Celebrity Then And Now
Publication: Albany Daily News. Posted by Ryan Frost
Celebrity Then And Now
Posted by Ryan Frost
Mr. Bean, Blackadder, Johnny English
Currently Known For:
Actor, Comedian, and Screenwriter
1970s - Present
January 6, 1955
Mr. Bean, Blackadder, Johnny English
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“But I always feel that whatever I do, I could do better. I suppose it is perfectionism.” A former electrical engineering student at Oxford, Rowan Atkinson’s life could have been much different had he not discovered his knack for comedic expression. Toying around with ideas with his friend and peer, Richard Curtis, Atkinson made his stage debut in 1979 and hasn’t looked back since with a long list of credits to his name including the starring role in the British television sitcom, Mr. Bean. Along the way, he’s reprised his role in several Mr. Bean movies like Bean and Mr. Bean’s Holiday in addition to appearing on the BBC sketch comedy series, Not the Nine O’Clock News, the 1983 James Bond flick Never Say Never Again starring Sean Connery, and the 1994 film Four Weddings and a Funeral. Also voicing Zazu in The Lion King, let’s take a closer look at the 63-year-old’s career and his rise to fame over four decades ago!
“No, no, I was only funny on stage, really. I, I think I was funny as a person toward my classmates when I was very young. You know, when I was a child, up to about the age of 12.” The youngest of four sons born to a farmer and his wife, Roman Sebastian Atkinson made his grand entrance into the world on January 6, 1955 in Consett, County Durham, England. He and his brothers attended the St. Bees School in the neighboring village. After graduation, Atkinson enrolled at Newcastle University where he earned his degree in electrical engineering and set his sights on earning his Master of Science degree from The Queen’s College in Oxford.
While at Oxford, Atkinson joined The Oxford Revue comedy group and discovered his knack for comedy in the physical form. “I really registered my face, believe it or not, as a means of comedy expression,” Atkinson recalled. “That was when the physicality developed. I found that I could kick very high and I could bend my knees in a comedic way, and I thought that’s fun, I’ll do that a bit.” From there, the character of Mr. Bean developed. “Richard Curtis and I were at university together, and it was when we were preparing a show for the Edinburgh Festival in 1979, he said, ‘Why don’t we try something visual?’ because he knew I was interested in purely visual comedy and he was just a bit bored with writing words and wanted to concoct something else; so he came up with this idea of a man who can’t stay awake.”
Atkinson soon earned national attention as he continued writing and performing comedic sketches with a revue group called the Etceteras. By 1979, he was confident enough in his talents to start his own radio show on BBC Radio 3 titled The Atkinson People where he pretended to interview great fictional men. What made the series so comedic was that Atkinson lent his voice to every character. With the radio show earning moderate success, Atkinson set his sights on bigger things and went on tour with Angus Deayton, which led to another opportunity—a starring role in the British sketch comedy series, Not the Nine O’Clock News.
Atkinson was a huge hit on the series for the next three years until its cancellation in 1982. By then, he had plenty of other projects in the works including a starring role in the medieval sitcom, The Black Adder. The series lasted for three years and prompted sequels like Blackadder II in 1986, Blackadder The Third in 1987, and Blackadder Goes Fourth in 1989. By then, Atkinson had something even bigger up his sleeve—a character he would soon introduce as Mr. Bean.
The Makings of Mr. Bean
“Mr. Bean is essentially a child trapped in the body of a man. All cultures identify with children in a similar way, so he has this bizarre global outreach.” In 1990, Atkinson’s life entirely changed when he debuted his newest character, Mr. Bean, who was originally created for a 30-minute television special on New Year’s Day for Thames Television. The Mr. Bean special was meant to be a one-time showing, but viewers instantly fell in love with the character and begged for more. So, how did Atkinson come up with the beloved character?
Inspired by a trip he took to Venice, Italy in 1984, Atkinson was watching a group of Norwegian tourists buying CDs of Duran Duran when the idea for the character hit him. “I remember feeling the frustration of the parochial nature of comedy and thinking how nice it would be if someone could break that tradition and find something that was of genuine international appeal,” he said. “Mr. Bean doesn’t really care what the world thinks about him. He just does his thing… I feel as though the camera is almost a kind of voyeur in Mr. Bean’s life and you just watch this bizarre man going about his life in the way that he wants to.”
Atkinson revisited the character over a dozen times until 1995 when Atkinson brought Mr. Bean to America in the character’s first feature film, Bean. On an $18 million budget, the film grossed over $250 million worldwide and proved Mr. Bean’s international reach as audiences around the globe loved his insanity. The film’s success gave Atkinson greater freedom to embrace his character even further. “When I was doing Bean, I did strange things like appearing on chat shows in character as Mr. Bean,” he said. “I remember going to a book signing as Mr. Bean; it was a Mr. Bean book and I signed it as Mr. Bean. I just wrote ‘Mr. Bean’ in the book rather than Rowan Atkinson. I was there in costume and in character for the entire time… and it was a fantastically kind of freeing experience because I could just submerge myself in this character and just behave however I liked. And I didn’t care what I did or what I said to anyone. I just became this other person and it was a wonderful sort of freedom, a wonderful kind of fantasy…”
Giving Life to New Characters
“Funny things tend not to happen to me. I am not a natural comic. I need to think about things a lot before I can be even remotely amusing.” Atkinson found even more success in 2003 when he created the title character in Johnny English, a parody of spy films like the James Bond franchise that earned over $160 million at the box office. With Johnny English taking on a new personality, fans couldn’t help but love him as Atkinson reprised the character in Johnny English Reborn in 2011 and again in Johnny English Strikes Again in 2018.
“We made him for these commercials for a credit card in Britain. We did the campaign for about five years, and we must have made 13 or 14 commercials,” Atkinson said of developing Johnny English. Then, he expanded the character to film, which wasn’t exactly easy as Atkinson had already learned from Mr. Bean. “You certainly discover that you need to explain more about a character,” he admitted. “In TV, and in particular commercials, you don’t really need to explain very much at all; you just say he’s a spy and he’s a little bit theatrical and overblown and smug and he’s not very good at his job. And you don’t sort of ask any questions about that sort of thing in a commercial, but as soon as you get to a movie, and you’ve been with the character for 30 or 40 minutes, you start asking questions…”
Answering those questions and more about Johnny English in each sequel, Atkinson’s popularity continued to soar as fans demanded more from Mr. Bean. However, in 2012, Atkinson hinted that he planned to retire Mr. Bean because of his own age and fear that he couldn’t replicate what was so special about the series in the first place. “I’m well aware of the popularity, but then, of course, there’s always a little bit of you that thinks, ‘Well, could we really replicate what was so special about it?’” Fortunately, fans got what they wanted in 2014 when Atkinson reprised his character in a new animated series on ITV. The series was later released on the internet and broadcast on television as Atkinson also appeared as Mr. Bean in an advertisement for Snickers.
Since then, Atkinson has reprised the character for numerous Comic Relief Comedy skits and admits that he’s still perfecting Mr. Bean, who obviously ages as he does. “I don’t particularly want him to get old,” he admits. “I’ve always seen him as a rather timeless, ageless figure—though, in fact, when we were doing this funeral sketch a few weeks ago, quite a few people said you know there’s something about Bean in middle age which feels almost more right; he sort of suits an older outlook. We could possibly make a movie one day named Old Bean and consciously create an old Bean who’s like Bean but really doddery, and I think one could confront the age issue head-on.” Does that mean another Mr. Bean film might be in the works… we’ll just have to wait and see!
Life Beyond Mr. Bean and Johnny English
Outside of his iconic characters, Atkinson has never worried about being typecast or avoiding a role and, instead, has embraced every opportunity that’s come his way. “I like variety. I like to move on, but I don’t like, in any sense, to ignore the old,” he says. “I’m someone who tends to return to characters quite a lot. Like, you know, I could easily have left Mr. Bean as a TV series, but when the notion of making a movie was put forward, it kind of interested me… I would even return to the Blackadder character if the opportunity came up. I have no qualms about that at all…”
While he’s quick to return to his beloved characters as seen in the 2018 film, Johnny English Strikes Again, the 63-year-old actor and comedian is currently working on a new project—as the star in the British series, Maigret, which has been on the air since 2016. Beyond that, Atkinson remains active in the theater and has held starring and supporting roles in productions of Oliver!, Quartermine’s Terms, and The Nerd. Of course, with any project—be it television, film, or theater, Atkinson says his greatest fear in the creative process is failure and letting his audiences down.
“I enjoy the creative process as much, if not slightly more now,” he says. “The problem is… There’s worrying about whether you’re doing the right thing, you know, for yourself, or for your career. Things that when you were 19 you didn’t worry about. You just did whatever you fancied. Whereas there’s no doubt that the higher the profile you have, the more conspicuous, let’s say, your failure would be, and you become slightly self-conscious about that. You worry about failure more than you should. Secondly, in the modern media world, particularly in the US, much less so in Europe, marketing is the name of the game. Marketing is what gets you noticed, and that side of it is something; that side, doing interviews, is the side of it that I least enjoy.” Why?
For Atkinson, although he’s a veteran in the comedy industry, he admits that it takes him a moment and a lot of practice to find the humor. “People think because I can make them laugh on the stage, I’ll be able to make them laugh in person,” he says. “That isn’t the case at all. I am essentially a rather quiet, dull person who just happens to be a performer.” What a surprise coming from the beloved, Mr. Bean!