He has been listed in The Observer as one of the 50 funniest actors in British comedy and amongst the top 50 comedians ever, in a 2005 poll of fellow comedians. He has also had cinematic success with his performances in the Mr. Bean movie adaptations Bean and Mr. Bean’s Holiday and in Johnny English (2003) and its sequel Johnny English Reborn (2011).
Early life and education
Atkinson, the youngest of four brothers, was born in Consett, County Durham, England. His parents were Eric Atkinson, a farmer and company director, and Ella May (née Bainbridge), who married on 29 June 1945. His three older brothers are Paul, who died as an infant; Rodney, a Eurosceptic economist who narrowly lost the United Kingdom Independence Party leadership election in 2000; and Rupert. Atkinson was brought up Anglican, and was educated at Durham Choristers School a preparatory school, St. Bees School, and Newcastle University, where he received a degree in Electrical Engineering.
In 1975, he continued for the degree of M.Sc. in Electrical Engineering at The Queen’s College, Oxford, the same college where his father matriculated in 1935, and which made Atkinson an Honorary Fellow in 2006. First winning national attention in the Oxford Revue at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in August 1976, he had already written and performed early sketches for shows in Oxford by the Etceteras – the revue group of the Experimental Theatre Club (ETC) and for the Oxford University Dramatic Society (OUDS), meeting writer Richard Curtis and composer Howard Goodall, with whom he would continue to collaborate during his career.
Atkinson starred in a series of comedy shows for BBC Radio 3 in 1978 called The Atkinson People. It consisted of a series of satirical interviews with fictional great men, who were played by Atkinson himself. The series was written by Atkinson and Richard Curtis, and produced by Griff Rhys Jones.
After university, Atkinson toured with Angus Deayton as his straight man in an act that was eventually filmed for a television show. After the success of the show, he did a one-off pilot for London Weekend Television in 1979 called Canned Laughter. Atkinson then went on to do Not the Nine O’Clock News for the BBC, produced by his friend John Lloyd. He featured in the show with Pamela Stephenson, Griff Rhys Jones and Mel Smith, and was one of the main sketch writers.
The success of Not the Nine O’Clock News led to him taking the lead role in the medieval sitcom The Black Adder (1983), which he also co-wrote with Richard Curtis. After a three-year gap, in part due to budgetary concerns, a second series was broadcast, this time written by Curtis and Ben Elton. Blackadder II (1986) followed the fortunes of one of the descendants of Atkinson’s original character, this time in the Elizabethan era. The same pattern was repeated in the two more sequels Blackadder the Third (1987) (set in the Regency era), and Blackadder Goes Forth (1989) (set in World War I). The Blackadder series became one of the most successful of all BBC situation comedies, spawning television specials including Blackadder’s Christmas Carol (1988), Blackadder: The Cavalier Years (1988), and later Blackadder: Back & Forth (1999), which was set at the turn of the Millennium.
The final scene of “Blackadder Goes Forth” (when Blackadder and his men go “over the top” and charge into No-Man’s-Land) has been described as “bold and highly poignant”. During the 2014 centennial of the start of World War I, Michael Gove and war historian Max Hastings have complained about the so-called “Blackadder version of history”.
Atkinson’s other creation, the hapless Mr. Bean, first appeared on New Year’s Day in 1990 in a half-hour special for Thames Television. The character of Mr. Bean has been likened to a modern-day Buster Keaton. During this time, Atkinson appeared at the Just for Laughs comedy festival in Montreal in 1987 and 1989. Several sequels to Mr. Bean appeared on television until 1995, and the character later appeared in a feature film. Bean (1997) was directed by Mel Smith, Atkinson’s colleague in Not the Nine O’Clock News. A second film, Mr. Bean’s Holiday, was released in 2007. In 1995 and 1996, Atkinson portrayed Inspector Raymond Fowler in The Thin Blue Line television sitcom written by Ben Elton, which takes place in a police station located in fictitious Gasforth.
Atkinson has fronted campaigns for Kronenbourg, Fujifilm, and Give Blood. Atkinson appeared as a hapless and error-prone espionage agent named Richard Lathum in a long-running series of adverts for Barclaycard, on which character his title role in Johnny English and Johnny English Reborn was based. He also starred in a comedy spoof of Doctor Who as the Doctor, for a “Red Nose Day” benefit. Atkinson appeared as the Star in a Reasonably Priced Car on Top Gear in July 2011, driving the Kia Cee’d around the track in 1:42.2, placing him at the top of the leaderboard until Matt LeBlanc later recorded a 1:42.1 lap time.
Atkinson appeared at the 2012 Summer Olympics opening ceremony as Mr. Bean in a comedy sketch during a performance of “Chariots of Fire”, playing a repeated single note on synthesiser. He then lapsed into a dream sequence in which he joined the runners from the film of the same name (about the 1924 Summer Olympics), beating them in their iconic run along West Sands at St. Andrews, by riding in a minicab and tripping the front runner.
Retirement of Mr. Bean
In November 2012, it emerged that Rowan Atkinson intended to retire Mr. Bean. “The stuff that has been most commercially successful for me – basically quite physical, quite childish – I increasingly feel I’m going to do a lot less of,” Atkinson told the Daily Telegraph’s Review. “Apart from the fact that your physical ability starts to decline, I also think someone in their 50s being childlike becomes a little sad. You’ve got to be careful.” He has also said that the role typecast him to a degree.
However, in January 2014, ITV announced a new animated series featuring Mr Bean with Rowan Atkinson returning to the role. It was expected to be released online as a web-series later in 2014, as a television broadcast followed shortly after. In October 2014, Atkinson also appeared as Mr Bean in a TV advert for Snickers. In 2015, he starred alongside Ben Miller and Rebecca Front in a sketch for BBC Red Nose Day in which Bean attends a funeral.
Atkinson’s film career began with a supporting part in the ‘unofficial’ James Bond movie Never Say Never Again (1983) and a leading role in Dead on Time (also 1983) with Nigel Hawthorne. He was in the 1988 Oscar-winning short film The Appointments of Dennis Jennings. He appeared in Mel Smith’s directorial debut The Tall Guy (1989) and appeared alongside Anjelica Huston and Mai Zetterling in Roald Dahl’s The Witches (1990). He played the part of Dexter Hayman in Hot Shots! Part Deux (1993), a parody of Rambo III, starring Charlie Sheen.
Atkinson gained further recognition with his turn as a verbally bumbling vicar in Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) and featured in Disney’s The Lion King (also 1994) as the voice of Zazu the red-billed hornbill. He also sang the song I Just Can’t Wait To Be King in The Lion King. Atkinson continued to appear in supporting roles in comedies, including Rat Race (2001), Scooby-Doo (2002), Love Actually (2003) and the crime comedy Keeping Mum (2005), which also starred Kristin Scott Thomas, Maggie Smith and Patrick Swayze.
In addition to his supporting roles, Atkinson has also had success as a leading man. His television character Mr. Bean debuted on the big screen with Bean (1997) to international success. A sequel, Mr. Bean’s Holiday (2007) also became an international success. He has also starred in the James Bond parody Johnny English (2003) and its sequel, Johnny English Reborn (2011).
Marriage and children
Rowan Atkinson was formerly in a relationship with actress Leslie Ash. He married Sunetra Sastry in 1990. The couple first met in the late 1980s, when she was working as a makeup artist with the BBC. They have two children, daughter Lily (an actress), and son Benjamin. In February 2014, it was announced that Atkinson had filed for divorce from Sastry, his wife of 23 years.
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