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…