Age is a funny thing in Tolkien’s world of The Lord of the Rings, as some characters may look younger than others but in fact be far, far, older. But it was unfortunately age that prevented Christopher Lee from winning the role he really coveted in the movie series, and having to settle for the villain Saruman instead.
Christopher Lee had his heart set on playing Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings movies, as an avid lover of the books, and having met JRR Tolkien in the famous Eagle and Child pub in Oxford. This led to an awkward moment in Lee’s audition for the best fantasy movie series of all time, as explained by Peter Jackson to EW when Lee passed away in 2015.
“For reasons that now escape me, we were filming our auditions in a creepy old Gothic church in London. He literally loomed out of the shadows and introduced himself to Fran [Walsh] and me. As we chatted, he told us how he’d met Tolkien, and why the book meant so much to him. He re-read The Lord of the Rings every single year, and could freely quote vast chunks.”
Jackson continued; “We had a video camera and tripod set up, but just said that we would love him to be in our movie — virtually offering him the role of Saruman right there. However, it was at that exact moment that Fran and I realized in horror that he’d come to talk to us about playing Gandalf!”
It’s understandable that Gandalf usually comes higher up on lists of the best Lord of the Rings characters, as he’s naturally going to be more beloved than Saruman. “A very awkward 30 minutes followed, with Fran and I trying our best to explain to a rather peeved Christopher Lee that we were already talking to Ian McKellen about Gandalf — but what an incredible Saruman he would be!”
After decades of playing the best movie villains, such as Dracula and The Mummy in Hammer Horror movies, Lee was reluctant to play yet another villain. As Jackson explained; “Chris wasn’t hearing a bar of it, and eventually commanded us to turn on the video camera so he could audition for Gandalf. After shooting a few takes, he thanked us very graciously before disappearing back into the shadows.”
Despite Lee’s reservations, he’s an undoubted highlight of the Lord of the Rings cast, and he brings a lot to the villainous role of Saruman that wouldn’t be there otherwise. We’re eagerly anticipating the Rings of Power season 2 to find out more about Gandalf and Sauron. We’re also looking forward to House of the Dragon season 2, for more from another of the best fantasy series.