee experienced that for about ten years, from his first film role to his performance in “Curse of Frankenstein.”
In that difficult decade, he played many roles that didn’t lead anywhere and often didn’t pay well.
Many people told him he was “too tall, too foreign-looking and too unknown” to make it as an actor.
However, he refused to give up.
He played radio and television roles when he couldn’t get anything else.
He sought out roles in other countries. At one point, he traveled across three Scandinavian countries, working in a string of small opera theatres.
He dubbed dialogue for movies being translated into other languages.
Years later, he described those ten years as an important training period.
2. Turn Your Weaknesses into Strengths
“There’s a lot to be said for making an asset of your failings,” Lee commented in his autobiography.
In other words, if you have a certain quality that makes it hard to succeed, change your strategy and use that quality to your advantage.
In Lee’s case, he discovered movie producers disliked casting him because he was very tall, didn’t look like a typical Englishman, and had an apparently cold demeanor.
With these qualities, he wasn’t going to get many roles as nice guys.
So he pursued villainous roles, where being tall and foreign-looking helped.
He played various kinds of villains, from Nazis to evil knights and eventually monsters in Hammer Film Productions' famous horror films.
As mentioned earlier, these monster roles became his big break.
3. Taking Risks Can be Worthwhile
Sometimes you have to try something new and risky so you don’t get labeled as an artist who only does one thing.
In Lee’s case, he took a risk by moving to Los Angeles in the 1970’s.
As he explained it, he’d become typecast as a horror actor and several friends told him that he couldn’t change that unless he left England.
Working in America, he found opportunities for different roles, although initially he had to accept smaller paychecks.
Eventually, he proved he could play something beyond Dracula.
He played comedic characters in “Police Academy: Mission to Moscow” and on Saturday Night Live.
He played different kinds of villains, such as evil scientists in “Return to Witch Mountain” and “Gremlins 2.”
When he returned to England years later, he was still a horror icon, but people hired him to play more diverse roles.
In his last years, he played everything from a kind bookshop owner in “Hugo” to Pakistan’s founder in “Jinnah.”
4. Meet Lots of People and Learn from Them
Practice helps you become a better artist, but another key to success is being approachable. You need to build connections with people who can help you mature.
Since his mother’s family was minor Italian nobility, Lee spent much of his childhood meeting and associating with important people.
That habit of meeting famous people and often becoming their friends, continued into his adult years.
He acted in films made by well-known directors like Orson Welles and Laurence Olivier.
He played golf with various celebrities, including his step-cousin Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond.
For some time, he even lived next door to Boris Karloff, who played the original Frankenstein’s Monster.
This gave Lee many opportunities to learn from experts and build his reputation.
He watched Karloff and other great filmmakers work, and listened to their advice.
Fleming offered him a role in the first Bond film, which didn’t happen but likely helped him later get the role of Scaramanga in “The Man With the Golden Gun.”
Some filmmakers (such as director Terence Young) gave him continued work because they found him easy to work with.
5. Recognize Some Things Will Fail
Eventually, you’ll have projects that take wrong turns. Be ready for these occasional failures, and learn to move past them.
Lee’s career included many films that didn’t turn out the way he wanted.
One time he accepted a role as a narrator, only to discover much later the fact that the film was X-rated.
His favorite movie he appeared in, “The Wicker Man,” received good reviews but Lee felt was poorly edited.
His favorite role, playing Mohammed Ali Jinnah in a biopic about Pakistan’s founder, didn’t make much money outside Pakistan.
However, when he talked about these failures in his autobiography, he usually ended by saying something like “well, such is life. Better move on.”
6. Build a Support Structure
“There is no greater help to survival [as an actor] than the feeling that you have, or have had, some real friends,” Lee notes in his autobiography.
In other words, making art can be great, but it’s not enough. To thrive, you need a support structure of people who accept you no matter your success.
For an actor with his level of fame, Lee did a very good job of keeping strong ties to his family and friends.
He was one of the few actors who had one marriage that lasted until his death. By his own account, the marriage worked because he married “someone wonderful” and she traveled with him whenever he made a film.
He maintained several close friendships, especially with fellow horror actors Peter Cushing and Vincent Price, and stayed close to those friends throughout their lives.
Looking at the public reaction when Lee passed away, it’s interesting how many of his colleagues described him as more than just a good actor.
They described him as a good friend.