An Oral History of “A Fish Called Wanda”

FISH CALLED WANDA, A (1988)

There’s a fittingly dark footnote in the history of the classic 1988 comedy A Fish Called Wanda: the movie killed someone.

In 1989, Dr. Ole Bentzen, a 56-year-old Danish audiologist reportedly in good health, laughed himself to death while watching the film.

“I was shocked to hear him break out laughing like that,” Dr. Bentzen’s medical assistant Einer Randel told Danish medical journal Medicine Today after the incident. “The next thing I knew, he was dead.”

The film itself is a love story, an exquisitely constructed farce, a crime caper, and a dissertation on the differences between Americans and the British, all at once. Its intricate plot, which revolves around a crew of criminals crossing and double-crossing each other following a diamond heist, involves copious layers of deceit, the unintended assassination of three Yorkshire terriers, one character flattened by a steamroller into wet cement, and likely the most absurd love scene in cinematic history.

A Fish Called Wanda was written, meticulously and over many years, by John Cleese, who also starred as British barrister Archie Leach, repressed to the point of rigor mortis, and directed by Charles Crichton, who turned 77 in the middle of filming.

Roger Ebert, in his delighted review, wrote admiringly of the film’s mean-spiritedness. Behind the scenes, though, there was a unique spirit of collaboration between Cleese and his co-stars: fellow Monty Python alum Michael Palin as stammering animal-lover Ken, Jamie Lee Curtis as the beguilingly manipulative Wanda, and Kevin Kline in an Academy Award–winning performance as the flexuous, Nietzsche-reading, alleged former C.I.A. agent Otto.

Ahead of the film’s 30th anniversary, Cleese, Palin, Curtis, and Kline spoke to Vanity Fair—from Bergen, Norway, London, Los Angeles and New York, respectively—about A Fish Called Wanda, sex, violence, nudity, seafood, and dying of laughter.

Read the full story at Vanity Fair.

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