Already a comedy star thanks to his run on “Saturday Night Live” and in the “Wayne’s World” films, Mike Myers would reach a shagadelic level of popularity with “Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery.”
The comedy, about a 1960s British spy with a libido as oversized as his cravate, turns 25 on May 2. It follows the title character, a spy (played by Myers) who is frozen and then thawed out 30 years later to find his nemesis, Dr. Evil, also played by Myers. A spoof of James Bond and ‘60s spy films, “Austin Powers” represents Myers at the height of his (Austin) powers.
“It’s Mike Myers and his worldview of these type of movies that he grew up on and what he thought was funny, and what he used to then put this incredible cast together and this story together,” Mindy Sterling, who played Frau Farbissina, told TODAY by phone.
Powers himself is a whirlwind of energy, charming and desirable among his contemporaries in the swinging ’60s, but hilariously out of place in the ‘90s, when he’s teamed up with Vanessa Kensington (Elizabeth Hurley), the daughter of his old partner, Mrs. Kensington. He bombards Vanessa with all types of overt sexual innuendo before ultimately worming his way into her heart.
“The ultimate gentleman spy. Irresistible to women. Deadly to his enemies. A legend in his own time,” Basil Exposition, played by Michael York, explains before he’s thawed out.
Powers is indeed a legend in his own time, but wholly inappropriate in a way that feels harmless by ‘90s standards. He remains so happy, even while trying to save the world. It’s a parallel you can make with Wayne and Garth from “Wayne’s World.”
“These two guys just delighted in being alive,” “Wayne’s World” director Penelope Spheeris told TODAY earlier this year about Wayne and Garth. The same can be said for Powers, whose never-ending ear-to-ear smile permeates the screen, no matter what obstacles come his way.
Powers tries to navigate the modern world, with no understanding that he may need to see how times have changed. It’s the old fish-out-of-water story, but with Myers’ singular touch.
Or should we say his duplicate touch, given how he excelled in two roles. Dr. Evil is vintage villain, with a touch of buffoon thrown in, dressed like he’s from the future, even though he’s from the past, with a distinctly staccato delivery that accentuates his lines for added laugh value. He’s equal parts cruel and funny, his personality perhaps best displayed in the monologue about his childhood he delivers in group therapy with his son, Scott (Seth Green). It’s performed with precision and features comedic writing of the highest order.
“My childhood was typical. Summer in Rangoon, luge lessons. In the spring, we’d make meat helmets. When I was insolent, I was placed in a burlap bag and beaten with reeds. Pretty standard, really,” he says.
Myers was no stranger to bringing characters to life that resonated with fans. His years on “Saturday Night Live” showed his flair for that, with Wayne from “Wayne’s World” and Dieter from “Sprockets” among his creations. He had developed a loyal fan base that worshipped the kind of comedy he made.
Robert Wagner, who played Number Two, puts credit for how audiences reacted to the film on Myers himself.
“A lot of it is they love Mike,” he told TODAY in a phone interview.
“It was outrageous,” he added. “Some of the things were just outrageous and the younger people just clamored onto it.”
York also thinks Myers was right on target.
“He provided this great script that would have worked, but then he allowed you to improvise around it,” he told TODAY in a phone interview. “So if you came up with a great line or situation, (he’d be) quite happy to accept it.”
The movie brought the 1960s to a younger generation of fans who gobbled up the audacious antics of Powers and Dr. Evil.
“I think the fact that it was naughty, but nice,” York said about why the movie clicked. “You couldn’t get really angry with it, because Mike was so appealing with those teeth and those clothes. It was a great comic creation and it was a great pleasure to work alongside him.”
It sounds hard to believe in retrospect, but “Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery” did not dominate the box office when it came out. The film actually finished second behind the Kurt Russell vehicle “Breakdown,” failing to crack $10 million in its debut weekend. The movie, however, would go on to spawn a pair of sequels, “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me,” in 1999, and “Austin Powers in Goldmember,” in 2002. The original film cemented Myers’ place in the comedy pantheon, even if it took some time.
To look back at the movie a quarter century after coming out is to understand the time in which it emerged. Sterling said it wasn’t appreciated right away, but took off when it went to video.
“Back then it was VHS, it was time to see a video and all of a sudden, it just grew,” she said. “So nothing felt better, knowing that, ‘Oh, my God, that movie that I did that I thought was funnier than anything I’ve read finally got its time.’”
Like “Wayne’s World,” “Austin Powers” has enjoyed a life long after it left the big screen. Several of the film’s stars reunited for a Super Bowl commercial earlier this year and talk of a fourth film is as present as Powers’ misshapen teeth. Myers himself has not done much to extinguish hope we may see another installment.
“I would love to do one. Yeah, yeah, yeah,” he said on TODAY in February. “We’ll see. I can neither confirm nor deny the existence or nonexistence of such a program, should it exist or not exist.”
Sterling, Wagner and York are all quick to point out that they would jump at the chance to return for another installment. Sterling wonders if a movie like this where someone wakes up after being frozen in 1997 could be made today.
“Everything has changed since then. You have to be so careful about how you approach things,” she said. “You have to be so careful about the kind of characters that you do so that you’re not stepping on anybody’s toes or doing the wrong thing. So, it is a little different. We could play. There were no rules then. And you could do what you want. He could play any kind of character and it wasn’t about making fun of it. It was about celebrating it.”