Four Iconic Movie “Villains”

Who Were Actually Pretty Good Guys

…I’ve always found it fascinating that so many Hollywood Movie Villains have actually turned out to be broadly admired, very well-liked, and rather accomplished Renaissance men. Case in Point: The “Big Four” of Horror and Suspense: 1) Bela Lugosi; 2) Boris Karloff; 3)Vincent Price; and 4) Christopher Lee. 

Bela Lugosi, the first and oldest of this “Famous Four” was a Native Hungarian and decorated war hero as a Hungarian Officer in World War I, where he was severely wounded—a spinal wound that led to sciatica and limited his considerable skills as a striker in Futbol (Soccer) a sport in which he was thought to be of international caliber. A successful stage and screen actor in the early 1900s, Bela either starred or was featured in more than 80 silent films. In his time, he was something of a heartthrob before director James Whale actually brought him on to play Dracula in his eponymous 1931 classic. By then, Lugosi was already 51 but still managed to launch into a real franchise doing horror films in dozens of classics during the 1930s, including The Black Cat, The Raven, The Son of Frankenstein and Black Friday, several of which included co-starring roles with “good friend” for years, Boris Karloff. In truth, the two had something of a love-hate relationship partly over professional jealousy. And Lugosi did notably have an opioid (heroin) drug habit caused by needing pain relief for his war wounds from WWI. In the end, Producers continued to give Lugosi small roles in films until his death in 1953, simply because he was so well-liked and needed the money. In the end, due to morphine/heroin addiction and old age, Bela was virtually a shadow of his former self and limited in speech…and is the only one of the four whose life ended somewhat tragically. 

Boris Karloff (Born William Henry Pratt in London in 1887) was partly of Indian extraction, which led to his being severely bullied as a young boy. Rising up to be a stellar athlete (in both Rugby and Cricket), he attended Kings College at the University of London, where he later dropped out to pursue a full-time career as an actor and ended up coming to Hollywood after WWI. Once in Tinsel Town, he did everything from stunt work to minor roles in 50 plus silent films. Unlike Lugosi, who was already something of a name, Karloff’s big break came as Frankenstein’s Monster in the 1931 James Whale classic horror film Frankenstein, and his career catapulted into stardom from there, doing more than 30 films in the 1930s alone. Those included The Mummy, The Mask of Fu Man Chu (a franchise) The Bride of Frankenstein and The Lost Patrol. (Oddly Karloff, who often played oversized monsters, was the shortest of the movie villains at 5’11”.) Unlike Bela Lugosi (6’1”), who got pegged into horror roles, Boris Karloff managed to break out of the box from time to time and even went on to host a “Children’s Radio Show” where he narrated bedtime stories to America’s impressionable tiny tots (that also amassed a surprising on-air following among adults). Quite a prime mover in and out of the industry, Karloff was a charter member of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and on its original board. He was also a charter member of the Hollywood Cricket Club. And, as a rather talented wing and wing forward, actually became the founder of the feast of the Southern California Rugby Football Union by funding (SCRFU) out of his own pocket. Well liked on and off the set, Karloff could also be quirky. Examples: he always insisted the set and crew of all his films break for High Tea at 4:00 p.m. every day, a rather quaint custom that no one seemed to mind. And he was often insistent that “the first take” would always be the best — directly influencing actors like Frank Sinatra, to become the “one-take” plague of all future production crews. (The difference was, Karloff actually knew how to do it.) 

Vincent Price, perhaps the nicest and most accessible man in film of his era, originally started out in mainstream movie blockbusters such as Dragonwyck and Laura. And though he was always cast as the charming if shallow scoundrel, didn’t hit the mark in horror/suspense until the 3-D horror classic House of Wax in 1953. From there he launched into dozens of horror suspense classics as villains/madmen in films such as The Pit and the Pendulum, The Fall of the House of Usher and the Conqueror Worm. Fortunately for Price, he never got totally pegged doing horror movies and often starred or was featured in classics such as Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments. A gourmet cook, Vincent published several cookbooks and once hosted a TV “cooking show” with his second wife Mary Brant. Both gracious and sophisticated, the Yale educated Price was also an astute art collector of uncanny instincts and (at his death in 1993) owned a collection valued at nearly $25 Million. Quietly bisexual, Price finally came out in his later years as moral support for his daughter Victoria who announced her own lesbianism in a time when it was not very fashionable to do so. A devout Anglophile (born in St. Louis, Missouri), Vincent often proclaimed his love of the UK and a preference for its lifestyle, but nonetheless died in his home in Malibu, California where his ashes were scattered over the ocean at Point Dume. 

Of all the Big Four of Horror and Suspense, Sir Christopher Lee is the only one who was actually knighted, and he was made for it. Born in (Belgravia) London in 1922, Lee was the tallest of the four “villains” at 6’5” (Vincent Price was 6’4”). The son of a British Army (SAS) Colonel and an Italian Countess, Lee became a military officer early in his career when he fought for the Finnish Army in the Winter War (of 1938-39) against the Soviet Union. Later he signed up as a flight officer with the RAF, and was bounced around to different commands in Europe during WWII (to his everlasting frustration) without ever getting into an actual dogfight. After the War, he got talked into trying out for the “movies” landed a part in a John Huston film, and did about 30 action/adventure supporting roles until his first Hammer horror film in 1957, The Curse of Frankenstein, in which he co-starred (as “The Monster”) with soon-to-be best friend Peter Cushing as Baron Von Frankenstein. In fact, the co-stars ended up doing 22 more films together. During that time, a highly reputed “bromance” started between the two, and Cushing and Lee would often talk on the phone several times a week, until Cushing’s death in 1995. Something of a ladies man himself, Lee always showed a penchant for rich and powerful women, twice nearly marrying Countesses and finally settling in to marry Danish artist and super model Brigitte Krøncke, where the two were named among the World’s 50 Best Dressed Couples in 2003. Probably best known for his roles as Count Dracula (He played it 7 times), Christopher got tired of the horror genre and came to Hollywood in the late 1970s where he took on several iconic career roles, including the suave Bond villain Francisco Scaramanga (in Man with the Golden Gun), the Wizard Saruman in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and the Sith Lord Count Douku in Star Wars II and III. A Greek, and Latin scholar, Lee had an operatic quality basso profundo voice (self-trained) and performed in concert and on several albums (including some heavy metal)! In 2009, Sir Christopher Lee was knighted by the Prince of Wales with a CBE for services to charity and the theatre: A rather fitting career capstone for a Renaissance gentleman, a knight, and a pretty damned good guy. (Sir Christopher Lee died in 2015 at the age of 93, the last of a very remarkable breed.) 

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