Johnny Depp made a surprise appearance Saturday night to pay tribute to a true legend of the silver screen — Sir Christopher Lee, who received a prestigious British Film Institute Fellowship for his long and distinguished career. The two, who have worked on three films together, had nothing but the kindest words for each other. Depp called the 91-year-old actor “a national treasure” and “a genuine artist,” while the elder statesmen of horror declared depth one of the few younger actors “who is truly a star.”

Lee was visibly struggling with his emotions as he approached the podium to accept his award from Depp, telling him, “I didn’t know you were going to be here. I must try and pull myself together.”

Director Tim Burton is the man who brought this pairing together, with Depp and Lee working together on “Sleepy Hollow,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” and “Dark Shadows.”  Lee also lent his voice to “Alice in Wonderland.”

While the younger generation knows Lee for his roles in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, all of the classic horror fans know him for his work with Hammer Studios alongside Peter Cushing. Along with Vincent Price, the trio made up a sort of (un)holy trinity for horror fans in that era, although rumors abound that Lee has since distanced himself from his work in “Dracula.”

Of course, it’s only fair to presume that the reason Burton cast him in his movies was his love of all the old Hammer films, which he has said that “Sleepy Hollow” pays homage to. I’d venture a guess that Peter Jackson had those old Hammer films in mind when casting Lee in “Lord of the Rings” movies, as well.

It’s great to see Lee getting his due from the film community, but his somewhat frail appearance in the photo of him and Depp together gives rise to concern that we may be losing the last icon of the golden age of horror all too soon. (And no, 91 years isn’t nearly enough.) It’s a shame that most of the commentary on the photo revolves around Depp’s blonde hair and not the screen legend seated next to him.

Lee is bigger than his role as “Dracula,” or any of his roles. He is the last connection we have to not only the time when Hammer Studios ruled, but our last connection to the legends of that time like Price and especially to Cushing. As long as Lee is still with us, we still have a little piece of the magic that was Cushing and Lee together. But when Lee is gone, it will truly be the end of  not only a legendary actor, but the greatest era of horror itself.

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