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British comic hopes the folks in the States catch on to the joke

| Thursday, July 17, 2003

LOS ANGELES -- Like so many British funny men, Rowan Atkinson is still waiting for Americans to get him the way the rest of the world does.

Atkinson has been a star at home in England and abroad for 20 years with his history-skewering BBC series "Black Adder," the sketch-comedy show "Mr. Bean" and its 1997 movie version "Bean."

Yet in the United States, Atkinson's creations have been met with the same sort of cult status as "Monty Python's Flying Circus," "Fawlty Towers," "Absolutely Fabulous" and other British TV comedies with fiercely devoted but decidedly fringe audiences.

Luckily for Atkinson, he doesn't need U.S. success to make the movies he wants. "Bean," the big-screen adaptation about Atkinson's outrageously mischievous man-child, already was an international hit when it landed in American theaters.

The movie took in a modest $45 million in the United States but did four times as much business overseas.

Likewise, Atkinson's new spy comedy "Johnny English" already is a $100-million-plus success worldwide. Whatever it collects in the States is gravy, although Atkinson figures it stands a better chance than "Bean" to click with Americans.

"It's just a matter of getting people in to see it, because it does have a very broad what I would call family appeal," says Atkinson, 48. "It's certainly worked that way in every other territory around the world, where you actually have family groups going to see it, the elderly aunts and the 9-year-olds, they all go together."

As with "Bean," "Johnny English" has its roots on the small screen in a series of credit-card commercials Atkinson did for TV. The ads followed the misadventures of a cocky yet klutzy British spy and his loyal sidekick.

Atkinson plays the title character in the movie, a desk toady elevated to top-spy status in the British secret service after all the other agents are wiped out. With help from his deputy (Ben Miller) and a beautiful colleague (Natalie Imbruglia), swollen-headed Johnny bumbles after a Frenchman (John Malkovich) suspected of swiping the Crown Jewels and attempting to usurp the throne.

While packed with "Bean"-esque madcap physical antics, "Johnny English" is a much more verbal comedy than "Bean," whose main character was silent in the TV series and spoke sparingly in the movie. The generally goodhearted disposition of Atkinson's inept spy also might earn the character more empathy than the often mean-spirited Bean.

"It's a very simple film. I don't mean to say that that's the kind of film that Americans need. But it's very accessible," Atkinson says. "The verbal jokes, of which there are very few, are pretty simple. There's a lot of visual set pieces, silly visual jokes which anyone in any nationality can appreciate."

Another advantage for the prospects of "Johnny English" in America: The villain is French. Atkinson expects lingering disharmony over France's opposition to the U.S.-led war in Iraq may prime American audiences for a comedy with a French bad guy.

"It was entirely fortuitous. It certainly wasn't planned," Atkinson says. "We didn't change his accent at the last minute to the annoyance of French people or to create extra antagonism."

Atkinson often played the villain as a youth in school plays, rarely doing comic roles. He began developing his bent for comedy after meeting writing partner Richard Curtis at Oxford, where Atkinson earned degrees in electrical engineering.

Stage performances landed Atkinson on the BBC's media satire "Not the Nine O'Clock News" in the late 1970s. He moved on to one-man stage shows and other theater work along with TV's "Black Adder" and "Mr. Bean," the latter spawning a recent animated series.

Largely because of "Mr. Bean," Atkinson's physical comedy has drawn comparisons to the work of silent-film masters Charles Chaplin and Buster Keaton.

But Atkinson says he was more influenced by French comedian Jacques Tati, whose near-silent slapstick "opened a new world to me of very small comedy, comedy with very dull people doing very dull things, yet how fun that can be. The sheer ordinariness of their lives and jokes. There's such low expectations for comedy in that context, but it can actually be very funny."

Movie credits for Atkinson include "Scooby-Doo," "Rat Race," voice work in "The Lion King" and a memorable role as the addled preacher in "Four Weddings and a Funeral."

Atkinson has a small part as a guardian angel this fall in Curtis' directing debut, "Love Actually," an ensemble romance featuring Hugh Grant, Emma Thompson and Liam Neeson.

Next up for Atkinson likely will be a sequel to either "Bean" or "Johnny English." The fact that both movies did well overseas leaves Atkinson in an enviable position of independence from Hollywood, able to command big budgets from his British backers no matter what the box-office returns in America.

Atkinson will be happy if U.S. success comes, but he won't fret if it doesn't.

"I'm very happy with my London and English life. And I do not want to base myself here in L.A.," Atkinson says. "I'm very happy to come here. I like the place, I enjoy making movies here. I love the way Americans make movies, with a kind of energy and commitment.

"And if people say let's spend a lot of money releasing the 'Bean' movie in the States or the 'Johnny English' movie, then I say great, if you can make it work for you, that's great, and I'll come over and support it. But I can't just sort of throw myself wholeheartedly into that as a pure ambition."

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