From ‘Princess Bride’ to ‘Robin Hood: Men in Tights,’ Cary Elwes Breaks Down His Five Funniest Roles

The veteran actor explains what it’s like to be on a Mel Brooks set, the fear of performing in front of a live ‘Seinfeld’ studio audience, and which co-star made him break the most
From ‘Princess Bride’ to ‘Robin Hood: Men in Tights,’ Cary Elwes Breaks Down His Five Funniest Roles

When Cary Elwes was starting out as a film actor, he was doing British historical dramas such as Another Country and Lady Jane. But he’d always loved comedy. “The first comedian I was drawn to was Peter Sellers, who for me is the beginning and end of all comedy,” he tells me enthusiastically over Zoom. “None of his takes were the same. He improvised on everything, and he was a genius — an absolute genius. Olivier and Ralph Richardson — who brought a great deal of comedy to his roles, by the way — Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole, all these guys had a twinkle in their eyes, and they became my heroes on film. I bought every book I could on all of the people I admire and studied them, studied their films, studied their biographies.”

Throughout his career, Elwes has moved seamlessly from serious to silly, and the 61-year-old is currently one of the stars of The Ministry of Ungentlemanly WarfareGuy Ritchie’s cheeky, violent World War II caper film, where he plays actual British Brigadier Gubbins. “My real-life grandfather on my mother’s side of the family worked for the character I played in the movie,” Elwes explains about signing up for the role. “So it was personal. I did my research about Gubbins, but I also brought a little bit of my grandfather to it. They were all interesting characters who had to have a great sense of humor — they were dealing with such an awful time in history that they had to find ways to find levity in these very dark moments.”

In honor of Elwes’ lighter side, Cracked talked with the man about his five most iconic comedic roles, from film to television. Why was he so anxious to do Seinfeld? What did Kevin Costner think of Elwes spoofing him in Robin Hood: Men in Tights? And why was The Princess Bride so emotional for him?

Westley in ‘The Princess Bride’

I obviously knew (director) Rob (Reiner) from Spinal Tap, which had just come out and was a massive hit. And I knew him from All in the Family, so I was a huge fan of his — and Norman Lear, who produced it.

(Screenwriter and author) Bill Goldman, who had a wicked sense of humor, this was his favorite project — he wrote (the original novel) in ‘73, and he’d been trying to make it as a movie since then. He was a big Monty Python fan — he was friends with some of the Pythons and Peter Cook, and you can feel all of that in the movie. I was so impressed with Bill Goldman — he loomed large in our household. My father was a huge, crazy fan of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (which won Goldman the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay) — that was the film he made us watch over and over again until we knew it by heart. And then my stepfather, who came into my life when I was about five or six, was a film producer, and he was originally an agent — he represented Bill Goldman as a writer — and he tried to make (Princess Bride into a) film at one point. But he couldn’t make it.

When the project came my way, I was so impressed with Bill — I didn’t know him at all, but I had to test for him and for Rob. Goldman really loved my screen test and said, “Yeah, that’s the guy for the role.” And so I’m eternally grateful to him and Rob — and Norman, who financed the film himself.

Rob had a meeting with the actors at the very beginning, and he said, “Listen, it’s very important you remember that you don’t play this for laughs. You’ve got to play it straight. You can’t laugh for the audience — you can’t be winking while you’re doing the comedy. It all has to be done straight — that’s the only way it’s going to work. You’ve got to keep your cards close to your chest — you can’t show your hand.” So that’s what we all did, and it was joyful every day. We had a hard time not ruining takes, I won’t lie to you — between Chris Guest and Billy Crystal, it was almost impossible.

Billy Crystal was the only person that Rob allowed to improvise. The minute Rob yelled, “Action,” Miracle Max launched into two hours of medieval stand-up, and he ruined us all. Rob laughed so loud that the sound department made him move and shoot the scene in the hallway outside the soundstage, and then obviously Billy made sure I was next. I had to be pretending to not even breathe in the scene — try that when Billy’s doing stand-up. Ridiculous — totally ridiculous.

Lt. Kent Gregory in ‘Hot Shots!’

When Hot Shots! came along and (director/co-writer) Jim Abrahams and (co-writer) Pat Proft called me, I was nervous at first. I thought, “Wow, am I going to tear it here in my career if I do something so slapstick?” It’s funny: In this industry, casting directors like to pigeonhole you, and if they can, they will. And if you do slapstick or something overtly funny, they tend to take you off the list for drama, which is a pity.

But they were so charming and so funny, and I was a big fan of Airplane! I thought, “You know what? This is not going to come around twice,” so I said, “Yeah, absolutely.” I usually run toward the projects I’m fearful of anyway — that’s usually how I operate. I want to be able to stretch myself.

(Abrahams and Proft) are very tight as writers — Pat particularly — and they know exactly how to tickle people. There were very few changes (to the script) on the day, actually. It was a page-turner — laughter on every page. If you’re an artist and you pick up a script, your first criteria is, “Is this a project I would go and watch even if I wasn’t in it?” Second: “Is it a part that makes me nervous?” And third: “Is the writing so good that you can’t say no?” These guys checked every box.

Robin Hood in ‘Robin Hood: Men in Tights’

When Mel Brooks first called me, I assumed it was a prank and hung up on him. I thought it was someone doing a very, very good Mel Brooks impression. I’d never had a filmmaker of that quality call me at home. No one had ever said, “Cary Elwes, I want to work with you” — especially someone like Mel Brooks, who I grew up with and admired and loved to this day. So, when he called, he went, “Hi, this is Mel Brooks.” I said, “Yeah, right,” and hung up on him. He called back and he said, “No, no, no, it really is me! Don’t hang up!” Thank god he was persistent.

He had come to the first screening of The Princess Bride on the Fox lot, and he brought Carl Reiner — Rob’s dad — and he brought Gene Wilder, who was one of my heroes growing up. I mentioned Peter Sellers and the Pythons, but Gene Wilder as far as American comedy was concerned, and Mel Brooks, they’re the end-all and be-all of comedy. To have Mel and Carl and Gene come up to me after that screening and tell me how great I was in it, I could have died and gone to heaven right there. I was like, “This is not real. I’m living a fantasy.” And of course, that’s when Mel got the idea to cast me in Robin Hood, from that movie.

On that first call, he told me, “I’ve got this line for you in the script where you say, ‘I’m the only Robin Hood who can speak with an English accent.’” (Laughs)

I knew what I was signing up for. I’d studied every single Mel Brooks movie, by rote, from The Producers on. His draft of the script didn’t change too much, really — he knew what he wanted. When Things Were Rotten, the TV series, he really wanted to revisit that. 

My first take, Mel came up to me, and he goes, “Cut, cut.” Walked up to me and went (perfect Mel Brooks impression), “Okay, in this next one, suck less. Okay, action!” I’m like, “Okay, this is how it’s going to be.” (Laughs) What better direction can you possibly hope for than that

You have to laugh — he was teasing me, obviously. He just knew how to keep a light set and make everyone laugh all the time. Occasionally, he’d have very serious notes, but for the most part, he was just enjoying the process. 

Funny enough, I did run into Kevin Costner afterward. At first he was like, “Really?” (laughs) But then we became friends. I think he was cool with it, honestly. It’s Mel Brooks — how can you be mad at Mel Brooks? It’s impossible.

David on the ‘Seinfeld’ Episode ‘The Wait Out’

No one wanted to take a risk with me on a sitcom. It’s like doing a play on Broadway: If you haven’t done one, no one’s going to take that risk with you. They’re like, “Yeah, there’s probably a reason why Cary hasn’t done Broadway." And so getting the call from Larry (David) and Jerry (Seinfeld), that was the second time in my life where I had two extraordinary talents call me at home and pitch me the character. They said, “He’s this character who’s always got issues with his intestines. He’s a sports nut, and he’s in love with Elaine,” but he’s so self-centered that they (didn’t) think that it’s going to work out between the two of them. 

A live audience — I’d never done that. I really had to practice my meditations beforehand to calm myself down — that’s part of my training. I was terribly nervous.

As you’re rehearsing, you can see the seats in the stands in front of you. They’re empty, obviously, at that point — it mentally prepares you for the fact that, at some point, you’re going to do this in front of an audience. I hadn’t been in front of a live audience since I was five doing a school play. They were so used to it, obviously — they’d been doing it forever. But for me, it was like, you could hear the energy from backstage, and you’re like, “Oh, wow, this is it.”

But the one thing that helps ground me in a scene or on a set is connecting with the people I’m working with. Luckily, I have this remarkable gift of being able to not see the camera crew and not see the audience or anyone when I’m working — I’m so focused on the person in front of me and the scene at hand that I’m able to separate the two. I didn’t know I was going to be able to do that for Seinfeld, and that’s why I had the nerves. But when I got out there on that stage, I was able to really calm down.

There are obviously diehard Seinfeld fans all over the planet. So every now and again, people come up to me and say, “Boy, you could’ve done a lot better than him.” I had one guy yell that line to me multiple times — so much so that his wife told him to stop. (Laughs) He kept saying, “Say it to me in front of my wife — say, ‘You could have done better.’” I looked at her and she’s like, “Yeah, I guess you better do it, or we won’t get out of here.” 

Jerry in ‘Liar Liar’

That part was the Dean Martin to Jim Carrey’s Jerry Lewis. It had to be grounded in reality, like all the good comedic roles are. But that one in particular, you had to play it in such a way that the audience wanted to root for Jim to get back together with his family and with his kid. We had to find a way to make (my) character likable but not too likable that they feel bad for him in losing out on this relationship with these two people. 

Jerry’s attempt at doing “The Claw” came from Michael Palin — I wanted to use Michael Palin’s beautiful, empathetic heart and acceptance of being a failure. Palin does that very well, and so I really paid homage to him in that moment.

I’ve worked with John Cleese and Eric Idle, but I’ve never gotten to work with Michael or Terry Jones or Graham (Chapman). But Michael, I got hooked on this series as a kid that he did called Ripping Yarns. Michael had this twinkle in his eye always — he knew he was being ridiculous, and yet there was a humbleness to his comedy. 

Those guys are so brilliant — I studied them ad nauseam to the point where I think I drove people around me a bit crazy. But that’s been my education — it’s a continued education, really.

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