13 British comedy stars lured to Hollywood in the 1990s
Hollywood went hunting for lots of British comedy talent in the 1990s - and lured the likes of Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry and Emma Thompson...
For some reason, Hollywood fell in love with British actors again in the 1990s. Sparked by Alan Rickman’s turn as Hans Gruber in Die Hard at the back end of the 1980s, many movie villains were either Brits, or in the case of Cliffhanger, John Lithgow taking on the mannerisms of a British antagonist.
Yet in particular, Hollywood went recruiting British comedy talent, with faces then mainly – but not exclusively – known for their small screen work getting roles of various sizes in Hollywood productions. Here are some who racked up the air miles – starting with the man who arguably became one of the most successful…
Hugh Laurie – 101 Dalmatians
Laurie is a man of many talents, who ultimately cracked America with significant style across eight seasons of the TV show House. In the 1990s, however, following notable performances in films such as Peter’s Friends and Sense And Sensibility, he was cast as one of the leads in Disney’s live action 101 Dalmatians movie.
He mixed and matched film roles in the UK (Spice World, The Borrowers) with more larger American projects (Stuart Little, The Man In The Iron Mask), all the while maintaining television and writing work. Come the start of House, however, he was on his way to being the best paid actor per episode of any TV star in America. He’s also built a musical career, and will be seen in this summer’s major blockbuster, Tomorrowland.
And as we’ve just done Hugh Laurie, it makes sense to move onto…
Stephen Fry – A Civil Action, The Tichborne Claimant
Even though he had plenty of work under his belt by the mid-1980s, it was from that point onwards that he really came to prominence on UK television screens. The cumulative effect of Melchett in three series of Blackadder and his work with Hugh Laurie across A Bit Of Fry And Laurie and Jeeves And Wooster made him a particularly well-loved comedy star.
His film career started, then, to take off in the 90s too. He took effectively the lead role in Kenneth Branagh’s excellent ensemble piece Peter’s Friends, before starring opposite Alfred Molina and Helen Slater in the little-seen The Friends. His film breakthrough was his terrific turn in the title role of Wilde, for director Brian Gilbert in 1997. And after that, Hollywood roles were offered, although he took a part in David Yates’ (of Harry Potter fame) The Tichbourne Claimant first.
When he took another American film it, it was the John Travolta-headlined A Civil Action, a drama from director Steven Zaillian that told the story of the families of children who try to sue a pair of companies for their toxic waste. Fry took a small part in that one, but the door to America was clearly open. He still chose mainly British productions for his film work, and was by this stage an established novelist too. But in the 2000s, he would go on to feature in V For Vendetta, Stormbreaker, and 2010’s Alice In Wonderland.
Fry’s prominence now covers screen, stage, the written word and social media. Do, if you get a chance, check out his movie directorial debut, Bright Young Things. He released it in 2003, and it’s well worth a look.
Eddie Izzard – The Avengers, Mystery Men
Not that The Avengers, before you ask.
Eddie Izzard really came to prominence in the early 1990s, as the word of mouth surrounding his electric stand-up comedy performances continued to grow. Izzard’s move into feature film acting saw him take on an early role in an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent in 1996, and it was clear that this was a man with many strings to his proverbial bow.
Hollywood did indeed come calling, with two interesting projects in particular. 1998’s The Avengers is, by pretty much everyone’s assessment, an absolute mess, savagely cut to less than 80 minutes, and notorious for featuring Sean Connery in a rabbit suit. But it was 1999’s Mystery Men that gave him a far better vehicle for his talents, making it all the more a shame that the film never got the audience it deserved.
Still, Izzard has consistently acted in features since, in movies such as Ocean’s Twelve and Thirteen, Prince Caspian, Valkyrie, and Cars 2. He has balanced television, writing and political work concurrently. And run a shedload of marathons too…
Lee Evans – There’s Something About Mary
The rubber-faced antics of Lee Evans not only fill arena tours as he continues touring his comedy shows, but also brought him to Hollywood’s attention.
He was part of a massive, massive hit too, taking on a key supporting role in the Farrrelly brothers’ There’s Something About Mary in 1998. Before that, though, off the back of his film debut in Peter Chelsom’s excellent Funny Bones, Evans landed a role in Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element. And then, arguably his best film role to date, as Lars in the hugely underrated Mouse Hunt (from Pirates Of The Caribbean and The Lone Ranger director Gore Verbinski).
Evans hasn’t taken on much film work since, but his name is still in casting agents’ rolodexes. The Medallion, back in 2003, was his last Hollywood role though.
John Cleese – The Jungle Book, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
In truth, Cleese had appeared in Hollywood movies prior to the 1990s, with the most successful – A Fish Called Wanda (a part-British production) – earning him an Oscar nomination for his screenplay. But it was the 1990s where his Hollywood career really took off in earnest. He appeared in films involving his fellow Pythons (The Wind In The Willows, Splitting Heirs), by Michael Winner (Bullseye, the risible Parting Shots), Disney family movies (George Of The Jungle, The Jungle Book) and by Kenneth Branagh (Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein).
Towards the end of the 1990s, he co-starred with Steve Martin in the remake of The Out-Of-Towners, before taking on the role of R (subsequently Q) in the James Bond films.
Throughout the 2000s, Cleese would be a regular in American movies, but increasingly for voice work (Shrek 2, Planet 51, Planes, Charlotte’s Web). He’d still notch up screen time in The Day The Earth Stood Still and The Pink Panther 2, but in more recent times, he’s written and released his memoirs and – temporarily – reunited with Monty Python.
Eric Idle – Dudley Do-Right, Casper
Much like Cleese, Eric Idle’s career got another boost when Hollywood went looking for more British comedy talent in the 1990s. By this stage, of course, Idle’s CV was already the envy of many. And he’d popped up in a couple of popular movies for America in the 1980s, namely National Lampoon’s European Vacation and Transformers: The Movie (there aren’t too many people who can say they’ve co-starred with Orson Welles, but Idle is very much one of them).
In the ’90s, then, buoyed by the success of 1990 comedy Nuns Of The Run, Idle was recruited for US films such as Mom And Dad Save The World, the doesn’t-deserve-to-be-forgotten-about Casper, An Alan Smithee Film (best forget that one though) and 1999’s flop, Dudley Do-Right. He too found voice work lucrative though, most notably lending his vocal chords to South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut.
Throughout the 2000s, Idle moved back to developing Python projects, most notably the hugely-successful Spamalot musical. He’ll next lend his voice to the Simon Pegg-headlined Absolutely Anything.
Emma Thompson – Primary Colors, Junior
Emma Thompson may have two Oscars under her belt so far, yet she too started off in comedy. In her case, the BBC sketch show Thompson, back in 1988. The show wasn’t a huge success, though, yet her turn in The Tall Guy (1989) was, notable for being part of one of cinema’s most prolonged and funniest sex scenes.
She’d move from comedy to more dramatic work throughout the 1990s though, at first in the productions of her ex-husband Kenneth Branagh. Yet she came to the attention of Merchant Ivory, who cast her as Margaret Schleigel in Howard’s End, a role for which she won her first Academy Award. After that? She mixed acclaimed work in British films – The Remains Of The Day, In The Name Of The Father, Carrington – with some overt Hollywood fare. Most notably, starring opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger in Junior. Don’t overlook her turn in Mike Nichols’ underrated Primary Colors, though.
Thompson won her second Oscar in 1995, for the screenplay to Sense & Sensibility. She’s since penned two Nanny McPhee movies, and featured in work as diverse as Men In Black 3 and Stranger Than Fiction. Next up? Playing Mrs Potts in the live action take on Beauty And The Beast.
In short: so successful has Thompson’s work been in Hollywood, barely anyone remembers the comedy sketch show that bore her name anymore.
Rowan Atkinson – The Witches, Hot Shots: Part Deux
Firstly through stand up and then through his major success with Blackadder, Rowan Atkinson’s star was shining brightly in the 1990s. As such, after already having a few film credits under his belt – Never Say Never Again and The Tall Guy most prominently – Atkinson joined the cast of Nicolas Roeg’s The Witches adaptation in 1990.
He’d mix up British and American features throughout the decade. So on the one hand, there was his supporting turn in Hot Shots! Part Deux and his voice work on The Lion King. Then he appeared in crossover hits Bean and Four Weddings And A Funeral.
There’s a sense though that Atkinson’s film career has never perhaps hit the heights it could have. His choices since the 90s in particular, perhaps with the exception of Rat Race, have played relatively safe. Two Johnny English films, one Scooby Doo and a Bean sequel all made money, but rarely make it to the must-watch shelf of anyone’s disc collection.
Mel Smith – Radioland Murders
The late Mel Smith went to Hollywood in the 1990s, but behind the camera rather than in front. Smith had, by this point, made his feature directorial debut with The Tall Guy (a film that keeps coming up in this feature). The movie was a hit, and Smith came to the attention of George Lucas, who hired him to direct one of his pet projects, Radioland Murders.
Radioland Murders was released in 1994, although Lucas had begun developing it in the 1970s. It was advances in CG work that allowed him to finally press ahead with the project, as the use of digital mattes for instance helped bring the cost of the film down to a relatively modest $15m. Lucas opted for Smith because he believed he was the right choice for the mix of slapstick and dark comedy that Radioland Murders demanded.
Sadly, critics didn’t agree. It collapsed at just shy of $1.5m at the box office, and Smith’s remaining directorial efforts were all British movies. He would go on to direct Bean, High Heels And Low Lifes, and Blackball.
Rik Mayall – Drop Dead Fred
The late, great Rik Mayall made the jump to the movies with Drop Dead Fred, a movie that’s either regarded as a marvellous showcase for Mayall’s unique talents, or a grating vehicle beneath the great man. The fact that plans are still in the works to remake the movie tells you something, though.
The movie itself, directed by Ate De Jong, was a British-American co-production, that co-starred Phoebe Cates. And it’s a deeper beast that it’s often given credit for. Drop Dead Fred is the imaginary friend of Cates’ character, in a film that – to its real credit – touches on important themes in the midst of its comedy.
Mayall took the role after Robin Williams passed to make Hook instead (and Tim Burton was offered the project at one stage too).
It’s Mayall mainlined to a Duracell battery factory at its loudest, for better or worse, and it made a tidy $13m in the US. However, critics pretty much detested the film. But its cult reputation endures.
Mayall, though, would mainly stay away from film work for the rest of his career. Although he was cut out of the first Harry Potter movie…
Ken Dodd – Hamlet
It’d be remiss not to mention this. Kenneth Branagh gave the thoroughly tax-paying, tickle-stick wielding Dodd a very brief cameo in his majestically mounted movie take on Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Since then, though, Dodd has returned to giving six hour gigs in theatres around the UK.
That’s not a joke…
Lenny Henry – True Identity
Yes, that is our Len.
Lenny Henry was pretty much at the height of his comedy powers in the late 1980s and early 1990s. And such was his success on British television, in particular with The Lenny Henry Show, that Disney came calling.
Henry signed a three-picture deal with Disney, with the studio reckoning it had its next big movie star on its hands. The first of those three pictures was True Identity.
However, it would be fair to say that True Identity was not a success. So much so in fact that Disney and Henry parted company not long after. Back in 2012, Henry told The Telegraph that “when I went to America to do the film in 1991, I realised they had their own Richard Pryor, they didn’t need me pretending to be Richard Pryor, so I had a massive career rethink.”
And so Henry came home. The wonderful Bernard And The Genie would follow a year later. He’s barely been seen in movies since, though, although he did play a shrunken head in Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban.
Steve Coogan – The Indian In The Cupboard
Steve Coogan has had a more interesting movie career than many British comedians, mainly though his choice of UK projects. Films such as A Cock & Bull Story, Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa, and Philomena have been ones he’s had some element of control over, and each has reaped critical or commercial acclaim, or both.
When he took on a role in Frank Oz’s underrated 1995 movie The Indian In The Cupboard, Coogan was just launching Alan Partridge onto the small screen (following The Day Today, and the wonderful Knowing Me Knowing You radio series). And I’m Alan Partridge in particular would keep him busy once the movie was complete.
His role in The Indian In The Cupboard wasn’t a sizeable one, but it put his foot into the American movie industry, and he’d build on that in the following decade with features such as Don Roos’ Happy Endings, Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee & Cigarettes, Hamlet 2, Tropic Thunder, and the beginnings of the Night At The Museum trilogy.
That said, Coogan has never been fully lured to Hollywood, and has balanced a mix of TV, film and writing work. He’s currently working on a follow-up to Alan Partridge’s memoirs, I, Partridge. They’re due next year.