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Bernard Lee

Bernard Lee

John Bernard Lee (10 January 1908 – 16 January 1981), known as Bernard Lee, was an English actor best known for his role as M in the first eleven Eon-produced James Bond films. Lee's film career spanned 1934 to 1979, though he had appeared on stage from the age of six. He was trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London.

Lee appeared in over one hundred films, as well as on stage and television dramatisations. He was known for his roles as authority figures, often playing military characters or policemen, and highlights in his career include The Third Man, The Blue Lamp, The Battle of the River Plate and Whistle Down the Wind.

He died of stomach cancer on 16 January 1981, aged 73.


  • Life and career 1
    • Early life 1.1
    • Second World War to 1962 1.2
    • Bond and beyond 1.3
  • Death 2
  • Filmography and other works 3
  • References 4
  • Bibliography 5
  • External links 6

Life and career

Early life

Lee was born on 10 January 1908, the son of Nellie (née Smith) and Edmund James Lee.[1] He was born in either County Cork in what is now the Republic of Ireland,[2] or Brentford, London.[1][nb 1] Lee's father was also an actor and Bernard's first appearance on stage in 1914, at the age of six, was with his father in a sketch called "The Double Event"[4] at the Oxford Music Hall in London.[5][6] Lee attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, working as a fruit porter to pay his fees.[5] During the 1930s, after graduating from RADA, he initially worked in repertory theatre in Rusholme and Cardiff before beginning work on the West End stage in thrillers, such as Blind Man's Bluff.[6] Lee also played comedic roles, such as with Arthur Askey in Ten Minute Alibi.[5]

Lee's screen debut was in

External links

  • Aldgate, Anthony;  
  • Barnes, Alan; Hearn, Marcus (2001). Kiss Kiss Bang! Bang!: the unofficial James Bond film companion. Batsford Books.  
  • Britton, Wesley Alan (30 October 2006). Onscreen And Undercover: The Ultimate Book of Movie Espionage. Greenwood Publishing Group.  
  • Cork, John; Stutz, Collin (2007). James Bond Encyclopedia. London: Dorling Kindersley.  
  • Gifford, Denis (1986). The British film catalogue 1895–1985: a reference guide. London: David & Charles Plc.  
  • International Motion Picture Almanac. Groton, Massachusetts: Quigley Publishing Company. 1942. 
  • Kabatchnik, Amnon (2011). Blood on the Stage, 1950–1975: Milestone Plays of Crime, Mystery and Detection: An Annotated Repertoire. Plymouth, Devon: Scarecrow Press.  
  • Lloyd, Ann; Fuller, Graham; Desser, Arnold (1983). The Illustrated who's who of the cinema. London: Orbis Publishing.  
  • Lovell, George (28 December 2000). Consultancy, Ministry & Mission. Continuum International Publishing Group.  
  • McFarlane, Brian (2005). The Encyclopedia of British film. London: Methuen Publishing.  
  • Parker, John (1981). Who's who in the theatre, volume 1. Bristol: Pitman.  
  • Pettigrew, Terence (1982). British film character actors: great names and memorable moments. Rowman & Littlefield.  
  • Pomerance, Murray (2004). Bad: Infamy, Darkness, Evil, and Slime on Screen. SUNY Press.  
  • Pfeiffer, Lee; Worrall, Dave (1998). The essential Bond. London: Boxtree Ltd.  
  • Pykett, Derek (20 July 2008). British Horror Film Locations. McFarland.  
  • Rubin, Steven Jay (2003). The Complete James Bond Movie Encyclopedia. New York: McGraw-Hill.  
  • Smith, Jim; Lavington, Stephen (2002). Bond films. London: Virgin Books.  


  1. ^ a b Parker 1981, p. 413.
  2. ^ a b c "Lee, Bernard". BFI Film & TV Database.  
  3. ^ IMPA 1942, p. 355.
  4. ^ a b c d Foster, Paul (13 December 1973). "Busy time for Bond's boss".  
  5. ^ a b c d "Obituary: Mr Bernard Lee".  
  6. ^ a b c  
  7. ^ a b c d e Pettigrew 1982, p. 120.
  8. ^ McFarlane 2005, p. 407.
  9. ^ Aldgate & Richards 2007, p. 82.
  10. ^ "Anna Neagle Most Popular Actress.".  
  11. ^ Pettigrew 1982, p. 118.
  12. ^ a b "Bernard Lee is Dead; British Actor Had Roles in James Bond Movies".  
  13. ^ "Crest of the Wave(1954)".  
  14. ^ Lovell 2000, p. 224.
  15. ^ Anderson, Lindsay; Dent, David (8 January 1958). "Time For New Ideas".  
  16. ^ Lloyd, Fuller & Desser 1983, p. 260.
  17. ^ "Actor Lee In Bond Films Dead". Associated Press (London). 17 January 1981. 
  18. ^ Cork & Stutz 2007, p. 154.
  19. ^ Rubin 2003, p. 227-228.
  20. ^ Smith & Lavington 2002, p. 15.
  21. ^ a b "Talented Bernard Lee – typical British actor".  
  22. ^ Pomerance 2004, p. 184.
  23. ^ Pykett 2008, p. 52.
  24. ^ Luck, Norman (31 January 1972). "Cottage fire kills wife of actor Bernard Lee".  
  25. ^ Warner 1975, p. 52.
  26. ^ "Two convicted of robbing actor".  
  27. ^ Waite, Keith (29 January 1975). "The secret of M".  
  28. ^ a b Henning, Moyra (18 January 1981). "Bond film 'M' is dead".  
  29. ^ Sloan, Robin Adams (12 February 1981). "A friend in need".  
  30. ^ Britton 2006, p. 149.
  31. ^ McFarlane, Brian. "Lee, Bernard (1908–1981)".  
  32. ^ Reid, Vicki (3 October 2009). "Jonny Lee Miller: interview".  
  33. ^ "Jonny Lee Miller".  
  34. ^ "Spy Chief M Dies".  
  35. ^ "Mercy death call by M widow".  
  36. ^ Barnes & Hearn 2001, p. 138.
  37. ^ Pfeiffer & Worrall 1998, p. 98.
  38. ^ Rubin 2003, p. 227.
  1. ^ Two reliable and independent sources (the British Film Institute (BFI) and John Parker's 1981 reference work Who's Who in the Theatre, Volume 1) have differing locations for Lee's place of birth, with Parker showing London and the BFI listing Cork, stating "Some sources give London as birthplace".[2] The 1938, 1942 and 1943 editions of the International Motion Picture Almanac also claim he was born in County Cork.[3]


Year Film
1962 Dr. No
1963 From Russia with Love
1964 Goldfinger
1965 Thunderball
1967 You Only Live Twice
1969 On Her Majesty's Secret Service
1971 Diamonds Are Forever
1973 Live and Let Die
1974 The Man with the Golden Gun
1977 The Spy Who Loved Me
1979 Moonraker

From 1962 to 1979 Lee featured in eleven James Bond films as the character M, Bond's superior.[38]

Filmography and other works

Lee died after filming had started on For Your Eyes Only, but before he could film his scenes as M.[36] Out of respect for Lee, no replacement was found, and the script was re-written so that the character was said to be on leave.[37] Terence Pettigrew summarised Lee's acting work a year after his death as a "Gruff, reliable, no-nonsense role character actor, whose many credits include policemen, servicemen, father figures, and spy chiefs. Mostly shows the honest, hard-working face of officialdom, with only very occasional lapses."[7]

In November 1980, Lee was admitted to the Royal Free Hospital in London, suffering from stomach cancer. He died there on 16 January 1981, just six days after his 73rd birthday;[34] his wife Ursula was present at his death.[2][12] After his death, Ursula joined Exit (now Dignity in Dying) after witnessing Lee's suffering.[35]


Three years after the fire, Lee married television director's assistant Ursula McHale.[28] Lee's first marriage produced a daughter, Ann, who also followed her father onto the stage, and did so with his blessing, Lee saying "She's doing what she wants to do and enjoying every moment of it."[21] Ann later married Alan Miller, a stage actor and later a stage manager at the BBC: their son—and Lee's grandson—is British actor Jonny Lee Miller.[31][32][33] Lee's hobbies included golf, fishing, reading, music and sailing.[4]

On 30 January 1972 Lee's first wife, Gladys Merredew, died in a fire at their seventeenth-century home in Oare, Kent which also left Lee hospitalised.[24] According to actor Jack Warner, "Bernard and Gladys had a lovely seventeenth-century cottage in the Kent village of Oare, and it was there she died tragically in a fire early in 1972. Bernard and Gladys were trapped in their bedroom when the fire started on the ground floor. Bernard escaped through a window and ran to get a ladder in an attempt to rescue Gladys but unhappily was unsuccessful. It was an awful end to a long and happy marriage."[25] In February 1972 Lee was mugged and robbed by two youths.[26] After the mugging and fire, Lee turned to drink,[27] was unable to find work for two years and ran into debt.[28] By chance Lee met Richard Burton in a pub, who, upon hearing of Lee's problems, gave him a cheque for $6,000 to clear his debts, together with a note saying that everyone has a spot of trouble once in a while. Burton's gift assisted Lee in overcoming his depression.[29] In 1975 both Lee and Lois Maxwell accepted roles in their usual Bond characters in the poorly received French James Bond spoof, From Hong Kong with Love.[30]

In 1962 Lee was cast in the role that The Illustrated Who's Who of the Cinema thought would probably be his best remembered,[16][17] playing the character of M, the head of the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6)—and the superior of James Bond—in the first Eon Productions film, Dr. No. A number of Bond scholars have noted that Lee's interpretation of the character was in line with the original literary representation; Cork and Stutz observed that Lee was "very close to Fleming's version of the character",[18] whilst Rubin commented on the serious, efficient, no-nonsense authority figure.[19] Smith and Lavington, meanwhile, remarked that Lee was "the very incarnation of Fleming's crusty admiral."[20] One American newspaper, The Spokesman-Review, described Lee as "a real roast-beef-and-Yorkshire-pudding type of British actor."[21] Murray Pomerance refers to Lee as a "paternal actor" in embodying this role.[22] Terence Pettigrew, in his study British film character actors: great names and memorable moments agreed, noting that Lee was a "gruff, reliable, no-nonsense role character actor",[7] with "kindly eyes, droll manner and expressly Anglo-Saxon level-headedness".[7] In 1967, Lee appeared in O.K. Connery, a spoof of the James Bond film series which starred Connery's brother Neil Connery, Lois Maxwell (Miss Moneypenny), and several former actors of the series. During this period he also appeared in several ITC television productions such as The Baron, Man in a Suitcase, and Danger Man. In 1972 he portrayed Tarmut the sculptor in Terence Fisher's Hammer Horror picture Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell, alongside Peter Cushing, Shane Briant and David Prowse; it was not released until 1974.[23]

Bond and beyond

During the 1950s he had a long run on stage, appearing as Able Seaman Turner in Seagulls Over Sorrento,[6] a role he later reprised in the [14] The film was critically acclaimed, nominated for three BAFTA Awards in 1957, for "Best British Film", "Best British Screenplay" and "Best Film From Any Source", and was the fourth most popular movie in Britain in 1957.[15] Other films of this period include The Spanish Gardener (1956), Dunkirk (1958), Beyond This Place (1959), Whistle Down the Wind (1961) and The L-Shaped Room (1962).

After the war Lee returned to the stage whilst also developing a successful film career. He appeared in Herbert Wilcox's The Courtneys of Curzon Street (1947), playing a colonel alongside Anna Neagle, Michael Wilding and Daphne Slater; the film was a major success and become the best-selling film at the British box office for 1947.[10] He developed a reputation for playing "solid, dependable characters such as policemen, serving officers or officials"[5] in films such as The Fallen Idol (1948), The Third Man (1949), The Blue Lamp (1950), Last Holiday (1950), Cage of Gold (1950), Mr. Denning Drives North (1952), The Yellow Balloon (1953), Beat the Devil (1953), and Father Brown (1954), and commanders, colonels, or brigadiers in films such as Morning Departure (1950), Calling Bulldog Drummond (1951), Appointment with Venus (1951), and many more. In John Huston's Beat the Devil, Terence Pettigrew considers Lee to have been instrumental to the climax of the film, remarking that it was "left to Bernard Lee to inject a badly needed touch of earthiness at the end."[11] In total Lee appeared in over one hundred films during his career.[12]

Lee's wartime service was with the Royal Sussex Regiment[4] and while he was awaiting his demob he attended golfing ladies' night where he met a producer and was subsequently offered a part in the play Stage Door.[4]

Second World War to 1962

. The New Lot, and Once a Crook, Spare a Copper), [9]

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