They couldn’t haven’t been more different — but the two icons who passed away last week both had an immeasurable impact on yours truly, and surely on others of my generation.
Christopher Lee was a distant relative of Charles The Great, whose life he would chronicle in a symphonic power metal album called Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross. Texas-born Virgil “Dusty Rhodes” Runnels was the son of a plumber.
Lee became in a sense, Hammer Films’ answer to Boris Karloff when the upstart London-based production company re-visited the classic monsters originally brought to cinemas by Universal. Hammer’s monster cycle began in the fifties, peaked in the 60s and finally tapered off in the 70s. During this span, Lee turned in unforgettable performances as Frankenstein’s monster, The Mummy,Rasputin, Sherlock Holmes, and most famously Count Dracula. It was in this role that I discovered Sir Lee (he received knighthood in 2009) one fateful sunday afternoon.
As a young fellow, I had made it a mission to see all the Universal monster films. Bela Lugosi, and occasionally John Carradine, were Dracula to me, with their menacing cape-waving, underlit overacting.
But Christopher Lee was the next gen model, you see. He lunged onto the screen with blood-filled eyes, hissing past jaguar fangs and chasing Peter Cushing about a cathedral-esque castle, vicious and defiant to the end as Cushing’s Van Helsing improvised a cross out of candleholders and swashbuckled the shit out of the heavy drapes that were the only barrier between the malignant Count and fast forward decay.
I had to turn it off. I wasn’t ready for this kind of hardcore horror. Of course, those Hammer classics seem pretty tame these days. In fact, looking back, I can see that the intensity and terror that impressed me that day had more to do with Lee, and his and Cushing’s chemistry of course, than with the special effects, wonderful as they were. This was the opening of Dracula, Prince of Darkness, which was really just the finale of Horror of Dracula, recapped. Thus, my introduction to Lee was in one of the most harrowing scenes from the entire series.
At some point, my father loaded us all up and carted us off to the very same drive-in where I had been so thoroughly warped by Psycho for a viewing of Scars of Dracula. I remember the immense dread of the opening moments, knowing that very soon, I would be forced to face once again the unbearably assured and evil countenance of Count Dracula. In my mind, Lee had become the vampire, you see. Now, in what passes for adulthood, when I hear the name “Dracula,” the first image in my mind is an amalgam of Lugosi and Lee. Frank Langella, perhaps?
I was so delighted to see Lee turn up years later in Tim Burton’s films. Burton must surely bear the same love for Lee and his contemporaries Cushing, Rathbone, Price etcetra that I do. Lord of The Rings, Star Wars — my dark god; what else could an actor hope for?
According to wikipedia, Lee was offered the role of Doctor Loomis in the first Halloween, a role that ultimately went to Donald Pleasence, and later expressed regret at dismissing it.
But how about some metal? Lee, whose distinctive bass voice got him work on the soundtrack for The Wickerman (also one of his most celebrated acting roles) was sought out by Italian power metalers Rhapsody of Fire for the duet The Magic of The Wizard’s Dream. Buoyed by the reception and success of this single, Lee went on to work with Rhapsody on several more releases and with other bands, including Manowar and Inner Terrestrials, before embarking on a solo career with the aforementioned Charlemagne album, then a pair of Christmas albums and an EP of covers that included My Way and The Impossible Dream.
When questioned about his new musical career, Lee did not quibble: ” I sing symphonic heavy metal.” Considering the musical genre’s bad rep here in the U.S, one can only imagine what sort of contempt stuffy Brits might hold for it; but Lee didn’t care. Because, well, he’s metal.
Christopher was a bad ass not only in the entertainment world but in the truest sense, during World War 2. His passing leaves a void not soon -if ever- to be filled. If you’re young enough that you’re not that familiar with him, I highly recommend a little exploration. You will be amazed.
Virgil Runnels, like most pro wrestlers, was re-christened upon entering the business, becoming Dusty Rhodes. He started as a “heel” in Texas, but eventually, and perhaps against the odds, became one of the most popular “babyfaces” to set foot in a ring.
By the time Rhodes turned up in the National Wrestling Alliance and on my radar, I was already familiar with the man who would become one of Rhodes’ greatest in-ring rivals: “Nature Boy” Ric Flair. These two bleach blonde big mouths were a perfect yin and yang. Flair’s “jet flyin’, limousine ridin'” heel character perfectly set up the opposing antithesis of Rhodes’ drawlin,’ jeans wearin’ blue collar brawler.
I can’t say I was initially a big fan of “The American Dream,” as Rhodes was billed. Comic books influenced me, I suppose, to favor superheroes; musclebound, larger-than-life figures with great powers and great responsibilities, not so much everymen in cowboy boots and bad grammar. But even at a young age, I could well appreciate the man’s charisma.
For whatever reason, there was a time when a good half of all wrestlers bleached their hair like Gorgeous George and spoke in weird, pseudo-soul patois, rhyming and jiving, wearing oversize floppy hats. Eventually, all but Rhodes left this habit behind, making him seem like a sort of chubby guy with a speech impediment. Could that have only contributed to his “I’m just another cowboy” appeal? Rhodes was never at a loss for words -or confidence. His promos, or promotional commentary, wherein wrestlers speak to the camera and address an opponent or an upcoming match, were filled with colorful and instantly memorable phrases like “pain, blues and agony!” and ” We go’ get funky like a monkey!”
Once, that no-good scoundrel Tully Blanchard got in the head of Dusty’s on-screen paramour, Baby Doll and made her turn on the poor guy. Adding insult to injury, they flaunted their sexual relationship in public to humiliate The Dream, spewing innuendo and hanging all over one another like high schoolers. How did Dusty handle this effrontery? Speaking to a ringside interviewer he said coolly “It’s like an ol’ shoe, ya unnerstand. I done wo’ it out.” If Rhodes hadn’t gained my loyalty before that, he had it forever thereafter.
Given his physical appearance, it’s not surprising that Rhodes didn’t exactly have a luchador-esque move set. His most famous technique was the “bionic elbow” in which The Dream would spin his hands around one another briefly (to gain momentum perhaps?) then drop the point of the elbow like a hammer onto the top of an opponent’s skull, drawing a huge crowd pop as the guy collapsed like a two hundred fifty pound bag of wet meat. If Dusty climbed to the second rope before essaying this sick finisher — watch out.
He wasn’t a particularly technical wrestler either, meaning there were few complicated submission holds or high impact slams in his repertoire. But, as a testament to his knowledge of crowd pleasing twists of plot, Dusty would occasionally turn Ric Flair’s dreaded Figure Four Leglock on the Nature Boy, drawing shrieks of pain from Flair and huge cheers from the audience.
Dusty joined the mass exodus to Vince McMahon’s rival WWE (then WWF) promotion sometime in the eighties, and as was so often the case, found himself turned into a cartoonish joke and “putting over” (glorifying) the company’s established talent. But once his contract was over, Rhodes returned to his former role in NWA (which had become WCW) and assumed further duties creating storylines and training new talent. I can’t say for sure, but I would be willing to bet that it was Rhodes who was responsible for such Texas-flavored specialty matches as the bunkhouse stampede, a sort of battle royal, the Texas cowbell match (ropes tied to both participants, with a cowbell attached, perfectly legal to use) the barbwire match and the Texas strap match. (Drag your opponent to all four corners, feel free to whip him with the strap along the way.)
Dusty made it back to the WWE for a while, in a creative capacity, perhaps redeeming himself for his 80s run. Both his son Dustin and his grandson Cody followed in Rhodes’ footsteps, achieving substantial fame.
I wonder what it would be like, if Dusty ever met Christopher Lee? I doubt they would have any kind of bromance, but you know, they could surely have an interesting conversation. Somebody should make a movie about that. It’d probably be at least as good as Mecha-Shark versus Manaconda.
R.I.P. to both of you, with thanks for shining so brightly in your separate night skies.