Tall, handsome, elegant, with the kind of old-school British style that seems to be a thing of the past, Lee first broke into the public consciousness in the 1950s, when he appeared in a series of horror films for the low-budget Hammer studio.
Although Lee appeared in scores of films and TV shows, from "The Lord of the Rings" to "Star Wars," it was the 1958 version of "Dracula" that established his persona.
In his first foray as the Transylvanian bloodsucker, Lee, who was 6 feet 5 inches, dominated the film with his size, but also terrified with his malevolent, piercing eyes, and obviously dangerous sexuality. Although he went on to play the Count about 10 times, in films such as "Dracula Has Risen From the Grave" and "Taste the Blood of Dracula," it is his first appearance as the toothsome master of the night that remains his most enduring legacy. To see it is to believe that nightmares can come to life -- and be a turn-on.
Once described as "tall, dark and gruesome," Lee had a beautifully soft, cultured voice that only added to his appeal. Even in films like 1973's "The Wicker Man," in which he played a cult leader who was into free love and human sacrifice, it was hard not to be mesmerized by his presence, and sympathize with his pathology. That's what good actors make you do -- empathize with them, even when they are up to no good.
And he was certainly up to no good in some of his most famous roles, which in addition to "Dracula," included the Bond villain Scaramanga in "The Man With the Golden Gun," a scheming assassin in "The Three Musketeers," an evil wizard in "The Lord of the Rings," and of course, the kick-butt light-saber wielding bad guy in the "Star Wars" franchise.
Lee was a product of wealth -- his stepfather was a banker, his mother a member of an old distinguished Italian family -- and that background showed in every move he made and every film he appeared in. Despite the psychosis of many of the roles he played, Lee always appeared above the fray, a superior being who had somehow landed on Earth to wreak havoc among his inferiors. And audiences loved him for this. They understood the craft that went into his portrayals, the earnestness with which he undertook them, and his ability to take on even the most damning part and make it his own.
In the current cinematic landscape, villains tend to be comic book bad guys, CGI creations based on toys or theme park rides, and one-note psychopaths. Gifts like Lee's are in very short supply. Hi ability to bring humanity and charisma to even the darkest of roles is a dying art.
In person, he was as courtly as you might expect, a humble man who, in the words of a film publicist who worked with him in London for the "Lord of the Rings" premiere, was "tall, elegant, classy, handsome, a total gentleman, and that voice -- can't match it."
Lee's true gift was that he brought a sense of dramatic depth and aristocratic style to every role he played, yet we all felt we knew him, that he was one of us. And no matter what, he remains the sexiest bloodsucker to ever appear onscreen. For that alone, Lee will remain an icon for as long as the name Dracula resonates in the public mind.