Richard Lester

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Richard Lester
Richard Lester Bologna 2014 (cropped).jpg
Richard Lester in Bologna, Italy for the "Cinema Ritrovato" July 5, 2014
Richard Lester Liebman

(1932-01-19) January 19, 1932 (age 90)
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.
Other namesDick Lester
Alma materUniversity of Pennsylvania (B.A., Clinical Psychology, 1951) [1]
OccupationFilm director
Years active1954–1991
SpouseDiedre Vivian Smith (Married August 28, 1956) [2]
Parent(s)Elliott (a teacher and playwright) and Ella (a nurse; maiden name, Young)

Richard Lester Liebman (born January 19, 1932)[4] is an American retired film director based in the United Kingdom.

He is best known for directing the Beatles' films A Hard Day's Night (1964) and Help! (1965), and the superhero films Superman II (1980) and Superman III (1983).[5] His other notable films as director include The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film (1959), The Knack ...and How to Get It (1965), A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966), How I Won the War (1967), Petulia (1968), The Three Musketeers (1973) and its two sequels, Robin and Marian (1976), and Butch and Sundance: The Early Days (1979). He is an Honorary Associate of London Film School.[6]

According to the British Film Institute, "if any single director can encapsulate the popular image of Britain in the Swinging Sixties, then it is probably Richard Lester. With his use of flamboyant cinematic devices and liking for zany humour, he captured the vitality, and sometimes the triviality, of the period more vividly than any other director."[7]

Early years and career[edit]

Richard Lester Liebman was born to a Jewish family[8] in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. A child prodigy, he graduated from the William Penn Charter School, a Quaker school in Philadelphia, and began studies at the University of Pennsylvania[9] at the age of 15, graduating with a degree in clinical psychology in 1951.[10][11]

American television[edit]

Lester started in television in 1950, working as a stage hand, floor manager, assistant director and then director in less than a year, because no one else was around who knew how to do the work.[3]

Lester was the music director on Action in the Afternoon, an American western television series that aired live on CBS from February 2, 1953, to January 29, 1954. The series originated from the studios and back lot of CBS' then-Philadelphia affiliate WCAU-TV, and was broadcast Monday through Friday regardless of the weather. The half-hour series aired variously at 3:30 pm or 4:00 pm, throughout its run.[12]

British television[edit]

In May 1955, after a period spent busking around continental Europe,[11] Lester moved to London and began work as a director in television, working for the low-budget producers the Danziger Brothers on episodes of Mark Saber, a half-hour detective series.[10]

He worked as a writer on Curtains for Harry (1955)[13] and, for a few weeks, The Barris Beat (1956).[14]

A variety show he produced caught the eye of Peter Sellers, who enlisted Lester's help in translating The Goon Show to television as The Idiot Weekly, Price 2d (1956). It was a hit, as were two follow-up shows: A Show Called Fred (1956) and Son of Fred (1956).[3][15][16]

Lester recalled that A Show Called Fred was "broadcast live and that's why I went into film directing where you can do a second take!"[17]

He wrote and directed episodes of the TV series After Hours (1958).[18]

Early films[edit]

Lester received acclaim with The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film (1959), a short film he made with Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers.[10] He did another short titled The Sound of Jazz (1959).

His first feature as director was It's Trad, Dad! (1962),[19] a low-budget musical.[20] His second was The Mouse on the Moon (1963), produced by Walter Shenson for United Artists starring Margaret Rutherford, a sequel to The Mouse That Roared (1959).[21] He returned to TV, directing episodes of Room at the Bottom (1964).[22]

The Beatles[edit]

The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film was a favourite of the Beatles, particularly John Lennon. When the band members were contracted to make a feature film, they chose Lester from a list of possible directors. A Hard Day's Night (1964) showed an exaggerated and simplified version of the Beatles' characters and proved to be an effective marketing tool. Many of its stylistic innovations survive as the forerunner of music videos; in particular, the multi-angle filming of a live performance. Lester was sent an award from MTV as "Father of the Music Video".[23]

A Hard Day's Night was a huge critical and commercial success. Lester then directed the first of several quintessential "swinging" films, the sex comedy The Knack ...and How to Get It (1965). Lester's first of three films with actor Michael Crawford, and the first of four credited collaborations with screenwriter Charles Wood, it won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival.[24]

Lester followed this with the Beatles film Help! (1965).[25] A spoof of the popular James Bond spy thrillers, it was the second collaboration with screenwriter Charles Wood and another huge commercial success. Lester received a Hollywood offer to direct the film adaptation of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966).[10]

Director Richard Lester on the set of How I Won the War in 1967.

He then made the darkly surreal anti-war movie How I Won the War (1967) co-starring Crawford and Lennon, which Lester referred to as an "anti-anti-war movie". He explained that anti-war movies still took the concept of war seriously, contrasting "bad" war crimes with wars fought for "good" causes like the liberation from Nazism or, at that time, Communism, whereas with screenwriter Charles Wood, Lester set out to show war as fundamentally opposed to humanity.[citation needed] Although set in World War II, the film serves as an oblique reference to the Vietnam War, and at one point, breaking the fourth wall, references this directly.

He made Petulia (1968) with Julie Christie and George C. Scott, and a score by John Barry.[26] He returned to his anti-war theme with the post-apocalyptic black comedy The Bed Sitting Room (1969),[27] based on a play by Spike Milligan and John Antrobus.[28] The screenplay was the fourth credited collaboration between Lester and Charles Wood, but Wood provided uncredited production rewrites for more films of Lester.

How I Won the War and Bed Sitting Room performed poorly at the box office, and Lester found himself unable to raise finance for a series of projects, including an adaptation of the Flashman novels.[29]


Lester's career revived when he was hired by Alexander and Ilya Salkind to do a version of The Three Musketeers (1973), based on a script by George MacDonald Fraser. The producers decided to split the first film into two after principal photography was completed, the second titled The Four Musketeers (1974). Many of the cast principals complained to the Salkinds, stating that they were only contracted to make one film, and they arrived at an agreement to avoid attorneys' fees.[30] Both movies were critically and commercially successful.[31]

He was called in at the last minute as a replacement director on Juggernaut (1974), a thriller set on a cruise liner. The success of the Musketeers films enabled Lester to raise finance for Royal Flash (1975), based on the second of the Flashman novels by George MacDonald Fraser. Lester followed this with Robin and Marian (1976), from a script by James Goldman, starring Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn. He then made The Ritz (1976), based on a play by Terrence McNally.[31]

Lester also directed Butch and Sundance: The Early Days (1979) and Cuba (1979) with Connery; neither film was successful commercially.[10]


Lester's next film, Superman II, was a huge success. Production on Superman II began before Superman was completed, and had to be halted to concentrate on getting the first movie completed. After the first film was released in late 1978, the Salkinds went back into production on Superman II without informing Superman director Richard Donner and placed Lester behind the camera to complete the remaining 25 percent of the film. Although Donner had shot 75 percent, a majority of what was planned for the film, much of his footage was jettisoned or reshot during Lester's time on the project.[32]

Gene Hackman, who played Lex Luthor, refused to return for the reshoots, so Lester instead used a stunt double and an impersonator to loop Luthor's lines onto footage of Hackman shot by Donner.[33] Some of Donner's original footage was integrated into television versions of the film. In November 2006, Donner's footage was re-edited into Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut, consisting primarily of his footage with Lester's footage used only for scenes not shot during Donner's principal photography.[32]

Richard Lester directed Superman III (1983), but this third installment was not as well received as its predecessors.[34] Nonetheless, it was considered a box office success, ranking 14th in that year Worldwide Box Office.[35]

Later films and retirement[edit]

Lester directed the comedy Finders Keepers (1984), starring Michael O'Keefe, Louis Gossett Jr., and Beverly D'Angelo. The film was a flop, and it is notable as one of the early films featuring Jim Carrey.

In 1988, he reunited most of the Three Musketeers cast to film The Return of the Musketeers, released the following year. During filming in Spain, actor Roy Kinnear, a close friend of Lester, died after falling from a horse. Lester finished the film, then returned only to direct Paul McCartney's concert film Get Back (1991).[31]

In 1993, he presented Hollywood U.K., a five-part series on British cinema in the 1960s for the BBC.[36]

Director Steven Soderbergh is among many who have called for a reappraisal of Lester's work and influence. He wrote Getting Away with It, published in 1999, about Lester's career,[37] which consists of interviews with Lester.

In 2012, the British Film Institute awarded Lester a Fellowship, the British film industry's highest honour, in recognition of his work. The award was presented in a public ceremony on March 22 at the National Film Theatre, and was followed by a screening of Lester's Robin and Marian. The citation for his fellowship recognises that "Richard Lester has created a unique body of work which has enriched the lives of millions with his brilliantly surreal humour and innovative style. Although born in America he has lived in Britain for 60 years and created some of the most enduring and influential creations of British cinema."[38]

Personal life[edit]

In Soderbergh's book Getting Away with It, Lester reveals that he is a committed atheist and debates with Soderbergh (then an agnostic), largely based on the arguments of Richard Dawkins.[37] During Lester's time at the University of Pennsylvania, he was a member of the Beta Rho Chapter of the Sigma Nu fraternity.[39]

Richard Lester married choreographer Deirdre Vivian Smith on August 28, 1956. They have two children, Dominic and Claudia.


Further reading[edit]

  • Combs, Richard (July 1, 2015). "It's bound to end in tears.(discussing about movie director Richard Lester and his movies)". Film Comment. Film Society of Lincoln Center. 51 (4): 42(4). ISSN 0015-119X.
  • Rosenfeldt, Diane (1978). Richard Lester: A guide to references and resources (A Reference publication in film). G. K. Hall. ISBN 978-0816181858.
  • Sinyard, Neil (1985). The Films of Richard Lester. Croom Helm. ISBN 978-0709933472.
  • Yule, Andrew (April 1995). Richard Lester and the Beatles: A Complete Biography of the Man Who Directed a Hard Day's Night and Help!. Donald I Fine. ISBN 978-1556114359.


  1. ^ "Richard Lester : Presented by Professor Frank Sanderson", Liverpool John Moores University. Given an Honorary Fellowship.
  2. ^ Cf. TCM Profile
  3. ^ a b c Soderbergh, Steven (November 8, 1999). "Richard Lester interview". The Guardian. Retrieved April 6, 2008.
  4. ^ Profile, The Times, January 19, 2009; retrieved January 9, 2010.
  5. ^ "Richard Lester". Senses of Cinema. Retrieved October 16, 2012.
  6. ^ "London Film School honours Richard Lester, Rita Tushingham and Philip French at the 2011 Annual Show". London Film School. December 12, 2011. Retrieved June 24, 2020.
  7. ^ "BFI Screenonline: Lester, Richard (1932-) Biography". Retrieved August 12, 2022.
  8. ^ Haaretz: "Superman, Man of Schlemiel? - Superman, the invention of two U.S. Jews, is a profoundly Jewish character whose film history is entwined with that of American Jewry" by Nathan Abrams June 16, 2013
  9. ^ "About Us". University of Pennsylvania, Cinema Studies. Retrieved June 23, 2020.
  10. ^ a b c d e D., Chris (August 2, 2016). "Richard Lester: Philly to Piccadilly". New Beverly Cinema - The premier revival theater in Los Angeles. Retrieved June 23, 2020.
  11. ^ a b Sinyard, Neil (1985). The Films of Richard Lester. London, UK: Croom Helm. Preface, p. viii. ISBN 978-0709933472
  12. ^ Wilkinson, Gerry (2009). "Action in the Afternoon". Broadcast pioneers of Philadelphia. Retrieved June 23, 2020.
  13. ^ "Curtains for Harry (1955)". BFI (British Film Institute). Retrieved June 23, 2020.
  14. ^ Allan, Blaine (1996). "The Barris Beat". Queen's University. Archived from the original on 11 September 2015. Retrieved 24 June 2020.
  15. ^ Scudamore, Pauline (1985). Spike Milligan: A Biography. London, UK: Granada. pp. 169–70. ISBN 0-246-12275-7.
  16. ^ Lewis, Roger (1995). The Life and Death of Peter Sellers. London, UK: Arrow Books. ISBN 0-09-974700-6.
  17. ^ Ventham, Maxine (2002). "Richard Lester". Spike Milligan: His Part in Our Lives. London, UK: Robson. p. 72. ISBN 1-86105-530-7.
  18. ^ "After hours (1958)". Library of Congress. Retrieved June 24, 2020.
  19. ^ Gelly, Dave (2014). An Unholy Row. Equinox. p. 135.
  20. ^ It's Trad, Dad! (1962) - Richard Lester | Cast and Crew | AllMovie, retrieved June 24, 2020
  21. ^ Butler, Craig. "The Mouse on the Moon". Allmovie. Retrieved June 25, 2020.
  22. ^ "Richard Lester". British Comedy Guide. Retrieved June 25, 2020.
  23. ^ Mansfield, Brian (July 29, 2015). "'Help!' at 50: Looking back at the Beatles". USA TODAY. Retrieved July 4, 2020.
  24. ^ QUINN, Thomas. "THE KNACK' WINS TOP CANNES PRIZE". The New York Times. Retrieved May 28, 2018.
  25. ^ Lewis (1995) provides citations for the television shows & films: A Show Called Fred, Son of Fred, Hard Day's Night, Help!, Mouse on the Moon, Running, Jumping Standing Still, and Three Musketeers
  26. ^ "Festival de Cannes: Petulia". Retrieved April 4, 2009.
  27. ^ French, Philip (June 20, 2009). "Philip French's classic DVD: The Bed Sitting Room". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved June 23, 2020.
  28. ^ "Plays by John Antrobus". Doollee. Archived from the original on October 22, 2007. Retrieved June 23, 2020.
  29. ^ Vagg, Stephen (May 18, 2020). "Trying to Make a Case for Royal Flash". Diabolique.
  30. ^ Salmans, Sandra (July 17, 1983). "Film View; the Salkind Heroes Wear Red and Fly High". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved June 25, 2020.
  31. ^ a b c Sobczynski, Peter (August 5, 2015). "Keep Moving!: The Films of Richard Lester. | Features |". Roger Retrieved June 25, 2020.
  32. ^ a b "The Story Behind Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut Is All About Superegos". AMC. Retrieved July 4, 2020.
  33. ^ Weldon, Glen (2013). Superman: The Unauthorized Biography. Wiley. p. 200. ISBN 978-1118341841.
  34. ^ Ebert, Roger (July 17, 1983). "Superman III movie review & film summary (1983)". Retrieved July 4, 2020.
  35. ^ "1983 Worldwide Box Office". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved July 4, 2020.
  36. ^ Hollywood U.K., IMDB. Accessed July 22, 2019
  37. ^ a b Soderbergh, Steven (1999), Getting away with it, or, The further adventures of the luckiest bastard you ever saw (2nd ed.), Faber and Faber, ISBN 978-0-571-19025-6
  38. ^ "Lester Awarded BFI Fellowship" (PDF). March 23, 2012.
  39. ^ Cramer, Arthur A. Jr. (ed.). "Sigma Nu. Class of 1951". The 1950 record. University of Pennsylvania (PDF). Vol. LXXVIII. Campus Publishing. pp. 240–241.

External links[edit]