Richard Lester: A hard day's life

The man who "invented" the music video was the perfect film director for the Beatles. His exuberant, manic style matched theirs and brilliantly captured an era at its beginning.

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When he was born in Philadelphia on Jan. 19, 1932, his mother named him
Richard. Later, as a TV director in London, he was given the nickname Dick,
which he tolerated until the mid-’70s, when he insisted on returning to his
formal given name. But it doesn’t really matter which first name he
uses — the millions of moviegoers who have enjoyed the work of Richard Lester
still probably wouldn’t know him from Tipper Gore. That’s the price you pay
when your most enduring film starred four guys whose first names were John,
Paul, George and Ringo.

To suggest that Richard Lester is an anonymous figure in film history would
be far from correct — his signature manic style still has his name attached
(producers of the recent “Shooting Fish” described their movie as “son of
Richard Lester”). Film buffs pay tribute to his work — Lester won the Palm
d’Or at Cannes for a movie that lacked a single Beatle, and he was the
subject of a 1990 tribute at the Sundance Festival. But it is one Lester
film in particular that has grown in stature as the decades have passed,
and many who watched “A Hard Day’s Night,” upon its release in 1964 or in the
years since came away with the innocent conviction that the movie sprang
whole from the irrepressible personalities of its four Liverpool stars.
Some had other opinions. “Let’s face it,” said George Harrison, “we just
mutter a few words now and then and Dick Lester tells us how to do it.”

Richard Lester was a precocious child who could spell 250 words by the age
of 2 and entered the University of Pennsylvania at 15. There
he began to see films, many of them British productions from Ealing
Studios, at a nearby theater. His first show-biz gigs were musical — playing
piano in a bar and singing backup for Ginny Stevens on local CBS station
WCAU. After he graduated in 1951, Lester joined WCAU as a stagehand and worked
his way up to director in the days of live TV. Two years later he left for
Europe, earning money as a roving correspondent. Eventually, he landed in
London. Commercial television was just starting up in the United Kingdom, and Lester’s
CBS experience got him steady work at ARTV (where he shared an office with
Deirdre Smith, his future wife). A disastrous little variety
program called “The Dick Lester Show” managed to catch at least one viewer’s
attention — Lester received a phone call the next day. “I watched your
program last night,” Peter Sellers told him, “and it was either one of the
worst shows I’ve ever seen, or you are on to something.”



Over lunch, Sellers explained that he was contemplating a TV version of the
classic BBC radio program “The Goon Show,” which featured Sellers and Spike
Milligan, among others. The eventual result, “Idiot Weekly,” was first aired
in 1956 with Lester directing, and was an immediate hit. Other series with
the same team followed — “A Show Called Fred,” “Son of Fred” — shows that are not
only beloved in their own right but often cited as blueprints for the Monty
Python routines to come. In 1959 Lester directed Sellers and Milligan in an
11-minute short called “The Running, Jumping, and Standing Still Film,” which
earned much acclaim and an Academy Award nomination.

Lester’s first movie was a 1962 cheapie about the resurgent traditional
jazz movement, “It’s Trad, Dad” (released in the United States as “Ring-a-Ding Rhythm”).
With the trad-jazz boomlet fading even as the movie was nearing completion,
Lester improvised by hiring Chubby Checker to do a twist number near the
end. Next came “Mouse on the Moon,” a sequel to the Sellers hit “The Mouse
That Roared” (minus Sellers). While these epics may not have secured
Lester’s place in the film pantheon, they would prove significant in
unforeseen ways. It was through “Mouse on the Moon” that Lester met producer Walter
Shenson. And it was one of the musicians featured in “It’s Trad, Dad” who
played Lester some records he’d bought after hearing a group in Liverpool’s
Cavern Club.

When Shenson got the job of producing the first Beatles movie, Lester was
eager to direct. He hired writer Alun Owen, who had worked on “The Dick
Lester Show” but survived the experience to achieve some success. As for the
Beatles, they were familiar with both Lester (through his “Goon” work) and
Owen, and liked what they’d seen. The soon-to-be-Fabs were wary about their
first cinematic project (one early proposal, “The Yellow Teddy Bears,” came
from a director who stipulated that he’d write all the songs) and were
anxious to avoid the standard rock ‘n’ roll Elvis flick. Owen proposed “an
exaggerated day in the life of the Beatles,” and produced a script that,
according to John Lennon, was not really to the group’s liking: “We were a bit
infuriated by the glibness of it and the shittyness of the dialogue.”

Conceived before the Ed Sullivan shows of February 1964, the movie was
filmed shortly after that storm broke. Certain crowd scenes in the movie
were the result of actual security lapses, and the first day’s rushes were
destroyed when a Beatle-haired assistant carrying the film cans was
mistaken for the real thing and attacked by a teenage mob.

According to Lester, only the train sequence survived intact from Owen’s
original script, and many Beatles quips were improvised (most famously the
film’s title, which was a Ringo malapropism). Imbued though it was with the
(somewhat sanitized) personalities of its stars, “A Hard Day’s Night” was
Richard Lester’s film, drawing on the visual wit and slightly bizarre
sensibility of his “Goon Show” projects. Decades later he received an award
from MTV for basically inventing the music video, particularly in the
baggage car performance of “I Should Have Known Better.”

Lester’s next film was 1965′s “The Knack,” a hip (and now oh-so-dated) sexual
comedy that enthralled the Cannes jury and took home the Palm d’Or. Beatles
movie No. 2 — “Help!” — followed the same year. This time the story — such
as it was — revolved around Ringo’s possession of a sacred ring being sought
by high priests. (Reflecting a less hypersensitive era, an early story
proposal had Ringo planning to commit suicide.) If history has not treated
“Help!” as kindly as it has “A Hard Day’s Night,” well, neither did contemporary
critics. Whereas Andrew Sarris memorably described the first Beatles movie
in the Village Voice as “the ‘Citizen Kane’ of juke box musicals,” “Help!”
received only lukewarm reviews. By all accounts it was at least fun to do.
The Beatles spent much of the shoot enjoying the exotic locales in a
drug-induced fog.

For his part, Lester had a front-row seat to observe the unfolding
spectacle of unprecedented stardom. In Andrew Yule’s biography “The Man Who
Framed the Beatles,” Lester recalled watching two drop-dead beauties on a
Paradise Island location shoot trying to coax Paul into partaking of both
themselves and heroin. It was, Lester thought, as evil a moment as he has
ever seen. (The future composer of “Silly Love Songs” naturally declined the
offer.)

Next up for Lester was a very different kind of musical, an adaptation of
the Broadway hit “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” Nicholas
Roeg was his cinematographer, but the movie is not considered a shining
career moment for either man. Lester would in fact endure a series of flops
in the 1960s, although his 1968 film “Petulia” is beloved by some film buffs,
and 1967′s “How I Won the War,” which co-starred Lennon as Private
Gripweed, was immortalized in the Beatles epic “A Day in the Life”: “I saw a
film today, oh boy/The English army had just won the war/A crowd of
people turned away …” In this case, Lennon’s infamously obscure lyrics are
pure documentary — Lester’s anti-war epic was box office poison.

After the critically panned “The Bed Sitting Room” in 1969, Lester worked for
a time in Italy making TV commercials. His return to the screen came in
1974 courtesy of Alexander Salkind and his son Ilya, who hired Lester for a
new version of “The Three Musketeers” starring Michael York, Oliver Reed,
Richard Chamberlain and Raquel Welch. After nine years Lester needed a hit,
and this project rewarded him with two. The original plan for a
three-and-a-half hour epic gave way to a double feature — “The Four
Musketeers,” starring Faye Dunaway, was released in 1975. Trouble was,
nobody told the cast. Having signed contracts for only one movie, the
actors later sued the Salkinds. Lester himself was denied his promised
profit points. Legal difficulties followed the Salkinds like lint follows
velour — Alexander had to flee Europe in 1978 to avoid jail. Richard Donner,
director of the Salkinds’ 1978 blockbuster “Superman,” said of them: “The
sickness of these people is that they think everybody’s out to kill them.
Eventually I guess everybody is.”

When “Superman” ran into early difficulties, Lester agreed to sign on as
producer, if only to force the Salkinds to pony up his “Musketeers” money.
Lester’s ’70s oeuvre had been erratic — relatively well-received work like
“Juggernaut” and the Sean Connery-Audrey Hepburn duet “Robin and Marian”
contrasted with offerings like “The Ritz” and “Cuba.” The latter was a
disaster-plagued production that bombed so thoroughly, star Connery
reportedly broke off all ties with the director. Lester may also have
locked up the dubious distinction of inaugurating the term “prequel” in
1979 when he directed “Butch and Sundance: The Early Days.” While not exactly
a two-gun smash, the movie at least lacked any big-eared sidekicks named
Gun-Gun.

Lester took over the direction of the “Superman” series after Donner parted
company with the Salkinds in characteristically rancorous fashion. Older
and wiser, Lester signed on to “Superman II” for what was apparently a record
fee at the time. The resulting live-action cartoon was generally
acknowledged to be a lot more fun than the original. Lester was still at
the helm for the less successful third installment, and happily bowed out
before “Superman IV” scraped the critical and box office bottom.

Unfortunately, Lester’s own remaining films would not cover him with glory,
either. After struggling with Dino De Laurentiis to come up with a mutually
agreeable project (De Laurentiis rejected Lester’s plan to do “A Fish Called
Wanda” and counterproposed, among others, “Total Recall,” which De Laurentiis
described as “a psychological thriller with very few special effects, not
expensive to do”), Lester finally did the forgettable “Finders Keepers.” In
1989 he followed up with a third Dumas-themed epic, “The Return of the
Musketeers.” Another trouble-plagued shoot, this one was marred by the death
of longtime Lester pal Roy Kinnear, who died after a fall from a horse.
Lester’s next and quite possibly final film was another return to past
glories — a Paul McCartney tour chronicle called “Get Back,” released in 1990.

Now 67, Lester appears contentedly retired with wife Deirdre in their
Petersham, England, home. Despite numerous popular successes, Lester will
always be linked to a particular time and place, a small but integral part
of a cultural phenomenon that swept the globe. No one will ever call it
Lestermania, but he never complained — in the end, Richard Lester always knew
who validated his ticket to ride.

Steve Burgess is a Salon contributing writer.

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