Christopher Lee had a special connection to The Lord of the Rings. He was the only cast member to ever meet J.R.R. Tolkein, and his performance as Saruman is among the most beloved of his legendary career. As it turns out, Saruman wasn’t Lee’s first character choice.
Lee was a legend long before The Lord of the Rings entered production. He’d already been the star of numerous Hammer horror films like Horror of Dracula and The Mummy and tried to kill James Bond in The Man With The Golden Gun. In life, he read The Fellowship of the Ring every year after it was released in 1954. Lee was a lifelong and huge fan of the saga, so he knew he had to be in the film.
In 1998, casting was underway for The Fellowship of the Ring. As soon as Lee learned of the production, he snapped a photo of himself in wizard garb and sent it to director Peter Jackson. He wrote a letter that read, “this is what I look like as a wizard, don’t forget this when you cast the movie.” Jackson saw the photo, and his heart soared.
As anyone who’s seen Dead Alive would know, Jackson is a huge horror movie fan. He idolized Lee’s Hammer films, so he was all too happy to have Lee audition. However, there was a bit of a misunderstanding. Jackson explained the situation to Entertainment Weekly: “I realized in horror that he’d come to talk to us about playing Gandalf!”
Awkward, No Hard Feelings
What ensued was what Jackson called “a very awkward 30 minutes,” where Jackson and his casting director tried to explain to Lee that Ian McKellen was in talks for the role of Gandalf, but Lee would make an ideal Saruman. Lee was initially nonplussed and insisted on auditioning for Gandalf anyway. While this was in vain, they officially offered Lee the role of Saruman instead.
This could have been an awkward situation, but McKellen and Lee hit it off. Jackson explained: “At one point during the shoot, Chris said, ‘I’m perfectly happy to be in an ‘Ian McKellen film.’ Ian immediately turned to Chris, and with great affection, he replied, ‘But not as thrilled as I am — to be in a ‘Christopher Lee movie’!”
Lee and Jackson’s relationship turned frosty when Saruman was cut from Return of the King’s theatrical run almost entirely, but they reconciled in time to make a few Hobbit movies. Jackson’s thankful that he got to work with Lee for five films, as is the entire fandom. Lee passed away in 2015 at 93 years old, leaving an incredible legacy behind him.