LOS ANGELES -- In "The Fellowship of the Ring," Christopher Lee appeared as the traitorous elder wizard Saruman, whose snowy white beard and robe hid his black-hearted intentions for Middle-earth.
In "The Two Towers," Saruman watched his power fade as enormous walking trees laid waste to his army of ugly orcs and trapped him in his stone skyscraper.
The final installment, "The Return of the King," reveals that Saruman is ... well, where is he? Certainly not in the movie.
All of the 81-year-old Lee's closing scenes were cut from "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, a move that has angered thousands of hard-core fans and may confuse the casual moviegoer who wonders why one of the story's main villains has simply disappeared.
In the books by J.R.R. Tolkien, Saruman escapes his tower and overtakes the Shire, a peaceful Hobbit homestead. His death comes at the end of the books when Frodo and company try to eject him from their village.
That particular subplot was never filmed by Jackson. Instead, he shot an alternate climax for the wicked wizard character that he intended to place at the end of "The Two Towers."
But that didn't work out either.
"It seemed like an anticlimax," Jackson said. After that film's elaborate battle sequence in the mountain stronghold of Helm's Deep, the director said he felt audiences would want "to finish that film off as quickly as we could."
The seven-minute sequence that ends Saruman's story line was held for use near the beginning of "The Return of the King."
"As it is, it didn't work in the theatrical cut of 'Return of the King' either, because it felt like we were finishing off last year's movie instead of jumping in and setting up the tension for the new film," Jackson said.
Instead, the characters mention perfunctorily that Saruman is powerless - then they move on to the rest of the story.
That explanation hasn't satisfied many fans. An Internet petition asking Jackson to reinstate the Saruman footage has gathered more than 40,000 signatures.
"I believe this cut will hurt 'The Return of the King,"' wrote petition founder Matt Shuster. "Please Peter Jackson, at least consider putting this scene back into the theatrical version, and give us Saruman fans/haters some much needed closure."
Shuster has since posted an addendum, acknowledging it was too late to change the film. "Signing the petition now will only serve to breed ill will against the filmmakers and that is not my intent."
Jackson promised fans that the sequence would be included in the extended DVD edition of "The Return of the King," which is expected to be released next fall.
"It will ultimately take its place as part of the greater package," Jackson said. "The scene is perfectly fine. Christopher is good in the scene and there's nothing wrong with it."
Lee, who also plays the villain Count Dooku in last year's "Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones," has appeared in about 250 movies. The 6-foot-4 actor is best known for his suave, calculating evildoers in the Hammer horror films of the 1960s, and is ranked along with Bela Lugosi among the actors most remembered for playing Count Dracula.
The British actor did not respond to a request for comment on his cut scenes, but he told Britain's ITV-1 last month he was dismayed by Jackson's decision. "Of course I am very shocked, that's all I can say," he said, citing confidentiality agreements that required him to hold his tongue.
Lee, who was an acquaintance of Tolkien's, has said he has read the trilogy every year for the past five decades.
Ian McKellen, who as the good wizard Gandalf had magical duel with Saruman in "Fellowship," said he doubted that Lee had any lingering hurt feelings.
"It would have been nice to see Saruman dealt with, wouldn't it," McKellen said. "He hasn't told me there was a problem. I can't imagine that a man who has made as many movies as Christopher is surprised that sometimes what you've shot doesn't make it into the final movie.
"At least it is not lost," McKellen added, smiling. "It will be there on the DVD, and people will be able to say to Peter, 'You should have put it into the movie!"'
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