Six Damn Fine Degrees #44: Whatever happened to Richard Lester?

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

Reading about the subdued but enormously suspenseful bomb-on-a-boat thriller Juggernaut in last week’s post, I couldn’t have agreed more with Matt’s analysis that even though we might expect a classic disaster movie, we are given something much more riveting and truthful in the hands of director Richard Lester.

Looking at Lester’s illustrious filmography, I was suddenly interested in what had become of the filmmaker who had had it all between the ’60s and ’80s, but whose output suddenly stopped in the early ’90s. So whatever happened to Richard Lester, the man who single-handedly seemed to be responsible for the sustained fame of comedians, pop stars and swashbuckling (super)heroes?

Born in Philadelphia in 1932, Lester didn’t initially land in Hollywood but in the British film industry of the 1950s, where he caught the attention of comedian Peter Sellers and produced shows with him (The Idiot Weekly, Price 2d, A Show Called Fred). His early films also included Peter Sellers (The Running and Jumping Standing Still Film) and Margaret Rutherford (The Mouse on the Moon), and again, he caught the attention of superstars to-be: The Beatles. His hit films for the music sensation of the decade (A Hard Day’s Night, Help!) not only helped boost their worldwide popularity but also bolstered Lester’s standing as the director to define the style of music videos for years to come.

However, Lester also managed to put his mark on other genres, the swinging cult comedy that is The Knack … and How to Get It (1965), musical comedy (A Funny Thing That Happened On the Way to the Forum), anti-war movie (How I Won the War, starring John Lennon) and social drama (Petulia, starring Julie Christie and George C. Scott), before landing a massive hit with his epic swashbuckling remake of The Three Musketeers. The all-star romp including everyone from Michael York and Oliver Reed, Richard Chamberlain, Charlton Heston, Christopher Lee to Faye Dunaway and Raquel Welch was so successful that a second movie (The Four Musketeers) was made from the material filmed – yet without paying its director and stars. Lester had to sue producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind repeatedly without ever being properly compensated for it.

Before Lester knew it, he needed to save the world… of superhero films, at least: even though the Salkinds had been less than kind to him on the Musketeers movies, he was offered to helm the two sequels of the troubled Superman (1978), directed by Richard Donner, who had fallen out with the producers while Lester was hired to shoot the remaining quarter of the film. Lester stepped in and had to juggle the unenviable task of using already filmed material from the first movie and cobbling together a second. It certainly didn’t help that he wasn’t able to use much of the material involving Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman, who had also sued the producers over reusing his footage in future sequels. Donner’s version of Superman II even saw a 2006 release while Lester’s second sequel Superman III (1983) found only unfavourable reviews.

It was his return to the world of musketeers in the late 1980s that would prove the final straw, both artistically and personally: during filming in Toledo, Spain, veteran actor and personal friend Roy Kinnear (Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Juggernaut, The Three Musketeers) fell from a horse and died from a heart attack the next day in Madrid. As it turned out later, the rushed filming schedule had contributed to the circumstances of the accident and Kinnear’s family was given a £650,000 settlement in 1991. His son, Rory Kinnear, has since made himself a successful career in film and television, from James Bond to Black Mirror and Penny Dreadful.

For Richard Lester, Kinnear’s death came as a terrible blow and led to his early retirement from filmmaking in the early 1990s. It’s a shame to learn that such a successful filmmaker as Lester had to end his career over such tragedy. For me, he always managed his large-scale productions with a quirky, personal and charming side. His first Superman sequel felt much more tangible than the original and his Juggernaut much more real than your usual disaster flick (as Matt has argued so convincingly last week).

It is his melancholy swan song to the ultimate swashbuckling hero, Robin and Marian (1976), that will always be my favourite Lester film, however. Sean Connery as an ageing Robin Hood and Audrey Hepburn (returning from retirement) as Lady Marian perfectly sum up what the director so masterfully managed: Beneath a veneer of sizzling suspense and amusing action, his characters are joyful, personable and always a little melancholy, picking themselves up for one last adventure, one last saving the world, or maybe just themselves…

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