Mr. Death – Live from New York!

One of my treasured tube memories is from 1978, when horror icon Christopher Lee hosted Saturday Night Live (with musical guest Meat Loaf). To my young geek soul, this was some kind of cultural triumph. In its third season, SNL was on a comedy high along with John Belushi, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, Mr. Bill and the others, including perennial guest host Steve Martin. At that time, NBC’s corporate marketing had nothing to do with guest host or band appearances, so we were spared today’s cookie-cutter roster of mediocre talents pimping their latest disposable wares that constitutes most of SNL’s guests today. Instead, you could see punk band Fear thrash the stage (put on at Belushi’s request) or Devo go through their electronic spasms. In other words, the cast often chose who would play with them.

Dan Ackroyd and Belushi, along with Gilda Radner and Lorraine Newman, were big fans of Christopher Lee and demanded he host an episode. Lee was reluctant, not sure if he was going to make a fool of himself or be made a fool, but he went ahead and hosted what remains the third-highest rated show in SNL history — which I’ve only seen once: on Saturday Night in 1978. I never forgot the terrific “Mr. Death” sketch with Lee playing an apologetic Reaper to Newman’s outraged little girl (she threatened to quit the show unless she was given the part). Here’s what Lee had to say about this odd appearance in an interview with Total Film:

What prompted your decision to move to America in the late ’70s?
I became totally disillusioned with the British film industry. Richard Widmark told me, “You’re wasting your time here. They’ll always be asking you to play the same sort of characters, you’ll get bored and so will the audience. You must come to the States.” So I did, and my life changed. I hosted Saturday Night Live, which was without doubt the most hilarious experience I’ve ever had, because I was working with Belushi, Murray and Aykroyd at the height of their powers. I’ve got a photograph, of which I’m very proud, of me and John Belushi, who signed it, “To Chris, you are the best in the biz, from John Belushi – second best.” SNL was also the most important thing I’ve ever done in my career, because people like Steven Spielberg were in the audience, thinking, “Hang on. This man can be funny!” As a result, Spielberg asked me to do 1941.

I’ve been dying to see that episode again, and now we all can with the release of “Saturday Night Live Season Three” featuring the shows in their uncut glory — not to mention Christopher Lee’s sterling guest-host gig that led to his career resurgence. And led to him being cast as the gay biker in 1980’s underrated comedy, SERIAL.

UPDATE: I just watched the DVD and what a treat. Lee is perfect in a funny take-off on “My Fair Lady” with Dan Akroyd and Gilda Radner as Barbara Wa-Wa, where they start to sing but don’t. After the sketch, you can see Lee kiss Radner on the forehead. And his intro to Meat Loaf is a hoot — ironic that years later Lee would act as the Narrator for a version of “The Rocky Horror Show.” Christopher Lee’s goodbye at the end of the show is rather poignant, as he’s clearly moved. How odd to finally see this after so many years…

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7 Responses to “Mr. Death – Live from New York!”

  1. Thanks for the heads up on this Christian. I hadn’t been paying attention, but I’m assuming the first two seasons are available uncut as well?

    When I was a little kid I’d always try and stay up late with my older brothers, but I’d invariably fall asleep a little after the first musical performance. Still, some of these sketches are still burned into my brain. Dan Aykroyd and Belushi were my early favorites, but over the years Murray has proven himself the most interesting all-around talent.

    The next episode of that new Elvis Mitchell show on TCM is supposed to have a good interview with him…almost wish I had cable.

  2. christian Says:

    Yes, the first two seasons are out uncut. I’m VERY curious to see if the 4th season will include Lorne Michael’s least favorite SNL hosted by Milton Berle. Uncle Miltie was apparently an asshole to all, and Michaels never let the episode air again. Ever.

    But I saw it “live” and never forgot it. It’s actually funny and there’s one amazing bit with Murray and Newman in bed as her father played by Berle cuddles up with them. Murray’s irritation is real and palatable, which makes the sketch work great.

    What are you doing blogging on your birthday? You going to see Diablo tonight at the New Bev?

  3. I didn’t know Diablo was at the New Bev. I went to Hellboy.

  4. christian Says:

    She’s doing a Mondo Diablo festival. See you at XANADU!

    Uh…Craig?

  5. yyyyyyyyyeah, I’ll be skipping Xanadu. I could see myself hitting one or another of the others on the list however.

  6. […] out to be more than meets the eye in one of the film’s best scenes. Lee had been a hit on “Saturday Night Live” and that allowed him to truly break free of his horror typecasting with roles in AIRPORT ’77; […]

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