Mike Myers: Why does everyone want to get into bed with him?

By Robert Hanks
Saturday 07 December 2013 04:11
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In interviews, Mike Myers is fond of playing up the absurdity of the sex-god status enjoyed by his alter-ego, Austin Powers. As he told one journalist: "I'm basically a sexless geek. Look at me. I've got no chin, I've got acne scarring, and I'm 5ft nothing." He exaggerates – in fact, Myers is nearer 6ft (though not by much), and without Austin's splayed incisors he is perfectly good-looking.

But that's by the way. More to the point, if he is really so unsexy, why is it that everybody wants to get into bed with him? Stars of the magnitude of Tom Cruise, Gwyneth Paltrow and Britney Spears have cheerfully accepted cameo roles in Goldmember, the latest instalment in the Austin Powers franchise, which opens here in a fortnight. Last week it was reported that Roger Daltrey has been talking to Myers about playing Keith Moon in a Who biopic. Two years ago, when he got entangled in legal actions after walking out on one project, Steven Spielberg himself stepped in to heal the rift; and the people who were suing him have now signed him up to make the live-action version of The Cat in the Hat.

The reason for such popularity isn't hard to spot, and it doesn't have much to do with Myers's physical appeal, or lack of it; the last Austin Powers film, The Spy Who Shagged Me, grossed $309m (£200m) worldwide at the box office – God knows what it came to when video earnings and product endorsements were counted in. Not surprisingly, Myers's fee for Goldmember has broken the $20m mark. In Hollywood terms, that's as sexy as it gets.

Myers comes from a decidedly unarousing background. He was born on 25 May 1963 in Scarborough, a suburb of Toronto, where his parents had emigrated from Liverpool. Eric Myers had been an army cook, and in Canada worked as an encyclopedia salesman. He met Alice, Mike's mother, at an amateur dramatics society – she had previously studied acting at Lamda, a drama school in London, with the intention of going into the theatre. Her ambitions found an outlet in Mike. From an early age he was taken to auditions and appeared in television commercials, including one in which the comedian Gilda Radner played his mother; he adored her, and has said that seeing her in the American comedy show Saturday Night Live sparked in him the ambition to be on the show, too.

But the most important influence on his comedy was his father, who would ban from the house friends who did not make him laugh and wake his children late at night to watch British comedy on television. "We watched all the great shows," Myers has said. "Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em, On the Buses, The Goodies and Monty Python." The anglophile streak in Myers's humour is obvious in Austin Powers, with its homages to Carnaby Street; perhaps, too, it can be seen in his obsession with farting and willy jokes.

There doesn't ever seem to have been much doubt that he would be a professional comic. On the day of his final high-school exam, he auditioned for and was accepted by Canada's celebrated comedy troupe Second City (it's hard to think of a British equivalent of this: perhaps becoming a regular on I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue). He stayed there on and off for the next eight years, the off-periods including a spell over here, working in double-act with the improvising comic Neil Mullarkey. His big break came in 1988, when he was accepted as part of Saturday Night Live's stable of performers and writers, a year before Radner died of cancer.

At Saturday Night Live he rose through the ranks by creating a roster of engaging characters: Dieter, an anal-retentive, black-clad German TV host, touchy about people messing with his beloved pet monkey; Simon, a little English boy who recounted innocent fantasies from his bathtub; and Wayne Campbell, a nerdish heavy-metal fan with his own cable TV show.

In 1991, Wayne's popularity led to Myers's first cinema outing, Wayne's World. Although the film was patchy and shapeless, it did well at the box office, thanks largely to Myers's outstanding gift for inventing catch-phrases – "Party on!" "Excellent!" and "We are not worthy" in this instance; "Oh, behave" and "Shagadelic" in the Austin Powers films.

In retrospect, it also signalled Myers's conviction of his own physical unattractiveness. Central to the comedy was the absurdity of the notion that a geek like Wayne could bag a babe like Tia Carrere: a key scene showed him winning her over by clowning around in his Y-fronts – his silliness being, the viewer is given to understand, irresistible. The scene is repeated, with different jokes and more clothes, in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery – here, Austin wins over the gorgeous Liz Hurley by standing behind a sofa and doing an impression of a man going down an escalator.

Myers's one major venture in straight drama, 54, made in 1998, relied on a similar gap between his character's self-image and his actual appearance. He played Steve Rubell, the founder of Studio 54, the club that was the high temple of disco in the late Seventies, where nobody could enter who didn't have the look. The fact that Rubell himself was nothing much to look at gave the film its principal irony. Although 54 did badly, both critically and financially, Myers's performance earned praise.

Even in the animated comedy Shrek, in which Myers didn't appear on screen at all, he still managed to play the ugly one. The film revolves around the ogre Shrek's love for the beautiful Princess Fiona, and his conviction that she can never love somebody as revolting as him.

Shrek was another big box-office success for Myers, though only after some heartache. After filming had finished, Myers decided that the voice he had used for Shrek wasn't funny enough and insisted on revoicing all his dialogue with a Scottish accent – a decision that cost the studio an extra $4m. It is clear that he has a streak of perfectionism, or control-freakery, perhaps born of his unhappy experiences on Wayne's World 2; copyright problems over the original script reportedly left Myers having to write the film from scratch in a few weeks; the result was a resounding belly-flop, after which Myers took a three-year break before a triumphant comeback in 1997 with Austin Powers.

The Wayne's World 2 experience may also have been a factor in the big bust-up of 2000 – the one where Spielberg had to intervene. Myers had walked out on Dieter, a big-budget vehicle for his Saturday Night Live character, claiming that the script was unsatisfactory. The production company, Imagine, sued him, accusing him of "selfish, egomaniacal and irresponsible conduct" and pointing out that he had written the script himself. Myers countersued, issuing a statement in which he declared: "I cannot in good conscience accept $20m and cheat moviegoers who pay their hard-earned money to see my work by making a movie with an unacceptable script." Such artistic integrity is admirable; but one can't help wondering why, if he is such a perfectionist, he makes such patchy films. He has been compared with Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers, presumably because, like Guinness in Kind Hearts and Coronets, and Sellers in practically everything, he has played several parts in a single film. There has even been talk of him playing Clouseau in a remake of The Pink Panther. But such comparisons don't stand up to a moment's serious consideration: even people who hated Sellers – which was most people who knew him – admitted that his mimicry of accents was uncannily good. By contrast, Myers's Scottish accent in Shrek is an embarrassment to real Scots, or people who have met real Scots.

The Austin Powers films do contain some fine things. The opening sequence of the first film, in which Myers, resplendent in frilly collar, jives through a blatantly fake swingin' London, pursued by crowds of adoring females, is pure delight; and if nothing else, he deserves credit for pulling off the unlikely feat of turning Liz Hurley into a plausible representative of sexual puritanism and female equality. But there is little quality control; Powers picking up a stool sample in mistake for a coffee pot and saying "This coffee smells like shit"? gives a new significance to the fact that he listed Some Mothers Do' Ave' Em and On the Buses as great British comedies.

What Myers does have that is lacking in contemporaries such as Jim Carrey is an air of innocent pleasure. This is partly nostalgic and self-aware – as Austin Powers, defrosted in the 1990s after 30 years in suspended animation, says: "As long as people are still having promiscuous sex with many anonymous partners without protection while at the same time experimenting with mind-altering drugs in a consequence-free environment, I'll be sound as a pound, baby!" But it seems, too, to express something in Myers's own character; he really seems to be getting a kick out of playing at being a star;, and he really seems to be one of the good guys. Stories of hissy fits on set and accusations of plagiarism circulate, but that's pretty much standard for a modern movie-star. More significant is the abundant firm evidence of Myers's staunch loyalty to his friends. In 1998, for instance, he played a supporting role in an Irish film, Pete's Meteor, which proved meteoric in the way it vanished from view. Given his price tag, money cannot have been an incentive; the only possible explanation seems to be the presence in the cast of Brenda Fricker, who had previously played his mother in So I Married an Axe Murderer.

And he is a devoted family man, a rare quality in Hollywood. He has been with his wife, Robin Ruzan, since shortly after they met in 1987. Since his father, Eric, died in 1991 – a week before the premiere of Wayne's World – Myers has worn Eric's Encyclopaedia Britannica "Salesman of the Year" ring; his own production company was originally called Eric's Boy. Even more touching is the fact that he dropped that name because he feared it excluded his brothers. When Goldmember coins its expected millions, it will be some consolation to think that the money is going to a good cause.

LIFE STORY

Born: Michael Myers, 25 May 1963, Scarborough, Ontario, Canada.

Family: Mother: Alice Myers, actress; father: Eric Myers, encyclopedia salesman (died November 1993); brothers: Paul, musician, and Peter; wife: married Robin Ruzan, writer and actress, 22 May 1993.

Education: Stephen Leacock High School, favourite subjects literature and history; won a place at York University, Toronto, on basis of essay entitled: "Joseph Campbell's Cosmogenic Monomyth Cycle and The Spy Who Loved Me".

CareerSecond City comedy troupe, Canadian television, 1982-90; Saturday Night Live, 1992-98, creating characters including heavy-metal fan Wayne Campbell.

Film credits: Wayne's World, 1992; So I Married an Axe Murderer, 1993; Wayne's World 2, 1993; Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, 1997; 54, 1998; Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, 1999; Pete's Meteor, 1999; Mystery, Alaska, 1999; Sprockets, 2000; Shrek, 2001 (he played the voice of Shrek); Goldmember, 2002

Awards: Best Villain at the MTV Movie Awards, 1998 and 2000.

He says: "Party on!", "Excellent!", "We are not worthy", "Schwing!" (as Wayne Campbell); "Oh, behave", "Shagadelic" (as Austin Powers)

They say: "Myers behaves as much like a fan as a star. And his comedy plays both a homage to pop culture and a parody of it" – Brian Johnson, Maclean's Magazine

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