“After this week’s Madrid NATO summit, the Baltics will move back, like some long-repressed specter of the Cold War, into the harried visions of global defense strategists. Regional defense analysts have cautioned that the West may be underestimating a Russian threat to Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia (combined population 7.7 million). Memories are that fresh of deportations to the Soviet Gulag.
It’s not hard to see why Baltic leaders are anxious. Russia has a sizable army and navy to the south in Kaliningrad (still a disputed territory) as well as in the area around St. Petersburg and could retake the Baltics in a matter of days. Even now, they say, Russia violates Lithuania’s sovereign land and air space, regularly routing troops to and from Kaliningrad.
But analysts have not commented on the other invasion that has upstaged possible Russian ambitions. Hollywood has come to Vilnius, Lithuania. . . .” – Suzan Mazur, “A New Baltics Invasion: NATO, FBI and Hollywood,” Newsday (7/6/97)
It was June, approaching midsummer’s night when the light in the Baltics is surreal, feverish and the scent of lilac is everywhere that I met Christopher Lee, one of the most thrilling actors of our time who, sadly, has just left the world stage. But, obviously, lives on.
When I learned recently of Christopher Lee’s death, I was moved to revisit the interview we did over tea in then-newly independent Lithuania where the actor was taping an episode of Robin Hood for TNT. Lee was in Vilnius to play the part of , a wizard of the forest who was Robin Hood’s mentor. He was 75, and at an imposing 6’5” was still every inch “the Count.” We were joined for tea by Robin himself, 32-year old Matthew Porretta.
It happened like this. I was in Lithuania researching a documentary for television and writing a piece for Newsday’s Sunday editorial pages. On my last day there, I ran into Robin Hood director Joe Coppoletta, cast and crew in the Vilnius amber market.
Coppoletta told me Weintraub Productions in association with Warner Brothers was shooting the Robin Hood series nearby on a five-acre set belonging to the Lithuanian Film Studio and asked if I’d like to meet Lee and the bandit of Sherwood Forest for tea at their hotel, Sarunas, owned by Lithuanian basketball legend Sarunas Marciulionis, I was delighted and accepted Coppoletta’s invitation.
In real life, Christopher Lee actually did come from an aristocratic background. His mother was a contessa – considered a great Edwardian beauty. Lee was also knighted by the Prince of Wales, in 2009 “for services to drama and charity.”
Sir Christopher Lee’s father was a British military officer. During WWII, Christopher Lee himself served in the British military. He was apparently involved in intelligence operations during the war, and post-war continued to be intrigued by the politics of the countries he filmed in. That included Pakistan, where he spent 10 weeks in 1997 shooting the film Jinnah, cast in the role of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Pakistan’s founder.
Lee considered Jinnah his best performance and lamented the film’s poor distribution, saying the problem was fear of reprisal. I never told him, but I was asked to help promote the Jinnah film and declined the offer. I was moving on from coverage of South Asia and the conflict in Kashmir to Baku oil politics.
But with Baltic politics again in the news over concerns of Russian territorial ambitions -- Lithuania having now instituted a military draft – I decided to share Christopher Lee’s perspective on the region.
Christopher Lee: Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania. Very different, all three of them. The Baltic States had a brief independence prior to this one. Each republic had its own governing bodies and president. I can name the presidents -- Karlis Ulmanis, Konstantin Pats and a man called Antanas Smetona. But it wasn’t a very long period of time, the Germans came and then the Russians took the Baltics.
I first traveled here to Lithuania as a tourist. It was communist, the Soviets ran the show.
Suzan Mazur: How is it different?
Christopher Lee: This is my third visit. The difference is like being on another planet. People at first cannot get used to the idea of freedom. Because remember several generations in these countries have never known anything else but occupation by a foreign power. All their lives. Suddenly they’re told the country belongs to them. They can say what they’d like more or less. They can do what they’d like more or less. Freedom is with them.
Suzan Mazur: But they are still hesitant.
Christopher Lee: They’re finding it difficult to adjust to this. Definitely.
Suzan Mazur: I’ve noticed people will drive around lost rather than roll down the window and ask a stranger for directions, for instance.
Christopher Lee: Yes, and I think now--
Matthew Porretta: There’s such a difference from when I arrived six months ago to now. You can see it, you can actually feel it when you’re walking down the street. When I landed last year it was the day McDonald’s opened. And when I left after six months there were three McDonald’s. Things are changing very fast. I think for the better. The amount of cars here has tripled. . . Buses are packed, people are going places. But there’s a down side, people are begging, which they never had under communism.
Christopher Lee: It’s a very strong culture. Lithuania was a huge empire at one time – colossal -- that stretched almost to Ukraine. Many, many years ago, there was a vast, vast area. I know it sounds strange to say it stretched as far as Ukraine, but I’m almost certain I’m right. There was this huge area of land that came under Lithuanian rule.
Suzan Mazur: Plus Lithuania wasn’t Christianized until almost the 15th century and the decision to Christianize was the result of a political marriage, the Lithuanian king converted in order to marry a Catholic Polish princess.
Matthew Porretta: I understand the Lithuanians were pagan, accepted Christianity, then went back to paganism. It’s evident from excavations, the successive layers the society built – pagan, Christian, pagan.
Suzan Mazur: And the archaeology probably hasn’t really been that extensive.
Christopher Lee: But the difference in restorations above ground is visible. You’ve only got to walk down the street in Vilnius. Last year you’d see all these restorations going on on places that had been allowed to fall apart under the Soviets. Well the restorations are still going on and I’m sure there will be more restorations. Even something as mundane as the airport looks different somehow, it’s more organized.
Suzan Mazur: Speaking of McDonald’s, I’ve noticed that the Lithuanian president’s son, also an actor, is currently featured on a McDonald’s billboard here in Vilnius.
Christopher Lee: The president, Algirdas Brazauskas.
Suzan Mazur: The president’s son-in-law has an acting company.
Christopher Lee: The only ad I’ve noticed is the one with Sarunas, the Lithuanian basketball player.
It’s been a revelation. I’ve found out in every country I’ve been to, fairly soon after deliverance, if you like, from the communist yoke -- as in East Berlin before and after the wall came down. Not that long after came the two events. The society in East Berlin is now holier than it was. . . .
But in other countries, going back to Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic – as opposed to Slovakia, which is not in very good shape, because its prime minister is a red hot communist. . .
Now they’ve got communists in France. But nothing that happens in France would ever surprise me. It shouldn’t surprise anyone. . .
It’s interesting to see the development of these countries. They all come from different cultures, different backgrounds, different approaches, different feelings.
And obviously in the case of the Czechs and Hungarians, because of the Russian invasion the feeling of deliverance is that much greater.
When I tell you the Omon, when they came in, did far worse things here [in Lithuania] than they did in the other two Baltic Republics.
You can feel this now wherever you go in any of these countries. Call them former Iron Curtain countries, if you like. People now have more of a spring in their step. Differences between levels of poverty and the haves and have-nots -- that’s the same everywhere, particularly in Russia.
But as I was saying earlier, people can say what they want, more or less. They can go where they want. And they can be what they want. There aren’t people watching and reporting on them. You do notice that. But you find that the older generation still looks over its shoulder as it did in the previous regime. The young, of course, feel quite free.
Suzan Mazur: The language here is unique.
Christohper Lee: It doesn’t resemble anything else.
Matthew Porretta: But everyone also speaks English here. The thing that I’ve noticed is that everyone is so educated.
I can’t say how the people actually feel though or how they felt. Coming from America, I couldn’t possibly.
Christopher Lee: It’s the impression you get.
Matthew Porretta: We have people working on our sets who had close relatives, brothers and sisters, who were killed at the TV tower in 1991. So it’s a very real thing.
Suzan Mazur: How many local people are working on your film set, actors and crew?
Matthew Porretta: The majority are Lithuanian.
Christopher Lee: I would say it’s about 70/30 – Lithuanian/non-Lithuanian. It might even be more.
Suzan Mazur: Are you comfortable here in Lithuania?
Christopher Lee: Oh yes.
Matthew Porretta: You can get anything you want, it’s just less convenient than an American 7-11. You just have to search it out. That’s part of the challenge.
Suzan Mazur: It’s pretty astonishing going into a restaurant here in Lithuania and having a nutritious meal for 50 cents.
Matthew Porretta: Yes, you wonder -- how can they possibly make any money?
Christopher Lee: I’m certain there are people in this country who are making money, and I’m sure I don’t have to tell you who they are. They’ve got their tentacles throughout the world.
Suzan Mazur: There’s a significant black market on the outskirts of town.
Christopher Lee: I wasn’t thinking of that either. I was thinking of another organization that’s doing very well. It started in Russia and has now spread all over the world.
Suzan Mazur: The Russian mafia.
Christopher Lee: There was something in the paper. It was either the beginning of this year or the end of last. A British company had an electrical shop here, two or three of them. They didn’t obviously go along. And the next thing is – up in smoke. So it’s strong here. You don’t notice that, of course. But you hear about it.
Suzan Mazur: Someone poured beer on my head last night in Klaipeda. I wondered if it was because I’d been asking too many questions. Then about 15 minutes later when we, my production associates and I, were driving back to Vilnius, we were stopped by the police. They asked who were and they were checking the car.
Christopher Lee: The police stopped you?
Suzan Mazur: We were coming back from Klaipeda. The car was kind of dusty.
Christopher Lee: It was a Lithuanian car.
Suzan Mazur: It was a Lithuanian car. It was a bit dusty from traveling.
Christopher Lee: I found when I first came here, not that long ago, communications was not all that easy.
There are now people working in production who speak good English or they speak German, but they haven’t started to really learn the English language any more than we’ve learned the Lithuanian language. But they’re making the effort.
Matthew Porretta: We have one person on the production team who speaks English, Russian, Lithuanian. He just spouts it back and forth. It’s really quite impressive. . .
Suzan Mazur: There are fears about Lithuania’s future. I find it amazing that you’re shooting the Robin Hood series here.
Christopher Lee: You say there’s fear. Where is the fear coming from?
Suzan Mazur: Various defense analysts.
Matthew Porretta: Freedom is at work. The studio rents out its space to productions from other countries coming in. It wasn’t allowed to do that before independence because of Russian propaganda. Now Lithuania is able to use what Russia’s left them – the Lithuanian Film Studio to benefit the country. I don’t know if there are a lot of outlets for them to do that. . . . But with four Lithuanian litas to the US dollar, the production value is so much better than you could get in the United States.
Christopher Lee: Lithuania’s a beautiful country.
Matthew Porretta: The people who work on the production, they’ll make sets that are not just sets. They’re almost functional.
Suzan Mazur: What a natural place for characters for your Robin Hood series. The people are amazing looking.
Matthew Porretta: Striking people in this country.
Christopher Lee: Big, big people. A lot of German stock. I noticed many, many years ago in Sweden, that most of the top Swedish families seem to have originated in some bizarre way in the Baltics. They have German names.
Matthew Porretta: I don’t know what the people are eating here. . . I mean I’m not a short person, but I’m literally dwarfed every day on the set.
Suzan Mazur: The names are marvelous.
Matthew Porretta: And there are all these beautiful women.
Suzan Mazur: Matthew, you’ve been here for a year. What have you been doing for amusement?
Matthew Porretta: It’s kind of all the red meat and beer you can drink. There’s a bowling alley. Pool.
Christopher Lee: The countryside is beautiful. No matter how old you are, how fit you are. So everyday--
Matthew Porretta: Chris and I go out and drink. That’s what we do. We just go out and throw a few back. It doesn’t matter how old you are.
Christopher Lee: This is one of the problems we had in Pakistan. We didn’t do that.
Suzan Mazur: Your role in the series, Christopher is—
Christopher Lee: Well, I’m sort of a Gandalf. That’s about the easiest way of describing this character. He’s sort of a magician, a wizard of the forest. The man who helps Robin Hood and his people if and when asked to do so or required.
Last year I had one complete story, which is how I find him or he finds me. Whichever way you look at it. I become his mentor because he’s very, very young. None of this Robin Hood has yet started. It’s way back. That’s the first complete story really. Then I resumed my role in two or three others episodes, bits here and bits there. We were able to shoot them all, based on all this stuff about me. This time there’s just one story.
Suzan Mazur: You’re here for about a week?
Christopher Lee: Yes, then I’ve got to get on a ship and go around the Baltics and lecture. I’m very happy to be back here in Lithuania.
Matthew Porretta: Rather than in Pakistan. Yes, I would imagine.
Suzan Mazur: It’s really wild to be traveling in the north of Pakistan. I was there two years ago. There are vast areas not officially connected to the rest of the country.
Christopher Lee: It’s very beautiful. Very dangerous country. Pretty dangerous country. I’m mean really dangerous.
Suzan Mazur: The North West Frontier Province?
Christopher Lee: Murders every day. Corrupt, the law. I had 12-armed guards when we were filmingJinnah. I did. One person.
Matthew Porretta: Your wife told me she only had eight. Why is that?
Christopher Lee: I went to work. She went shopping. Unbelievable, we had people with Kalashnikovs in the back seat. They were always pointed at me. . . .
But, in fact, the one advantage, and I wish I had it elsewhere, was that we had this motorcyclist with his sound – and we just went VRROOOM like that through what is almost the worst traffic in the world. . . .
The economy is getting better here in these countries. But no economy is going to improve unless the people are allowed to work. And no economy is going to improve if you have as the head of government, -- I’m not talking about head of state – I’m talking head of government, somebody whose views are old fashioned. Like in Slovakia, where I was filming just over a year ago. Because the difference there between Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Czech Republic has gone like this and Slovakia has gone like that. Entirely political because of the climate.
Suzan Mazur: Who do you see as the visionaries here in Lithuania?
Christopher Lee: The prime minister here. You see they all add “as” and “is” and “um” to their names.
Suzan Mazur: You mean Vytautas Landsbergis.
Christopher Lee: Landsbergis. That’s the fellow. He was the first head of state of a free Lithuania.
Suzan Mazur: Do you like him?
Christopher Lee: I thought at the time when he came up on the scene, I thought, this man’s got a lot of courage. It’s not going to be easy because there are still a lot of Russians here who object strongly to either having to live here and not having the power they had, or being removed. Because the military has had to get out of everywhere.
And I’m sure you know what the situation is in the Russian military these days. Selling all their equipment and deserting. If we believe that they’re here, and what we’re told.
Suzan Mazur: Landsbergis is an artist as well, a musician and poet.
Matthew Porretta: The country is very artistic.
Christopher Lee: Oh yes.
Matthew Porretta: It’s funny because we are making a TV show. There isn’t a lot of TV here -- the artistic community is so powerful and so strong. I’ve been to the opera and to the ballet here and it’s something completely different than the United States. It’s the way, I would imagine, that opera and ballet was in the 1700s, 1800s, where it was for entertainment rather than for prestige.
Christopher Lee: Or gambit.
Matthew Porretta: You go to the ballet or opera in the United States now and a lot of it is – people are not happy to be there. People are happy to say they were there. Oh, yes, I went to see—
Christopher Lee: But that’s not the case here. Not at all.
Matthew Porretta: No. Exactly what I’m saying. So I think it’s a perfect idea to have an artist represent the country because I feel the country is so rich with artists on so many levels. An artist would understand what to do here. I have to say, the one thing the Russians left here was art and music.
Christopher Lee: And a great sense of religion, of course.
Matthew Porretta: It’s like 7-11s. There are churches on every corner.
Christopher Lee: It’s very, very Catholic. The only similar situation and I’ve done a couple of movies there, is in Croatia, which has also changed but not for the better because of the war. When we were filming in Croatia—
Matthew Porretta: When you take a job, does there have to be a danger factor?
Christopher Lee: I was offered something in Belfast quite recently.
Matthew Porretta: Is there a civil war breaking out? Then, okay, yes. I’m in! I’m in! I can only act when I feel my life is in danger.
Christopher Lee: Or can I arrange it. . . .
Suzan Mazur: What are some of the biggest challenges for the people here?
Christopher Lee: The people here? I think you could say the same thing about any country that is in any sense a new country. They have got to create their own particular way of life within certain constraints. In other words, make life better for all the people in the country.
I think, obviously, everyone wants to better themselves. That’s natural, normal, human. They all want their country to be prosperous. To be comfortable. They want people to come here. They want it to be a place that people want to visit. It’s the economy.
Apart from political freedom and religious freedom, which is immensely important to them, it’s the economy of the country. How it affects them, and how they present themselves to the world. Because, I think the Baltic States, generally speaking, to the rest of the world are still very much an unknown quantity.
Matthew Porretta: Oh absolutely.
Christopher Lee: As I said to somebody today, it’s very beautiful some of the buildings here in Vilnius. Have you been to Riga [Latvia]?
No, they said.
I said, there are some beautiful buildings there. Then I asked, have you been to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, which is one of the most beautiful cities I’ve even seen?
Suzan Mazur: I’m going there tonight.
Christopher Lee: You’ll love it! It’s absolutely beautiful. It really is.
What does a new country do when it throws off the shackles? Because you can’t really put it any other way. You’ve got the background. You’ve got the country. You’ve got the energy. You’ve got the business. You’ve got the religion. Now you’ve pulled yourself up, higher and higher and higher. You can be on the same level politically, not militarily, because that would never happen, but politically with the other countries of the world – who they’ve obviously wanted to emulate for many years. I don’t know if it’s as simple as capitalism or not.
What is capitalism? What is capitalism?
Capitalism is doing well for yourself and your family.
Matthew Porretta: I think that’s true, but I also think that what you hope is that they do well for themselves and their families but they put back into the country so that keeps it stable.
Christopher Lee: They’re very proud people. They have a great history.
Suzan Mazur: Have you met the Ortiz brothers? They own supermarkets and the city guides, Vilnius in Your Pocket, etc.
Christopher Lee: Ortiz. You mean Patino?
Suzan Mazur: Their father is George Ortiz, the antiquities collector from Switzerland.
Christopher Lee: The one I know is Ortiz Patino. Patino was the Bolivian tin king [grandfather of George Ortiz]. Patino was a Bolivian Indian, built up this fortune. And his daughter--
Matthew Porretta: He knows everybody. It’s so scary. And now he knows me. That’s even scarier.
Christopher Lee: Ah, yes. . . .
This story was originally published on scoop.co.nz