Rowan Atkinson’s wit and keen sense of the absurd made him a major comedy star in the U.K., so it was a surprise for some of his fans when his childlike Mr. Bean character turned out to be the creation that brought him global fame. Not Atkinson himself, though.
“It didn’t come as a shock when we achieved global outreach because that was the main instigation for doing him in the first place,” Atkinson says.
He was inspired to launch the nearly mute Bean after going on a holiday to Venice with a friend in 1985. “I remember seeing all these souvenir sellers in the piazza selling souvenirs of British rock stars at the time, like Duran Duran and David Bowie. I thought it was interesting that these British artists can assume an international audience while I as a comic performer cannot. Bean is very simple humor, extremely broad and extremely accessible. It’s the inner child within the adult who identifies with him and the dichotomy of responsibilities.”
Bean’s first movie incarnation, in 1997, grossed $250 million. Confounding the movie biz’s usual careerist practices, though, he took a full decade to deliver a sequel.
When “Mr. Bean’s Holiday” did finally hit U.K. cinemas earlier this year, the result was box office gold, topping the charts and grossing more than $40 million in the country alone. That helped earn Atkinson Variety‘s International Star of the Year honors.
“It’s a slightly eccentric approach to make a sequel 10 years after you should have done but it seems to have sustained, which is extremely gratifying,” says Atkinson with typical understatement.
Bean is arguably the most successful of Atkinson’s numerous creations. An illustrious career on U.K. TV, which began in 1979 with the political satire/spoof show — and “The Daily Show” prototype — “Not the Nine O’Clock News,” has continued through with four darkly funny “Blackadder” series and the police laffer “The Thin Blue Line.” He’s also made numerous cameo appearances in Working Title hits, including “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and “Love Actually.”
None of those projects, however, has achieved the international appeal of the accident-prone naif.
While Bean’s U.K. TV preem came in 1989 with a one-off half-hour show on terrestrial net ITV, and has subsequently spawned a total of 14 TV episodes, as well as a hugely popular animated series and two features, the idea first came out of a 1979 stage sketch.
“The only reason Bean exists is he’s the result of myself and Richard Curtis saying, ‘Why don’t we do a sketch about a man who can’t stay awake?'” Atkinson says. “That was the first Bean-like sketch.
“He was basically what I did as a comic performer when I had to create comic situations and make them as funny as possible without the use of words.”
“He didn’t have a name for 10 years. He was just a bloke in a tweed jacket,” Atkinson says.
As “Mr. Bean’s Holiday” bows in U.S. theaters, rumors swirl that this may be the last we see of the character. While Atkinson himself claims, “Never say never,” it is increasingly unlikely that we will see him essay the role again, at least on the bigscreen.
Rather, the 52-year-old Atkinson, who initially studied electrical engineering at the universities of Newcastle and Oxford, looks set to return to another former character, hapless spy Johnny English.
The current resurgence in spy capers — witness the boffo performances of both “Casino Royale” and “The Bourne Ultimatum” — has convinced Atkinson that a sequel to “Johnny English,” the 2003 feature that introduced the character, would have legs.
“The ‘Bourne’ thing is interesting. There was an early title for ‘Johnny English’ which was actually ‘Johnny English: Rogue Male,'” Atkinson says.
“That whole style of improvisational filmmaking you find with the ‘Bourne’ films, where he doesn’t have an Aston Martin or a Beretta but it’s just him, a magazine, a box of matches and a razor blade and people are trying to get him — I think there is something very interesting there because Johnny would do it but not as successfully as Jason Bourne.
“Also Daniel Craig going in a more serious direction with Bond opens up more of a landscape for one to be comic and ironic.”
While Atkinson is famous for his comedy, the star made headlines last year when he publicly criticized the British government for attempting to introduce legislation that would have outlawed comics’ abilities to make fun of religion.
It was a rare public intervention from Akinson, who normally shuns the limelight and lets his characters speak for him.
Moreover, it revealed once again the socially aware side Atkinson first revealed almost 30 years ago in his work on “Not the Nine O’Clock News.” It is an area he would like to return to eventually.
“I do miss that slightly more topical, satirical line because the world had changed dramatically in the last 10 or 20 years,” Atkinson says. “There’s so many things to make jokes about that nobody is making jokes about, like the recent outbreak of mad cow disease and looking at where Bush and Blair are going to go when they retire.
“Even though I’m not a political person, I am engaged by issues. Richard Curtis and I had this stupid idea shortly after 9/11 where we wanted to look at Osama bin Laden hiding in caves in Afghanistan and just the idea of a day in his life or writing a song about him running in and out of a cave.
“We never did anything about it but the idea was very appealing. Every new twist in the world creates absurdities.”