Mr. Bean

He is a clumsy, neurotic, obnoxious, self-serving dolt, an Englishman with a child's mind who is flummoxed by the most basic chores - getting dressed, driving, eating or navigating a public washroom. Mr. Bean also happens to be one of the most popular pantomime characters to stumble onto the screen since Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp. And for Rowan Atkinson, the 42-year-old British actor who embodies Mr. Bean, playing a hopeless loser has provided an enormous windfall. Bean, the movie, which opens in Canada this week and in the United States next month, has already grossed more than $140 million at the international box office, a record for a movie not yet released in North America. Bean's runaway success "came as a mild surprise," Atkinson told Maclean's last week. "I've always had great faith in this character. But it never ceases to amaze me that he should be very well known by Germans - I never thought I would entertain Germans en masse."

The voice on the phone from London is wryly urbane, polite and articulate, a voice that is hard to imagine coming from the malformed mouth of Mr. Bean. But Atkinson is no intellectual slouch. Like the bent British minds who founded Beyond the Fringe and Monty Python's Flying Circus, he was educated at Oxford University. He studied electrical engineering, but found his vocation onstage as a comedian. And at Oxford he teamed up with writer Richard Curtis, who would become his longtime collaborator. Together, they helped launch the BBC satire Not the Nine O'Clock News in 1978. And in the 1980s, they created the TV series Blackadder, a sophisticated historical farce that ranged from the War of the Roses to the First World War - with Atkinson in the title role as a priggish, upper-crust weasel.

Atkinson seems to have a special knack for playing snobs, misfits and pathologically maladjusted individuals. Co-starring with Jeff Goldblum in The Tall Guy (1990), he portrayed a cruel and conceited stand-up comic with alarming conviction. And in Four Weddings and A Funeral (1994), he was priceless in the role of a pastor presiding over ceremonies with a speech impediment.

Bean, however, remains his most popular incarnation. He and Curtis created the character for Atkinson's one-man show at the Edinburgh Festival in 1979. Curtis was "bored with writing words," the actor recalls, "and Mr. Bean was the person I naturally became when called upon to perform an entirely visual routine - it started off with the idea of a man who had trouble staying awake."

The character seems to be the flip side of the all-too-proper English dweeb, a visceral id to the stiff-upper-lipped ego. Bean is compulsive, narcissistic and minutely dedicated to his own immediate needs. But he gets so lost in the details that he can't even keep control of his body. Bean's circuitry seems to lack the essential English reserve that keeps everything from sliding into chaos. "He has been to the right schools," says Atkinson, "but I've always thought of him as a 10-year-old boy trapped in a man's body."

In the 1990s, the character graduated to television, where Mr. Bean became the highest-rated comedy series in British history, with a 60-per-cent audience share. Although there are just 13 episodes in existence, they have entered a kind of permanent orbit, like the original Star Trek. The series has been broadcast in more than 80 countries, and some nine million videos have been sold around the world. In Canada, the series has been a big hit on the CBC. "He's more popular in Canada than almost anywhere else," says Atkinson, "except perhaps Germany." Last year, making a public appearance as Mr. Bean at Toronto's Eaton Centre, he was greeted like a pop star by a crowd of 3,000 screaming fans. The reception was "more active than I was prepared for," Atkinson observed at the time. "It's all rather too rock 'n' roll for my taste."

In his native land, meanwhile, Bean is a target of disdain in certain quarters. "The more educated critics have decided he's the least-amusing comedy character ever created," says Atkinson. "There was really quite a lot of extremely dismissive criticism of the movie in some of the trendier, more intelligent newspapers. But that wasn't so much about the movie as about seven years of pent-up frustration over the popularity of a character they've never enjoyed."

There is one country, however, where Bean is not especially well known: the United States. Although the series has appeared on cable and video, it was never picked up by the major networks. And the movie is an obvious attempt to expand the franchise to a U.S. audience. "We did have the American market in mind," concedes Atkinson, "and setting the movie in America makes a lot of marketing sense. But that wasn't the main motivation for taking him out of his traditional grey London suburb - we needed to get out of that just to provide ourselves with creative inspiration."

In the movie, Bean is an art gallery employee who is shipped off to Los Angeles with the painting Whistler's Mother - and is mistaken for an important art scholar. His character, meanwhile, underwent an upgrade for the big screen. "We wanted to make him more three-dimensional than he ever was on television," says Atkinson. "We had to soften him somewhat to make him more real. He seems to have a warmer heart and a more optimistic view, but I believe when he goes back to London he will behave as nastily and vindictively as before."

Having Bean talk was also a departure. For most of the movie, he remains mute, but there is a pivotal scene in which he gives a speech at the unveiling of Whistler's Mother. "We had to get him to talk," says Atkinson, "because if he didn't it would become a movie about the fact that the central character doesn't talk. It was the most difficult speech to write, because he has never really spoken in constructed sentences."

It remains to be seen if America will warm to Bean. Atkinson himself seems aware of its shortcomings, saying, "I think we've got an OK movie verging on a pretty good movie." But costing just $20 million (low by Hollywood standards), it has already recouped its costs five times over. And Atkinson is a rich man. Known as an intensely private person, he lives in a London suburb with his wife, Sunetra, and two children but refuses to talk about them. He is a car collector, with a passion for Aston Martins and Ferraris, "but I've stopped talking about my cars," he says. "I buy and sell them with such rapidity that by the time I've told you what car I've got I would have sold it."

The success of Bean creates an automatic demand for a sequel. But Atkinson, who clearly can survive without the money, sounds reluctant to revive the character, even with another round of TV episodes. "I've always enjoyed him," he says. "He's a fascinating collection of conflicting qualities, or lack of qualities. But I think Bean is coming to the end of his natural life span. There comes a point where you think, 'I've done that.' " In Hollywood, however, the Bean counters may have other ideas.

Maclean's October 20, 1997