A visually dazzling and witty filmmaker whose hyperkinetic films helped to shape the look and pace of 1960s-era cinema, Richard Lester was the creative force behind the Beatles' "A Hard Day's Night" (1964) and "Help!" (1965), as well as such crowd-pleasing hits as "The Knack And How to Get It" (1965), "The Three Musketeers" (1973) and "Superman II" (1981). After cutting his teeth on American television, Lester relocated to England, where he attracted the attention of Peter Sellers. Their numerous collaborations included the Oscar-nominated short "The Running Jumping Standing Still Film" (1959) which featured many of his trademark flourishes, including visual non-sequiters, a taste for unbridled slapstick and absurdity, and a rapid but precise editing style that won numerous fans, including The Beatles. His work with the pop icons made him a leading figure in British film, where his youthful, anarchic approach found favor around the world. A brief career spiral was thwarted by the success of the big-budget "Musketeers" films, as well as "Superman II," though his comic approach rankled many ardent comic book fans. Lester's exuberance and experimentation was later adopted by countless filmmakers, as well as the music video genre, which borrowed wholesale from his Beatles films. Though occasionally dismissed as a shameless comedy shill, Lester's best work brimmed with an energy and charm that remained untouchable, even after five decades.
Though many assumed from his body of work that Richard Lester was British, he was actually an American citizen, born in Philadelphia, PA on Jan. 19, 1932. He was an exceptionally bright child, able to spell 250 words by the age of two, and a student at the University of Pennsylvania by the time he was 15. Though he graduated at age 19 with a degree in clinical psychology, his fancy had been captured by movies, with the comedies from Britain's Ealing Studios becoming a particular favorite. His first entertainment-related jobs were in front of the camera, where he played piano for singer Ginny Stevens on Philadelphia's CBS affiliate, WCAU. After graduating from the university in 1951, Lester became a stagehand at the station before working his way up to director, where he cut his teeth on live television. In 1953, he lit out for Europe, eventually landing in London, where he directed series and variety shows for independent TV. He was also briefly top-billed in an improvised variety series called "The Dick Lester Show," which failed miserably, much to his embarrassment. However, the show caught the attention of Peter Sellers, then a major star on BBC radio with "The Goon Show." The actor called Lester the day after the broadcast to discuss the possibility of Lester aiding him in bringing the anarchy of the Goons' radio show to television.
The result was the Lester-directed "The Idiot Weekly, Price 2d" (ITV, 1956) a blend of sketch comedy and sitcom with Sellers as the editor of a low-rent newspaper, and his "Goon Show" cohort Spike Milligan handling most of the scripts. Its success led to a series of popular follow-ups, including the surreal sketch comedy program "A Show Called Fred" (ITV, 1956), again with Sellers and Milligan, and "Son of Fred" (ITV, 1956). With the mix of live action and animated shorts as well as absurd, often taboo-breaking sketches that featured no punch lines, both had a strong influence on "Monty Python's Flying Circus" (BBC1/BBC2, 1969-1974). Three years later, Lester and Sellers directed and wrote (with Milligan) 'The Running Jumping Standing Still Film" (1959), an 11-minute home movie about a host of bizarre characters, played by Sellers cohorts Leo McKern, Norman Rossington and Graham Stark, interrupting Milligan's attempts to take a rest in a tent. Set to a jazzy score by Lester, the crude but amusing short, which evoked a blend of silent comedy and arthouse surrealism netted an Academy Award nomination for Best Short Film. More importantly, the film served as the conduit between Lester and The Beatles, who were all professed fans of the short.
Lester made his feature film debut with "It's Trad, Dad!" (1962), a hopelessly hokey melodrama about a group of teenagers who set out to defy their town mayor's ban on traditional jazz by organizing a festival. Unfortunately, "trad jazz" was fading in popularity by the time of the film's release, and had little to no fan base in the United States, where footage of rock and pop acts like Chubby Checker, Del Shannon and Gary "US" Bonds were added to bring some relevancy. "It's Trad, Dad" made only a minor impact in worldwide cinemas, but Lester was already on to his next film projects, thanks to his relationship with Peter Sellers. The actor had refused to appear in "The Mouse on the Moon" (1962), the sequel to his 1959 hit comedy "The Mouse that Roared," but suggested Lester as director for the project as a compromise. Without Sellers, the film was not a success, but it introduced Lester to producer Walter Shenson, who was producing the first movie effort by the Beatles.
When Shenson contracted The Beatles to star in "A Hard Day's Night" (1964), they chose Lester as their director, based on his association with "The Running Jumping Standing Still Film" and his connection to Sellers and the Goons. After largely abandoning the script by "Dick Lester Show" writer and playwright Alun Owen, the group and Lester largely improvised the film's plot, which, like the Sellers short, was a loose collection of humorous moments and musical numbers that captured the excitement of the band's songs and the frenzy of Beatlemania at its inception. Its significance would be felt for decades after its release in the breezy, cheeky tone of '60s pop cinema, including television shows like "The Monkees" (NBC, 1966-68), and more significantly, in music videos, which drew inspiration from Lester's editing to music, free-form plots and multi-angle coverage of the film's conclusion at a concert.
Lester was naturally contracted to direct The Beatles' next feature, but "Help!" (1965) did not match its predecessor in both popularity and freshness. Held together with only the loosest and most ridiculous of plots - a cartoonish cult attempted to steal Ringo Starr's ring - the film featured the band in outlandish set pieces photographed in exotic backdrops like the Alps and the Bahamas, but with none of the charming personal elements of its predecessor. The band themselves, who later admitted to have been immersed in a drug haze for the entirety of the shoot, disliked the film intensely, though Lester would remain friendly with the individual members in the years following its release.
The popularity of The Beatles' movies minted Lester as a director with his finger on the pulse of the rapidly growing '60s youth movement, which his next efforts reflected with typical wry humor and visual flourishes, despite largely lukewarm returns at the box office. "The Knack and How to Get It" (1965) took pot shots at the male ego through the story of three friends (Ray Brooks, Michael Crawford and Donal Donnelly) who go to extreme lengths in their attempts to woo a naïve young Liverpudlan (Rita Tushingham). Lester broke the film from its theatrical moorings through such unconventional touches as a disapproving Greek chorus of "the older generation," direct addresses to the camera, and off-kilter editing. Though considered cutting-edge at the time of its release - "The Knack" won the Palme d'Or at the 1965 Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for the Golden Lion at the 15th Berlin International Film Festival - it became a bit of a Swinging London museum piece in subsequent years.
Hollywood naturally came calling after the success of "The Knack," tapping Lester to direct a film version of Stephen Sondheim's hit musical "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" (1967). The union of vaudeville and silent film stars like Zero Mostel, Phil Silvers, Buster Keaton and Jack Lawford with Lester, who credited Keaton, among others, as an influence on his cinematic style, seemed at first to be a perfect match, but the results were too manic for fans of the musical to appreciate the droll comedy and songs, and too passé for admirers of Lester's previous efforts. "Forum" was nevertheless a minor hit, and received an Oscar nomination for Best Score and a Golden Globe nomination for Best Comedy.
However, Lester's next few projects were out-and-out failures. In the surreal black comedy "How I Won the War" (1967), John Lennon appeared in his only screen role without The Beatles, starring as a former Fascist sympathizer-turned-British soldier who attempted to stay alive under the command of an inept officer (Michael Crawford) by killing him, which ironically resulted in his own death. Described as an "anti-anti-war movie" by Lester, who considered most films as ultimately sympathetic to the concept of war, which he found personally abhorrent, the film presented memorable images, such as the ghost of each fallen soldier lingering in the camp after his death, but failed to connect with audiences until decades after its release. Its follow-ups included 1968's "Petulia," with Julie Christie as a flighty San Francisco socialite who falls in love with a recently divorced doctor (George C. Scott) and "The Bed-Sitting Room" (1969), a bizarre comedy based on the play by Spike Milligan and John Antrobus about the survivors of a nuclear conflict who began to mutate into inanimate objects. Despite the wealth of British talent in its cast, including Ralph Richardson, Dudley Moore and Peter Cook, Michael Hordern and Marty Feldman, the film's doggedly absurd and bleak tone repelled many viewers.
The failure of "Bed-Sitting Room," as well as the collapse of the British film industry in the late '60s, cast a pall over Lester's career, and he spent several years directing energetic commercials in Italy during the first few years of the 1970s. A break came in 1974 via producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind, who hired Lester to direct a comic-tinged take on Alexandre Dumas' "The Three Musketeers" (1974). The three-and-a-half-hour film was an action-packed and frequently hilarious take on the venerable swashbuckler tale, with Michael York as the eager young D'Artagnan, who joined musketeers Oliver Reed, Frank Finlay and Richard Chamberlain to thwart the evil schemes of Charlton Heston's Cardinal Richelieu and Faye Dunaway's seductive Miladay. Lester's trademark humor shot through nearly every scene, most notably in the outrageous choreography, which saw the musketeers engaging in epic slapstick duels, and in the casting of longtime friend Roy Kinnear as York's servant and Raquel Welch as his accident-prone love interest. A massive international hit for the Salkinds, its impact on the fortunes of Lester and his castmates was considerably reduced; the father-and-son team released the finished product as not one but two films ("The Four Musketeers" was released in 1974) without informing any of the principals, thus depriving them of their shares of the profits.
The success of the "Musketeers" films revived Lester's directorial career, and he spent much of the 1970s behind the camera, though his output hewed more towards mainstream fare than the offbeat, experimental titles of the 1960s. Some were successful: "Robin and Marian" (1976) cast Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn, who was making her first film appearance in nine years, as a middle-aged Robin Hood and Lady Marian in a bittersweet romance that charmed most audiences. However, the flops far outweighed the hits during this period. They included an adaptation of Terrence McNally's "The Ritz" (1976) and "Cuba" (1979), a period adventure so disastrous that it destroyed the relationship between Lester and star Sean Connery.
In 1978, Lester was brought aboard the Salkinds' long-gestating film adaptation of "Superman" as a producer, though his role had less to do with seeing the notoriously troubled project to fruition and more with settling his unpaid debt from the "Musketeers" debacle. He also served as a go-between for the Salkinds and director Richard Donner, who had publicly chastised their decisions throughout the productions. The bad blood continued during the filming of "Superman II" (1981), which was shot back to back with the first film as a money-saving gesture. Donner's public disparagement of the Salkinds, as well as his exceeding the planned budget, led to his dismissal as director, despite having shot over 75 percent of the film. Lester was placed in the director's chair, and despite lacking both Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman to do reshoots, managed to turn out a fresh, action-packed and often funny film that won over all but the staunchest "Superman" fans. The sequel was the third highest-grossing film of 1981, and suggested a return to form for Lester.
However, Lester was forced to shoulder the majority of the blame for "Superman III" (1983), a disorganized, laugh-hungry mess that brought comic Richard Pryor into the fray as a computer genius tapped by a corrupt billionaire (Robert Vaughn) to aid in his plan for world domination. Few enjoyed the new focus on slapstick, which often came at the expense of Pryor's comic brilliance, and noted with dismay the loss of Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor, and the reduction of Margot Kidder's role as Lois Lane. Critics, fans and even Christopher Reeve himself viewed Lester's madcap touch as the weight that capsized the "Superman" franchise, though Lester wisely avoided the debacle of "Superman IV: The Quest for Peace" (1987). Despite the overwhelming bad press, the film was one of the highest-grossing releases of the year.
Despite having helmed two top box office hits, Lester struggled to find an appropriate follow-up project. A proposed collaboration with producer Dino De Laurentiis failed to bring Lester's wish to direct "A Fish Called Wanda" (1988) to fruition; instead, he wound up making "Finders Keepers" (1984), a hopeless caper comedy with Michael O'Keefe and Beverly D'Angelo on the trail of wayward loot. The presence of seasoned players like David Wayne, Lou Gossett, Jr., and Brian Dennehy, as well as a young Jim Carrey, did nothing to save the picture from oblivion. In 1988, Lester reunited with his "Musketeers" stars for "Return of the Musketeers," which attempted to revive the derring-do of the two previous films in a story that saw Michael York's d'Artagnan seek out his former comrades-in-arms to defend France against the machinations of Philippe Noiret's Cardinal Mazarin. A tired exercise from start to finish, the film was further marred by the accidental death of Lester's longtime friend, Roy Kinner, during an action sequence. After completing the project, which was a flop, Lester retired from the motion picture business.
In 1991, Lester reunited with Paul McCartney to direct the concert film "Get Back," which covered the former Beatle's 1989-1990 world tour; his first in a decade. He subsequently returned to retirement, although interest in his past work began to grow over the next two decades. In 1993, he served as host of "Hollywood U.K.," a five-part documentary series on English filmmaking for the BBC, and in 1999, filmmaker Steven Soderbergh devoted the majority of his book Getting Away with It to interviews with Lester and his contributions to the British cinema and pop culture as a whole. On a less positive note, the specter of the "Superman II" controversy once again reared its ugly head in 2006 when Richard Donner's cut of the film was released on DVD and Donner unapologetically showed how little of the film was Lester's.