Richard Lester

Active - 1959 - 2016  |   Born - Jan 19, 1932   |   Genres - Comedy, Action

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Biography by Jason Ankeny

During the middle years of the 1960s, director Richard Lester captured the spirit of his times with an energy and vitality unmatched by any of his contemporaries; a peerless and highly sophisticated visual humorist, his films -- particularly those in conjunction with the Beatles -- brilliantly tapped the essence of the fledgling youth movement, and remain definitive portraits of their era. Lester was born January 19, 1932, in Philadelphia, PA. After graduating high school at the precocious age of 15, he studied clinical psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, but his central focus became music and the theater, and after graduating in 1951, he went to work as a stagehand at Philadelphia television station WCAU. Over the next few years Lester rose through the station's ranks to become a director, helming over a dozen live broadcasts -- news reports, sporting events, dramas, even puppet shows -- each week; he subsequently quit the position to move to Europe, earning money as a roving correspondent for small town newspapers and supplementing his income by playing jazz piano in coffee bars.

In 1955, Lester landed in London, where he attempted to shop Curtains for Harry, a musical comedy he had written and composed; later produced for British television, the piece was largely deemed a failure, but it brought Lester to the attention of the country's fledgling television industry, where his eclectic resumé made him highly desirable to executives. Beginning in 1956, he directed Downbeat, the first jazz series on commercial television; that same year he also mounted The Dick Lester Show, a surreal comedy-variety program modeled after the legendary radio series the Goon Show. While Lester's own program was axed after only one episode, it so impressed Goon Show alum Peter Sellers that he reformed the troupe for a series of specials, which he then tapped Lester to direct. After helming such Goon Show efforts as 1956's A Show Called Fred and Idiot's Weekly, Lester next turned to the detective series Mark Sabre, sharing directorial chores with Joseph Losey; in 1958, while on honeymoon, he also worked briefly for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

Upon returning to England, Lester mounted his first film, the 11-minute, 1960 short Running, Jumping and Standing Still, a cheaply made, experimental homage to silent slapstick comedy starring Sellers, Spike Milligan, and Leo McKern. The deliriously manic work earned an Oscar nomination, resulting in 1962's It's Trad, Dad! (aka Ring-a-Ding Rhythm), a frenetic showcase for rock & rollers like Chubby Checker, Del Shannon, and Gary "U.S." Bonds, which Lester stuffed with outrageous visual puns and surrealist gags. After directing 1963's The Mouse on the Moon, a loosely based sequel to 1959's Cold War satire The Mouse That Roared, Lester was approached by United Artists to create a film promoting the American release of an up-and-coming Liverpool pop band named the Beatles. In the midst of pre-production, the group became an unprecedented international phenomenon, and Lester was instructed to focus the production on the notion of the Beatles as prisoners of their own popularity.

Released at the peak of Beatlemania, 1964's A Hard Day's Night quickly set a new standard for rock & roll filmmaking, with the group's Marx Brothers-inspired comic antics and Lester's French New Wave-influenced cinéma vérité visual style combining to paint a definitive portrait of youth culture caught in the throes of the British Invasion. A year later, Lester and the Beatles reunited for Help!; just weeks before its opening the director also released The Knack...and How to Get It, a dead-on evocation of hedonistic youth which won the Palm d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Lester next journeyed to Spain to film an adaptation of the Broadway hit A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum; two years later, he suffered his first critical setback with How I Won the War, a deeply personal black satire which later earned a cult following. Also earning wildly mixed notices was 1968's Petulia, which for many marked his transition into truly adult filmmaking. However, when the post-apocalyptic, surrealist, 1969 comedy The Bed-Sitting Room also failed to measure up to the success of his earlier work, Lester found himself an industry pariah. Searching in vain to acquire financing for his projects, he spent the next several years directing an endless number of commercials, the majority of them for Italian television.

Then, seemingly out of the blue, in 1973, producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind invited Lester to helm a new remake of The Three Musketeers; during filming, the project swiftly grew to such epic proportions that it was eventually split into two pictures, the first appearing in 1974 and the second, The Four Musketeers, bowing in 1975. In between their releases Lester also directed the 1974 disaster drama Juggernaut, and began shooting the following year's flop Royal Flash. 1976's Robin and Marian marked a return to form, but Lester again fell prey to criticism for The Ritz, an adaptation of the Terrence McNally farce, as well as 1979's Butch and Sundance: The Early Days, a prequel to the 1969 George Roy Hill classic which failed to measure up to its predecessor. After 1979's Cuba, Lester next turned to 1980's Superman II, returning to the Man of Steel for the series' third chapter in 1983. Upon completing 1984's Finders Keepers, Lester dropped from sight for a number of years, resurfacing in 1989 with both The Return of the Musketeers and Get Back, a chronicle of ex-Beatle Paul McCartney's recent concert tour.

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