“We don't always get the kind of work we want, but we always have a choice of whether to do it with good grace…”
Life can take us to some crazy places. Some folks become actors. Some people become soldiers. Others become athlete or authors. Spies or stuntmen. Linguists or legendary swordsmen. And one man became all of the above:
Who He Was
It might be more appropriate to ask who Christopher Lee wasn’t. “Renaissance Man” doesn’t even begin to cover it.
Born 1922, Lee claimed impressive lineage- a relation to both Civil War general Robert E. Lee and legendary Frankish King Charlemagne. The son of British social elites, Lee enjoyed a charmed childhood and a fantastic education among Europe’s aristocracy. But that would all come to an abrupt halt when a series of bad investments by Lee’s stepfather left the family over half a million dollars in debt (in today’s money). While not ruined the Lees had certainly fallen from grace, and Christopher found himself looking for a job at the age of 17.
In spite of his education and family, the only work Lee could find was as a mail clerk- a job so singularly miserable that it would make fighting off a Russian invasion in Finland in (the middle of winter) look like a more enjoyable prospect. And that might explain why Lee promptly quit his job to volunteer to fight a Russian invasion in Finland in the middle of winter.
They won, by the way.
What followed was nothing less than the fantastic career of the most interesting man in the world.
Why We Want To Be Him
Where do we even begin?
Lee had no sooner returned home from Finland when he joined the RAF and plunged headfirst into WWII. He would spend the next half-decade engaged in covert operations- “covert operations” being a polite of way of saying the man was a flippin’ 6’5” super-spy. And there’s no doubt that his actions had a profound influence on his step-cousin, a certain writer by the name of Ian Fleming, who wrote extensively about dashing multi-talented secret agents. And the fact that Lee was Fleming’s first choice to play Bond really oughta say something about 007’s inspiration.
As amazing as Lee’s time in the “The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” (aka “the Bakers Street Irregulars” aka “Churchill’s Secret Army”), the most valuable lessons actually come from his extraordinary life afterwards.
Life Doesn’t End Until You Let It
Out of college, it can be easy to feel that the glory days have come and gone. We’re not staying up as late as we used to. Certainly we don’t have the free time we once did. The folks who were our best and closest friends have probably gone their respective ways, and with all of that combined there are those of who us might imagine that we’ve reached our peaks. It’s easy to be afraid that everything from here on out is going to be downhill.
Lee proves that they don’t have to be.
Here’s a guy whose military career is so impressive that to this day much of it remains highly classified. He was decorated by the governments of four different countries. How do we top that?
By believing we can.
Back home in England, Lee’s imposing height and booming voice swiftly landed him roles as Dracula, Lord Summerisle, The Mummy, and Mephistopheles, just to name a handful of the some two-hundred and eight roles he’d play (not including television and theater). Lee would portray the dastardly Bond villain Scaramanga, and was even personally selected by J.R.R. Tolkien to play Gandalf (though he would wind up playing the treacherous wizard Saruman instead). To this day he remains one of the single most prolific actors in film history and proof that life isn’t over at 30, 40, or any age, so long as you keep on growing as a human being.
There’s No Talent, Only Discipline
One of the most sinister ideas haunting the world is the persistent and pernicious lie that there’s a set amount of ability that any human has. You have to discover the three or four things you have any talent at and make peace with ‘em.
Lee knew that was some ol’ bull****.
Over the course of his life Lee learned to speak fluent Italian, French, Spanish, and German, as well as being proficient in Swedish, Russian, and Greek- “because why the hell not?” This was when he wasn’t busy climbing an active volcano (three times), serving as a champion fencer, or giving some of the best golfers in the world a run for their money. In his 60s and 70s Lee was recording opera. He would later make the switch to heavy metal, putting out not one but two award-winning concept albums in his 90s.
Don’t think for a second that Lee was born with all this skill. By all accounts (including his own) Lee was a mediocre student, and he certainly didn’t come out of the womb singing power metal ballads about dead emperors. What Lee knew (and what we need to learn) is that it’s concentrated effort, not natural aptitude, that makes us successful. Sure, some subjects are going to be tougher than others, but tougher is not impossible. There’s no limit to how awesome we can be.
You Are What You Make Yourself
With a list of notable ancestors and socialite relations that could wrap twice around the earth, it can be easy to forget how much of a self-made man Lee was. After leaving the military, Lee struggled again to find direction (presumably because there wasn’t a huge market for “Professional Nazi Hunters” after 1945). Lee got into acting but was written off by plenty of studios on the basis of his height. The only films that would take Lee were two-bit monster movies and abysmal horror flicks. After playing a campy Dracula for the tenth ****ing time even the most persistent of us might lose heart.
Rather than resign himself to B-movie bad guy roles, Lee spent his free time mastering seven languages to make himself more marketable. He joined three different stuntman unions and became one of the most accomplished swordsmen to ever grace the screen. To use his own words: “Every actor has to make terrible films from time to time, but the trick is never to be terrible in them.” Or to apply that to our own lives: our situations might suck, but we don’t have to.
That attitude ensured that, when opportunity finally did come knocking, Lee was not only ready for it but managed to get the thing in a death-grip he wouldn’t release until his own death in 2015. When he passed away he was 93-years-old, still working, and still not conceding that he’d finally reached his full potential. The same should go for every single one of us.
To Learn More About Lee:
Lord of Misrule – By Christopher Lee
Tall, Dark, and Gruesome – By Christopher Lee
The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare – By Damien Lewis