Cushing and Lee: Frightful Friends

Hammer Horror wouldn’t have become what it is without Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.

The two film giants launched Hammer’s most successful franchises for Dr. Frankenstein and Dracula. While the pair were often at odds on screen, vying for each other’s lives, in real life the pair were best friends – perhaps because their birthdays were only one day apart (with Cushing being nine years older).

Their first film together was 1948’s Hamlet, starring and produced by Sir Laurence Olivier.

Cushing remembered, “I never met Christopher when he was in the Hamlet film because we weren’t in the same scenes together. So I’d never seen him face to face, as it were, except when I walked onto the set of Frankenstein, there he was as my creation.”

Lee remembers their first encounter even more vividly, as he burst into Cushing’s dressing room, angered that his part of the creature didn’t have any lines.

“[Peter] looked up, his mouth twitched, and he said drily, ‘You’re lucky. I’ve read the script.'” Lee recalled. “From the first time we met at Bray, Peter Cushing and I were friends.”

Altogether, the pair appeared in 22 films together – not including two of Lee’s films in which Cushing was in a flashback only and another where Cushing’s scene was cut entirely.

“When acting together, we knew which one of us was the focus and never – never – intruded on each other’s performance,” Lee said. “Peter projected an intellectualism in these early collaborations, while my forte was physicality.”

Lee was especially impressed by Cushing’s perfectionist nature, in which he not only memorized his lines, but everybody else’s too.

Cushing had a similar admiration for his friend. “[Christopher] sings beautifully. First class golfer. Speaks ten languages. Does the most incredible impersonation.”

In fact, Lee’s impersonation of Slyvester the Cat broke Cushing up on the set of The Gorgon (more about that here). They were even asked to leave a movie theater because they were laughing too hard at a Looney Toons cartoon.

Hammer Horror not only introduced the pair, but launched both of their careers with The Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula. These movies and their subsequent sequels cemented both as horror stars. In fact, both of them were offered the part of Dr. Loomis in Halloween, and both of them appeared in the Star Wars franchise.

After his passing, Christopher Lee said this of Cushing, "He really was the most gentle and generous of men. I have often said he died because he was too good for this world."