Christoper Lee is, without any exaggeration, one of the coolest people to have ever lived. He was pitch-perfect casting for his role in Lord of the Rings as Saruman, bringing all the menace and intelligence from Tolkien’s writing to the screen. Meanwhile, he also garnered fans with his role in Star Wars as Count Dooku, in the James Bond movies, and, of course, as one of the best Dracula actors ever: he remains a legend, having starred in a collection of the best movies ever made.
But it’s not just his time as an actor that cements his status as the King of Cool; Lee was multi-talented. He nearly started a career as an opera singer, recorded and released a heavy metal album, was deeply fascinated by the occult, and served during World War 2 in the British Royal Air Force in secret service organizations collecting and analyzing vital information.
Naturally, his clandestine background in the war gave Lee plenty of experience to bring to his acting, and that’s exactly what he did with his villainous role in the Lord of the Rings cast, where he added a gruesome detail to Saruman’s death. In a behind-the-scenes extra from the DVD editions of the films, Peter Jackson explained how Lee used his experience to enhance his Lord of the Rings character‘s final scene.
“When Wormtongue rises up and comes up behind Saruman to stab him it was my job as director to talk to Christopher Lee and to explain to him what I wanted,” he began. “So I started to go into this long explanation about what sort of sound he should make when he got stabbed.”
Lee then continued the story, “I seem to recall that I did say to Peter, ‘Have you any idea what kind of noise happens when somebody’s stabbed in the back?’ I said, ‘Because I do.’ It’s a [gasping sound] because the breath’s driven out of your body.”
Jackson concluded, “He proceeded to talk about some very clandestine part of World War 2. He seemed to have expert knowledge of exactly the sort of noise that they make. I just sort of didn’t push the subject any further and said, ‘Well you obviously know what to do Christopher so I’m sure you’ll do it great.’ And he did.”
Saruman’s near-silent gasp when he’s stabbed in the back by Wormtongue, rather than a shriek, or shout, is an excellent and brutal detail that only Lee, with his evident real-life experience, could bring. Saruman’s brilliant death scene was, sadly, cut from the theatrical edition of Return of the King, though it can be found in the extended edition of the movie, and is worth seeking out.
Prior to being cast by Jackson as Saruman, Lee had actually desperately wanted to play Gandalf. Lee was an enormous fan of The Lord of the Rings novels and had even met JRR Tolkien. He wanted to escape his typecasting as a villain and bring a more good-hearted, though no less powerful, wizard to the screen. Ultimately, the role went to Ian McKellen, and both men were absolutely perfect.
For more on Lord of the Rings, check out our thoughts on why the extended editions aren’t long enough, as well as our guide on the new Lord of the Rings movies coming. You can also learn about the status of the Rings of Power season 2 release date and see the best way to watch the Lord of the Rings movies in order.