Actor, writer, and director
Born Christopher Haden–Guest, February 5, 1948, in New York, NY; son of Peter (an editor) and Jean (maiden name, Hindes; a network executive) Haden–Guest; married Jamie Lee Curtis (an actress), December 18, 1984; children: one son, one daughter. Education: Attended Bard College, 1967; attended New York University, 1968–70.
Agent —Creative Artists Agency, 9830 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, CA 90212.
Actor, writer, and director. Appeared in New York City stage plays beginning in 1969 with Little Murders ; co–writer of music and lyrics for, and actor in National Lampoon's Lemmings at the Village Gate Theater, New York City, 1973. Film appearances include: The Hospital (uncredited), 1971; The Hot Rock (also known as How to Steal a Diamond in Four Uneasy Lessons ), 1972; Death Wish, 1974; The Fortune, 1975; Girlfriends, 1978; The Last Word, 1979; The Long Riders, 1980; Heartbeeps, 1981; This is Spinal Tap, 1984; Little Shop of Horrors, 1986; Beyond Therapy, 1987; The Princess Bride, 1987; Sticky Fingers, 1988; A Few Good Men, 1992; Waiting for Guffman, 1996; Small Soldiers (voice), 1998; Best in Show, 2000; A Mighty Wind, 2003. Television appearances include: Saturday Night Live With Howard Cosell, 1975; The Lily Tomlin Special (also co–writer), ABC, 1975; Allinthe Family, CBS, 1977; It Happened One Christmas (movie), 1977; Laverne & Shirley, 1978; The T.V. Show (movie), 1979; Blind Ambition (miniseries), 1979; Haywire,
Emmy Award for best writing for a comedy special, Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, for The Lily Tomlin Special, 1976; Critics' Choice Award for best song, Broadcast Film Critics Assocation, for "A Mighty Wind," 2004; Grammy Award for best song written for a motion picture, television or other visual media, Recording Academy, for "A Mighty Wind," 2004.
Filmmaker Christopher Guest is the comic talent behind such spoof films as Best in Show and A Mighty Wind, both gems in the "mockumentary" genre. Guest's roots in these biting, satirical glimpses into the purported world of purebred dog shows or the folk–music scene stretch back to his appearance in the cult classic, This Is Spinal Tap, in which he played a pompous but slow–witted rock guitarist. Guest's brilliant rips depict, as Independent Sunday journalist James Wolcott asserted, "middle–aged, middle–class also–rans who've deluded themselves into thinking that the only thing separating them from stardom is a lucky break." Yet New York Times film reviewer Elvis Mitchell noted that there seemed a more thoughtful side to Guest's movies that made them so funny. "The crucial element in all of his behind–the–scenes comedies," Mitchell maintained, "is that he allows the characters their dignity, and understands how important it is to all of them."
Of British heritage, Guest was born in 1948 in New York City, where his father, Peter, worked at the United Nations as a publications editor. His grandfather was made a baron in the 1950s for his child–health advocacy in Great Britain, and Guest would eventually inherit the title himself. His show–biz acumen may have been inherited from his mother, Jean, an executive at CBS. As a teen in the early 1960s, he attended New York's High School for the Performing Arts, where he became friends with Arlo Guthrie, the son of folk singer Woody Guthrie. The two even played in a folk act together, with Guest on the mandolin, that landed gigs in Greenwich Village coffeehouses during the folk–music heyday of the era.
Guest spent a year at Bard College in 1967, before switching to New York University (NYU) and its newly formed Tisch School of the Arts, where he studied acting. With its stellar faculty and lofty goals, Tisch was a "Mecca of pretension," Guest recalled in an interview with the New York Times 's Mitchell. But it was there that he met Michael McKean, whose first big success came on the hit ABC sitcom Laverne and Shirley in the mid–1970s. Despite cautions from his professors that he was not ready for the stage, Guest began winning roles in Off Broadway theater productions, including Little Murders, a 1969 play from the pen of political cartoonist Jules Feiffer. He made his film debut—albeit uncredited—in the 1971 Paddy Chayefsky farce The Hospital, and went on to win roles in such films as The Hot Rock and Death Wish, the Charles Bronson classic.
Guest hit his stride when he became involved with writing both the script and music for National Lampoon's Lemmings at the Village Gate Theater. The 1973 musical revue, a spoof of the legendary Woodstock music festival, was the Off Broadway hit of the year and led to steady television work for Guest. He was hired as a co–writer and performer for a 1975 ABC event, The Lily Tomlin Special, for which he won an Emmy award, and spent the rest of the decade appearing in feature and made–for–television movies, including Blind Ambition in 1979, in which he was cast as Jeb Stuart Magruder, a crony of President Richard M. Nixon jailed for his part in the 1973 Watergate scandal.
Guest also began working with former All in the Family star Rob Reiner on television writing projects in the late 1970s, and then co–wrote the script for Reiner's directorial debut, This is Spinal Tap, along with former NYU alum McKean and a writer for Saturday Night Live, Harry Shearer. Its premise was a faux documentary about an enduring British rock band called Spinal Tap, played by Guest, McKean, and Shearer. Hapless to a fault, the bombastic metal act had weathered several career low points, including what appeared to be a curse on their drummers, one of whom had choked to death on vomit, "but not his own," as the band members sadly explain to Reiner's filmmaker–fan character, Marty DiBergi.
The script and soundtrack that Guest co–wrote for Spinal Tap parodied nearly every rock cliché from the past two decades, but a certain deadpan skill was needed for the three actors to pull it off. As the band's guitarist, Nigel Tufnel, "Guest catches the perfect combination of gormlessness and tongue–pulling enthusiasm," wrote Anthony Quinn in London's Independent newspaper some years later, "and gets many of the most famous scenes, confusing 'sexy' and 'sexist,' playing his tender piano piece in D minor ('the saddest of all keys') and, of course, explaining to DiBergi how the amplifiers go to eleven." Somewhat misunderstood when it was released—many thought the band actually existed— Spinal Tap took time to find its audience, but eventually earned its creators a small fortune.
Guest spent one season as a regular cast member on Saturday Night Live between 1984 and 1985, where his most memorable skit came as the coach of an all–male synchronized–swimming duo. Returning to film, he appeared in the remake of Little Shop of Horrors as well as The Princess Bride, and made his own directorial debut in The Big Picture, an original HBO movie. The comedy starred Kevin Bacon as the idealistic young winner of a student filmmaking award who is lured into the dismal business of big–budget Hollywood blockbusters. Outside of his writing and directing projects, Guest continued to take the occasional film role—including one in the 1992 Reiner–directed drama A Few Good Men —and made another HBO film, this one spoofing the schlock sci–fi movies in the 1950s, Attack of the 50–Ft. Woman.
Guest's career as a "mockumentary" filmmaker in the vein of Spinal Tap came into being in 1996 when he put out the small–budget Waiting for Guffman. After a basic script outlined with former Second City Television comedian Eugene Levy, Guest directed and starred in this drily comic take on a Missouri town staging a musical review in honor of its sesquicentennial celebration. Guest played Corky St. Claire, a former New Yorker who now teaches drama at the high school. Corky pulls together an improbable cast of Broadway hopefuls from amongst the town's citizenry, including its dentist (Levy), and a Dairy Queen cashier played by Parker Posey.
Though Waiting for Guffman barely made a blip in theatrical release, it went on to garner a cult following on video and DVD. Guest won praise for both his performance and as the filmmaker behind the satirical look at small–town boosterism and show–business dreamers. "Corky caresses his words like silk pajamas, and his rage keeps bursting out with jack–in–the–box abandon," noted Entertainment Weekly critic Owen Gleiberman. Writing in Newsweek, David Ansen also liked Guest's portrayal of a sensitive "artist," as he is often referred to by other cast members. "Guest's Corky is a triumph, a queenly stereotype invested with such enthusiastic conviction it transcends offensiveness," opined Ansen.
Guest's long–awaited follow–up to Waiting for Guffman was Best in Show, a spoof of the world of pure-bred dog competitions. The film reunited him with the ensemble from Guffman, which included Levy, Posey, Fred Willard, and Catherine O'Hara. Guest took a smaller role this time as bloodhound lover Harlan Pepper, a performance that often seemed overshadowed by the fictional couples who also arrived in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, for the national purebred dog show. Levy and O'Hara played Gerry and Cookie Fleck, a Florida pair with a beloved terrier named Winky; Gerry has, literally, two left feet, while Cookie runs into evidence of her former single–gal escapades on an almost–daily basis. At the other end of the spectrum are weimaraner parents/attorneys Meg and Hamilton Swan, played by Posey and Michael Hitchcock, "a highly caffeinated couple whose tense shallowness is like a sheet of glass about to shatter," noted Wolcott in the Independent Sunday article. McKean and John Michael Higgins played an outlandishly swish couple with a prize shih–tzu. Again, Guest and Levy penned the script, and the actors improvised their dialogue and even went so far as to select their own wardrobes. "They're the best people at this I think that there are," Guest told Wolcott about his stellar cast. "And that is my joy in doing this. These are not money–making propositions. These are small movies, but I think the value for people working in them is that they get to do what they do, and they're not given the chance to do that in a conventional movie."
In 2003, Guest took on an even riper target for satire in A Mighty Wind, a fictional behind–the–scenes glimpse of a reunion of 1960s folk acts. Once again, he took a role—this time as part of a trio that included McKean and Shearer together for the first time since they performed in Spinal Tap. The project was based on a Saturday Night Live skit they did together back in 1984 as a trio of aging, hapless folksingers, the Folksmen. Guest, with balding pate and flowing curls, was the Folksmen's Alan Barrows, a singer who "baas" his lyrics and bickers with Shearer, who sports an outlandish Amish beard. The rest of the cast included Levy and O'Hara as a once popular duet act, Mitch & Mickey—since divorced and one embittered, the other nearly brain–dead—but "the bigger guffaws are inspired by the New Main Street Singers, led by John Michael Higgins and Jane Lynch as husband and wife straight arrows who are also bent about as far as they can be," noted Gleiberman in Entertainment Weekly.
Again, Guest won critical raves for his film. Gleiberman termed it a "sublime, dizzying satire of American folk music," while New York Times reviewer David Hajdu found that the "seasoned troupe of ensemble players captures [folk–music] types in all their blithe vapidity." Guest asserted that the folk scene—to which he once belonged himself—was ripe for parody. "I was a bluegrass player early on," he told Mitchell in the New York Times interview, "and we looked down on all other kinds of folk music. And that was because you had to be able to technically play, and play fast, for bluegrass." He explained to Time writers Richard Corliss and Josh Tyrangiel that he targeted the quasi–pop early 1960s pre–Bob Dylan folk scene in part because of "the earnestness that this kind of folk music has. Those people took themselves too seriously—way too seriously. And any group of people that takes itself seriously is fodder." On January 10, 2004, Guest, McKean, and Levy shared a Grammy Award for best song written for a motion picture, television, or other visual media from the Recording Academy for "A Mighty Wind." The song also won a Critics' Choice Award from the Broadcast Film Critics Association.
Guest is a centrifugal entertainment–industry presence. In an addition to a roster of famous comedian friends, he is married to actress Jamie Lee Curtis, daughter of actors Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh, and his half–brother is New York–based journalist and veteran partygoer Anthony Haden–Guest, reportedly the role model for the British writer in Tom Wolfe's 1987 bestseller, The Bonfire of the Vanities. Guest inherited his family's royal designation in 1996 when his father passed away. Technically he is the fifth Baron Haden–Guest of Saling, a district outside of London, and has taken Curtis along when he dons an heirloom ermine robe to attend the opening of the British Parliament, a starchy annual affair for which Queen Elizabeth II delivers the opening address. "It feels as if you're in a movie," Guest told Maclean's film critic Brian D. Johnson. "It's as surreal as the Spinal Tap thing, which is awfully surreal." He and Curtis have two children.
Though he avoids the most commonly used term that critics deploy when discussing his work—"I hate the word mockumentary, that's not my word," he told the New York Times 's Mitchell—Guest remains fascinated by the banal. He summed up his artistic vision in an Esquire interview with Genevieve A. Roth. "In my experience, we don't come close to describing how weird people in this world are," he reflected. "I mean, there are whole conventions for people who like thimbles."
Entertainment Weekly, February 14, 1997, p. 43; October 6, 2000, p. 58; April 25, 2003, p. 123.
Esquire, May 2003, p. 68.
Independent (London, England), October 13, 2000, p. 10; March 9, 2001, p. 10.
Independent Sunday (London, England), March 4, 2001, p. 6; March 11, 2001, p. 3.
Maclean's, September 25, 2000, p. 73; April 21, 2003, p. 55.
Nation, October 9, 1989, p. 398; May 5, 2003, p. 34.
Newsweek, February 10, 1997, p. 66.
New York Times, March 19, 2003, p. E1; April 13, 2003.
People, April 29, 1996, p. 56.
San Francisco Chronicle, March 7, 1997, p. D3.
Shoot, October 16, 1998, p. S45.
Time, March 5, 1984, p. 86; October 9, 2000, p. 106; April 21, 2003, p. 68.
Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2002.
"List of Grammy winners," CNN.com , http://www.cnn.com/2004/SHOWBIZ/Music/02/08/grammy.winners/ (July 9, 2004).
— Carol Brennan