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.
Atkinson's other creation, the hapless Mr. Bean, first appeared on New Years Day in 1990 in a half-hour special for Thames Television. The character of Mr. Bean has been likened somewhat 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 in a long-running series 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 has also starred as the Star in a Reasonably Priced Car in the motoring show, Top Gear in July 2011, where he recorded the second fastest lap in the Kia Cee'd with a time of 1:42.2.
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 the character of Mr. Bean will not be performed again. "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.
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 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. 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).
Rowan Atkinson did live on-stage skits – also appearing with members of Monty Python – in The Secret Policeman's Ball (1979) for the British section of Amnesty International.
The Sneeze and Other Stories, seven short Anton Chekhov plays, translated and adapted by Michael Frayn, were performed by Rowan Atkinson, Timothy West and Cheryl Campbell at the Aldwych Theatre, London in 1988.
Rowan Atkinson appeared in the 2009 revival of the West End musical Oliver! in the role of Fagin. The production was directed by Rupert Goold. A year prior he starred in a run of the show in Oxford, directed by Jez Bond.
In 2013, Atkinson took on the titular role in a 12-week production (directed by Richard Eyre) of the Simon Gray play Quartermaine's Terms at Wyndham's Theatre in London.
Best known for his use of physical comedy in his Mr. Bean persona, Atkinson's other characters rely more heavily on language. Atkinson often plays authority figures (especially priests or vicars) speaking absurd lines with a completely deadpan delivery.
One of his better-known comic devices is over-articulation of the "B" sound, such as his pronunciation of "Bob" in the Blackadder II episode "Bells". Atkinson suffers from a stammer, and the over-articulation is a technique to overcome problematic consonants.
Atkinson's often visually based style, which has been compared to that of Buster Keaton, sets him apart from most modern television and film comedies, which rely heavily on dialogue, as well as stand-up comedy which is mostly based on monologues. This talent for visual comedy has led to Atkinson being called "the man with the rubber face": comedic reference was made to this in an episode of Blackadder the Third ("Sense and Senility"), in which Baldrick (Tony Robinson) refers to his master, Mr. E. Blackadder, as a "lazy, big-nosed, rubber-faced bastard".
Rowan Atkinson at the Mr. Bean's Holiday premiere at Leicester Square in London (2007)
Marriage and children
Rowan Atkinson first met Sunetra Sastry in the late 1980s, when she was working as a make-up artist with the BBC. Sastry is the daughter of an Indian father and a British mother. The couple married at the Russian Tea Room in New York City on 5 February 1990. They have two children and live in Apethorpe, Northamptonshire near Corby as well as in Ipsden, Oxfordshire and in Highbury, London. In October 2010, his Blackadder co-star Stephen Fry confessed on The Rob Brydon Show and in his second autobiography (The Fry Chronicles) that, although he was already openly homosexual at the time, he had considered asking Sastry (who was his make-up artist) out. When Atkinson came to him one day and asked if he could swap make-up artists because he wanted to ask Sastry out, 'all idea of [his] asking out Sunetra left [him]'. Fry was best man at Atkinson's wedding in 1990. Atkinson was formerly in a relationship with actress Leslie Ash.
In June 2005, Atkinson led a coalition of the UK's most prominent actors and writers, including Nicholas Hytner, Stephen Fry, and Ian McEwan, to the British Parliament in an attempt to force a review of the controversial Racial and Religious Hatred Bill, which they felt would give overwhelming power to religious groups to impose censorship on the arts. In 2009, he criticised homophobic speech legislation, saying that the House of Lords must vote against a government attempt to remove a free speech clause in an anti-gay hate law. In 2012 he voiced his support for the Reform Section 5 campaign, which aims to reform or repeal Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986, particularly its statement that an insult can be grounds for arrest and punishment. It is a reaction to several recent high-profile arrests, which Atkinson sees as a restriction of freedom of expression.
With an estimated wealth of approximately £85 million, Atkinson is able to indulge his passion for cars that began with driving his mother's Morris Minor around the family farm. He has written for the British magazines Car, Octane, Evo, and "SuperClassics", a short-lived UK magazine, in which he reviewed the McLaren F1 in 1995.
Atkinson holds a category C+E (formerly 'Class 1') lorry driving licence, gained in 1981, because lorries held a fascination for him, and to ensure employment as a young actor. He has also used this skill when filming comedy material. In 1991, he starred in the self-penned The Driven Man, a series of sketches featuring Atkinson driving around London trying to solve his obsession with cars, and discussing it with taxi drivers, policemen, used-car salesmen and psychotherapists. A lover of and participant in car racing, he appeared as racing driver Henry Birkin in the television play Full Throttle in 1995.
Atkinson has raced in other cars, including a Renault 5 GT Turbo for two seasons for its one make series. He owns a McLaren F1, which was involved in an accident in Cabus, near Garstang, Lancashire with an Austin Metro in October 1999. It was damaged again in a serious crash in August 2011 when it caught fire after Atkinson reportedly lost control and hit a tree. He also owns a Honda NSX. Other cars he owns include an Audi A8, and a Honda Civic Hybrid.
The Conservative Party politician Alan Clark, himself a devotee of classic motor cars, recorded in his published Diaries a chance meeting with a man he later realised was Atkinson while driving through Oxfordshire in May 1984: "Just after leaving the motorway at Thame I noticed a dark red DBS V8 Aston Martin on the slip road with the bonnet up, a man unhappily bending over it. I told Jane to pull in and walked back. A DV8 in trouble is always good for a gloat." Clark writes that he gave Atkinson a lift in his Rolls-Royce to the nearest telephone box, but was disappointed in his bland reaction to being recognised, noting that: "he didn't sparkle, was rather disappointing and chétif."
One car Atkinson has said he will not own is a Porsche: "I have a problem with Porsches. They're wonderful cars, but I know I could never live with one. Somehow, the typical Porsche people – and I wish them no ill – are not, I feel, my kind of people. I don't go around saying that Porsches are a pile of dung, but I do know that psychologically I couldn't handle owning one."
He appeared in episode 4, series 17 of Top Gear in the "Star in a reasonably priced car" section, where he drove the Kia Cee'd on the test track in 1:42.2, taking first place on the board, but was later beaten by Matt LeBlanc during the second episode of the eighteenth series, with a lap time of 1:42.1.
He attended the inaugural Indian Grand Prix as a guest of McLaren. Atkinson's anguished reaction to the Lap 24 incident between Lewis Hamilton and Felipe Massa, was shown during replays of the collision.