Two most successful actors in the movie business are currently celebrating a rather special anniversary. Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing have embarked on their 21st film together. Who would have guessed sixteen years ago when they worked together on The Curse of Frankenstein that their flexible partnership would prove so popular and so durable, in a series of first rate macabre thrillers, which have made fortunes at the box office throughout the world?
They are a contrary pair and yet their very differences are probably one sound reason for their success.: where Christopher Lee is assertive, slightly remote, majestically assured, Peter Cushing is gentle and perhaps more reserved.
I spoke to them both while they were making 'The Creeping Flesh'. I met Christopher Lee at his elegant Belgravia flat, Mr Cushing I met on the set at Shepperton studios.
In this highly competitive field both rank as undisputed kings (with Vincent Price) of the horror film - although they shy away from the tag 'horror', claiming it an inaccurate label more applicable to war or films purporting to be anti-violent.
'I have said it before, and I will say it again,' said Christopher Lee, 'there is not as much violence in all my so-called 'horror films' as there is in one of the current films.'
I asked Christopher why he and Peter Cushing work so well together? 'Peter and I do seem to make a lot of films together, but we go for three, four, five years without making a film together. Now it happens that we've made three in a row. I don't believe in double acts or teams, but we have a good working relationship. We anticipate each other and know how the other will react.'
Their relationship continues to flourish because it is based on a mutual respect and regard: both these men are professionals and one cannot imagine their ever working with anyone whose attitude, in this area, was not the same.
'We have worked together for sixteen years,' Peter Cushing said gently, 'After all that time you know a person very well. We are friends, apart from our work, but if we are busy on other films we tend not to see each other. That's the thing with this profession: you might go months without seeing someone and then suddenly you're working with them and you carry on where you left off'
Christopher Lee has made a great virtue of his insatiable need to work and he does not limit himself to one medium. When he entered the acting profession after the war (he was initially considered too tall - 6ft 4in - for films!), he built up a fine reputation as a distinctive leading man, but it was Hammer's invitation that he play opposite Peter Cushing in The Curse of Frankenstein which proved a major turning point in his career.
No one at that time would have laid strong bets that this film would have lead to an incredible revival for Frankenstein, Dracula and their many permutations. A revival that would keep both Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee in more or less permanent employment.
Lee's monsters and villains fpr Hammer have included Dracula (although he argues with the cloak and claims the characterisation quite untrue to Bram Stoker's original), Fu Manchu, Rasputin, not to mention The Mummy.
But Lee's fascination with Dracula goes beyond the Hammer films. He recently visited Transylvania on a virtual pilgrimage of the haunts of the real Dracula - a disreputable character know as Vlad the Impaler.
His visit was for a television documentary, which shows Lee as three versions of Dracula, (the original Vlad, Hammer's Dracula and the Spanish Dracula which is more faithful to the Stoker concept) in addition to appearing as himself wandering the haunts of Vlad the Impaler.
An interesting tie-in to the documentary is a new authenticated book written by three professors in America who have been researching Dracula for ten years. Lee is going to America for a series of lectures connected with this. He talks enthusiastically about the possibility of making a film about the real Dracula., but says he doubts it will ever be made.
He has now formed his own production company and after due consideration has ventured in Nothing But The Night, a modern suspense film which stars him with Peter Cushing and being directed by the immensely talented Peter Sasdy.
Christopher is happy with last last three films - Dracula AD 1972, Horror Express and The Creeping Flesh. He rates one of his best performances in the little seen I Monster, which was shot in an experimental 3D method. Lee is particularly disenchanted with the treatment this film received. I imagine he is a hard taskmaster : he admits he's constantly insisting on changes and won't let the movie men get away with inaccuracies.
He is right too. After all, you don't work in a business for 25 years without gaining some fair measure of esteem: particularly if you work as consistently as Christopher Lee. He worked abroad prodigiously for years. ( he is fluent in five languages) and finds now that he is better known outside of Britain.The incongruity of this situation does not escape him and he comments wryly, 'The prophet is unheralded in his own land' He is has one of the strongest fan clubs of any actor - a British chapter opened recently and receives some 18,000 letters a year, all of which are answered, for he views his responsibilities to his fans seriously.
That he is versatile has never been in question; Billy Wilder's Private Life of Sherlock Holmes changed the attitude of some people; the western Hannie Caulder did too. But it is horror that endures. Why?
'There are some actors- a mere handful - who are still getting incredible money, but their films do not bring people into the cinemas. People want to enjoy themselves. They come to my films knowing they can suspend belief, be terrified by something that could never happen to them.'
Peter Cushing's introduction to horror films resulted, ironically, from his brilliant award winning performances in Orwell's '1984' as Winston Smith. Ironic, because Smith was the last hero in the brave new future under the all powerful Big Brother. However, there was a terrifying scene with rats....
Peter, the most gentle exponent of the sinister, had become a household name via his numerous television performances. His earliest ambition to be an actor was in childhood when his bicycle substituted for tom Mix's horse. An early stint in repertory led to America. 'It was marvelous, it measured up to all my expectations!'
Youthful enthusiasm sustained him and whatever kept body and soul together was negligible. When war broke out, he was overwhelmed with homesickness but found the homeward journey a difficult one., dogged with obstacles. Finally, after eighteen months, he managed to get aboard a banana boat. Returning to England, he met his adored wife Helen, the woman he credits with all his success. Sadly, Helen died last year.
When Peter was on the point of giving up acting, Helen insisted he carry on. 'She had such faith in me. She insisted I keep acting.'
Helen it was who wrote to every name listed in the Radio Times saying that Peter was available for television. When he became a television star, she told him that he must stop riding on the underground. 'She told me that people expected more when they saw you on television and the one thing they wouldn't want was seeing you with holes in the soles of your shoes on the tube!'
As with Lee, Peter Cushing's success could be measured with the rising popularity of the horror film. In films with Lee, Cushing is usually the force of good as opposed to Lee's force of evil.
When his wife died last year, Peter Cushing, after his initial solitude, involved himself in work, work and more work. He is still a changed man and one senses that life for him can never again be truly complete.
'Work is the only therapy,' he told me. 'Luckily, I have kept working constantly ever since and I like to be occupied. Time is the worse thing. It doesn't mean that I think less about her. Only the knowledge that we will meet again keeps me going. You have to believe in the next life or you could never reconcile the injustices in this one. I used to love spare time - we did so much together, but I find now there are so many things i can't enjoy doing. Helen was everything to me.'
When he isn't busy on a film, Peter records tapes of famous books for the blind, a project to which he devotes much time and energy. He is an accomplished artist. In happier times it was one of his favourite hobbies. I am glad to say it is one he seems to be going back to, because actor Joseph O'Connor has written a book of children's stories which he has asked Peter to illustrate.
Peter admits that he still gets a thrill seeing his name in print. You sense the genuine pleasure he still gets from acting: it is his job and he loves it.
I am convinced that the reason Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee lead the field is that they believe in what they do. Unlike young actors who romp thorough horror films with a slight smirk on their faces, Lee and Cushing play it as though it were Shakespeare. Their serious attitude is the only thing that could have kept us convinced for so long.
Happy anniversary - and many more
Photoplay Film Monthly