Tall, gaunt and equipped with piercing eyes and a deep sonorous voice, Mr. Lee had no trouble being intimidating or threatening. Early on, he found his niche in British horror films, playing Dracula many times, first in the 1950s and then in numerous films in the 1970s. He made several films a year during that decade, few of them of high quality, and developed a reputation as a genre hack. But his career, and standing with the critics, was unexpectedly revived in the current century by roles in two blockbuster fantasy movie series. He was the evil wizard Saruman in the “The Lord of the Rings” series and the equally sinister Count Dooku in the “Star Wars” prequel films. In both franchises, he striking appearance suited him quite well to his task. (A film executive had told in early on that he was far too tall to be an actor.)
Mr. Lee frequently returned to roles several times, thus becoming closely associated with them in the public eye. Aside from Dracula, Saruman and Dooku, he played Fu Manchu and Sherlock Holmes in multiple films. (He also found time to place Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock’s brother, and Sir Henry Baskerville, Sherlock’s friend, in separate Holmes films.)
Mr. Lee turned to film directly after service in World War II, no longer content with office life. Never a stage actor, he began his career in film at the powerful Rank Organization. He made his film debut in 1947, but struggled to make a mark. In the 1950s, he began getting cast in films made by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., at the British National Studios.
He fared better at Hammer Studios, known for gothic “Hammer Horror” films. His first credit there was “The Curse of Frankenstein” in 1957, in which he played the monster. The following year, he made his first attempt at portraying Dracula. The years to come would bring “Dracula Has Risen from the Grave,” “Taste the Blood of Dracula,” “Scars of Dracula,” and more. Lee said he disliked doing the movies at the time, but they were commercially successful and, in time, were treating as classic examples of their genre. During this period, he began being paired with actor Peter Cushing on screen. Sometimes they played adversaries, sometimes allies. The two would make more than twenty films together and became good friends.
In 1973, desiring to rid himself of the Dracula stereotype, he took a role as the leader of an isolated island of pagan worshipers in “The Wicker Man,” a mystery horror film written by playwright Anthony Shaffer. The movie became a cult classic, and was Mr. Lee’s favorite of his many films. The following year, he won another good part, playing the villain in the James Bond film “The Man With the Golden Gun.” (The actor was distantly related to Ian Fleming, frequently playing golf with him, and had turned down the title part in “Dr. No.”) In 1977, Mr. Lee moved to the United States, hoping to change the direction of his career. He didn’t fare terribly well, getting mainly television work, but was steadily employed as always. And, as host of “Saturday Night Live” in 1978, he showed he could poke fun at his own image, playing “Mr. Death” in one sketch. His fortunes changed, however, when he was cast as Saruman in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Soon after, he was chosen for Count Dooku in the new series of “Star Wars” films.
Unsurprisingly, he was a favorite actor of director Tim Burton, who used him in several of his surreal, spooky stories, including “Sleepy Hollow,” “The Corpse Bride,” “Sweeney Todd,” “Dark Shadows” and the remake of “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.”
In the final years of his life, he was showered with lifetime achievement awards and other special honors of every kind. In 2001, he was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in recognition of his services to drama He is survived by his wife, Gitte Lee, whom he married in 1961, and one child.