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Back Into the Fish's Den : John Cleese reassembles his 'A Fish Called Wanda' co-stars--Kevin Kline, Jamie Lee Curtis and Michael Palin--for another comedy, and this time the shoot is a real zoo.

October 08, 1995|David Gritten | David Gritten, based in London, is a regular contributor to Calendar. and

LONDON — Legend has it that W.C. Fields said it first: Never work with children or animals. John Cleese knows the saying; he's just choosing to ignore it

No children are in evidence on the set of "Fierce Creatures," his new $18-million movie for Universal, currently being shot at Pinewood Studios, 20 miles west of here. But animals? You have to go back to 1967's "Doctor Dolittle" to find a film that bears comparison.

Cleese has ordered a veritable menagerie to play supporting roles in "Fierce Creatures." Among the film's non-human players are 25 ducks, 3,000 ants, 100 pigeons and 54 other animals, including lions, tigers, leopards, sea lions, lemurs, snakes, gorillas and a rhino.

That's enough for a zoo. And indeed, a workable replica zoo has been built on the Pinewood back lot to such high standards that it could be licensed as a real zoo. Its cages and enclosures are strong enough to contain the biggest animals, much to the relief of cast and crew.

Even so, why would Cleese fly in the face of that familiar advice about children and animals? He receives the question impassively and answers in the level, confident but evasive tones of a politician running for office:

"Let's put all this in context, shall we?" he says, a touch imperiously. "I think you'll find the full saying is 'Never work with children, animals or Stewart Granger .' " He nods complacently, like a man who has answered a tricky question really well.

There is something distinctly surreal about this exchange. But then what do you expect from a guy who helped unleash "Monty Python's Flying Circus," "Fawlty Towers" and "A Fish Called Wanda" on the world?


While we're on the subject of "A Fish Called Wanda," it's worth noting that "Fierce Creatures," tentatively planned for a spring 1996 release, reunites the leading players from that 1988 comedy hit: Cleese, Kevin Kline, Jamie Lee Curtis and Cleese's fellow former Python Michael Palin. So it's a sequel?

"Absolutely not," Kline says. "Same actors, different characters, different story. It's an equal, not a sequel."

"A Fish Called Wanda" seemed too good a treat not to attempt some kind of follow-up. A brilliantly inspired blend of heist movie, romantic comedy and manic farce, it struck a chord with audiences. The film cost just $7.7 million but grossed $200 million worldwide, $65 million in the United States.

Cleese played Archie Leach, a stuffy English barrister who becomes involved with Wanda, a sexy con artist played by Curtis. Kline was Otto, her psychotically manic "brother"; his performance won him an Oscar. Palin, accused by some of sailing beyond the boundaries of good taste, played an animal lover who stammered helplessly; in a sick running joke, he wound up being responsible for the death of a number of small animals. It was all great fun, and "A Fish Called Wanda" now has a thriving afterlife in video stores.

"John always wanted to re-team," says Michael Shamberg, the producer of "Wanda," more recently "Pulp Fiction" and now "Fierce Creatures." "He had notions for a sequel, but I think he felt he'd done it and he could never top himself. He'd also had an idea for a story about a zoo for a long time and felt reuniting the team was a way to do it." Shamberg defines the "Wanda" and "Fierce Creatures" genre as "smart comedy--it's stupid jokes for smart people."

It's unusual for comic teams to reunite for a film that isn't a sequel. Shamberg offers one comparison: Danny DeVito (his partner in Jersey Films) and Arnold Schwarzenegger in "Twins," then "Junior." "It happened all the time with Laurel and Hardy, then Martin and Lewis," he notes. "But we're used to comedy teams of two, rather than the four we have here."

Says Cleese: "I remember saying during the publicity for 'Wanda' that we'd try to do a sequel. I knew we'd all do another together, but I didn't have any idea what it would be. The . . . idea was to get Kevin, Jamie and Michael back."

"Fierce Creatures" has reunited more than its principals. Apart from Shamberg, many of the crew and members of the wardrobe and art departments also worked on "Wanda." But a key figure is absent: veteran director Charles Crichton. He has been replaced by Robert Young, a prominent British film and TV director who has often worked with Cleese.

"It began to dawn on me Charlie was getting quite old," Cleese explains. "He was 77 when he did 'Wanda,' although he sailed through it, looking younger the longer we went on. He loved it so much. When I realized he'd be 85 during 'Fierce Creatures,' I went and talked to him. I think he was a touch disappointed, though he seemed to realize there was a certain truth [to what I said]."

Insurance requirements on "Wanda" meant its backers, MGM, wanted Cleese to be co-director throughout shooting. For quite different reasons, Young and Cleese are co-directing "Fierce Creatures," with Young taking care of camera placement and Cleese talking directly to the other actors.

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