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  1. Life & Culture

Remembering screen stars Christopher Lee and Ron Moody

Legendary screen villain Christopher Lee and Golden Globe winner Ron Moody shared a craft, a homeland and not much else professionally.

Now they share eternity, each after dying of natural causes in their native England in recent days. Mr. Lee died June 7 but the announcement was delayed in order to contact family members; Mr. Moody died Thursday.

Mr. Lee, 93, was one of cinema's most prolific actors ever with 280 film, TV and vocal performances to his credit. He was the most famous Dracula not named Lugosi, a sinister Bond villain who should've won, and the only actor appearing in both the Star Wars and Lord of the Rings franchises.

Mr. Moody, 91, is remembered by U.S. audiences for only a handful of performances, chiefly his Oscar nominated turn as the larcenous Fagin in 1968's Oliver!, a musical version of Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist.

As such, Mr. Lee's career is more widely celebrated and deservedly so. Only a few influential actors from my earliest years at the movies are living. Lee was one of the last still working, still at the top of his game. In recent years he acted for Martin Scorsese (Hugo), Tim Burton (Dark Shadows) and wrapped up Peter Jackson's Hobbit trilogy as the evil Saruman.

Back in the '60s, Mr. Lee scared the Milk Duds out of me in a string of overheated Hammer Films I'd watch all day in my father's theater. Dracula, Fu Manchu, Rasputin ("the maaaaad monk"), all in glorious Technicolor, heavy on the red. Mr. Lee's ruthless demeanor on screen, his imposing 6-foot-5 frame and piercing stare was creepy even when playing heroic, battling a Gorgon or solving cases as Sherlock Holmes.

Mr. Lee fully understood his effect, titling his 1977 autobiography Tall, Dark and Gruesome. Yes, the bogeyman could be funny, proven by his 1978 hosting of Saturday Night Live, and pop culture cool, like posing with Paul McCartney and Wings on the cover of Band on the Run.

But let's not overlook Mr. Moody, starting as usual with his Oliver! role as Fagin and the actor's twist on it. Fagin as written by Dickens is a thief and exploiter of children, and has been interpreted as being antisemitic.

"I couldn't possibly have played the role if it was seen as antisemitic," Mr. Moody told the Jewish Chronicle in 2010. "I knew in my Jewish bones he was a funny character who would get laughs, because I played him anarchistically."

That same spirit was evident in my favorite performance by Mr. Moody, as the ferocious, greedy Vorobyaninov in Mel Brooks' 1970 gem The Twelve Chairs. In a story Brooks adapted from a Russian novel, one of the titular chairs contains a countess' jewels, and is hunted by Moody, a dashing Frank Langella and Dom DeLuise.

Funny stuff, made bittersweet in its final images of Vorobyaninov faking an epileptic seizure in a courtyard, coins showering upon him. He has compromised his aristocratic bearing but gained a friend. And a few kopeks. Life isn't good but it's better. Mr. Moody at his best.

Two talented actors, two wildly different careers. What made the difference between Mr. Lee and Mr. Moody isn't clear. But they, like any of us, end up the same.

Contact Steve Persall at spersall@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.

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