AFI Catalog of Feature Films
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A Fish Called Wanda
Director: Charles Crichton (Dir)
Release Date:   15 Jul 1988
Premiere Information:   Los Angeles and New York openings: 15 Jul 1988
Production Date:   began 13 Jul 1987 in London, England
Duration (in mins):   108
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Cast:   John Cleese (Archie [Leach])  
    Jamie Lee Curtis (Wanda [Gerschwitz])  
    Kevin Kline (Otto [West])  
    Michael Palin (Ken [Pile])  
  with: Maria Aitken (Wendy [Leach])  
    Tom Georgeson (George [Thomason])  
    Patricia Hayes (Mrs. [Eileen] Coady)  
  [and] Geoffrey Palmer (Judge)  
    Cynthia Caylor (Portia [Leach])  
    Mark Elwes (Customer in jeweller's shop)  
    Neville Phillips (Manager of jeweller's shop)  
    Peter Jonfield (Inspector Marvin)  
    Ken Campbell (Bartlett)  
    Al Ashton (Warder)  
    Roger Hume (Locksmith)  
    Roger Brierley (Davidson)  
    Llewellyn Rees (Sir John)  
    Michael Percival (Percival)  
    Kate Lansbury (Magistrate)  
    Robert Cavendish (Copper)  
    Andrew MacLachlan (Zebedee)  
    Roland MacLeod (Vicar)  
    Jeremy Child (Mr. Johnson)  
    Pamela Miles (Mrs. Johnson)  
    Tom Piggot Smith (Child Johnson, 13)  
    Katherine John (Child Johnson, 10)  
    Sophie Johnstone (Child Johnson, 8)  
    Kim Barclay (Nanny)  
    Sharon Twomey (1st junior barrister, Defence counsel)  
    Patrick Newman (2nd junior barrister, Defence counsel)  
    David Simeon (Clerk of court, Old Bailey)  
    Imogen Bickford-Smith (Stenographer)  
    Tia Lee (Junior barrister, Prosecution counsel)  
    Robert Putt (Police officer, Old Bailey)  
    Waydon Croft (1st prison officer)  
    John Dixon (2nd prison officer)  
    Anthony Pedley (Irate driver)  
    Robert McBain (Hotel clerk)  
    Clare McIntyre (Airline employee)  
    Charu Bala Chokshi (Indian cleaner)  
    Stephen Fry (Hutchison)  

Summary: In his London, England apartment, Ken Pile tends to his aquarium, addressing his favorite fish as “Wanda.” He is interrupted when an American woman named Wanda Gershwitz arrives with her “brother,” Otto, a Friedrich Nietzsche enthusiast who teases Ken about his stutter and love of animals. When Wanda’s boyfriend, George Thomason, joins them, Otto demonstrates his prowess as a weapons specialist, hoping to join George, Wanda, and Ken in a jewel heist. Otto appears jealous as George kisses Wanda, and although he loudly calls her “Sis” upon leaving, he warns Wanda not to let George touch her. The next day, Otto, George, and Ken steal $20 million worth of diamonds while Wanda, disguised as a male chauffeur, waits in a limousine. The foursome speeds away from the crime scene, and Wanda nearly runs over an elderly woman, Eileen Coady, as she walks her three dogs. Ditching the getaway car, Otto and Wanda follow George to a garage, where he stashes the loot in a safe. Later, Wanda kisses Otto, who is secretly her boyfriend. They betray George by reporting his name to the police, who apprehend him moments after he hides a key in Ken’s fish food container. Wanda and Otto return to George’s safe for the diamonds but find it empty. They visit George in jail, where George and Wanda rehearse their shared alibi. George suggests he could reduce his sentence by revealing the whereabouts of the jewels and naming his accomplices. Outside the jail, Wanda recognizes George’s attorney, Archie Leach, and introduces herself as a legal student and fan of his work. Befuddled by her flirting, Archie drives away leaving his briefcase on top of the car, and Wanda tells Otto of her plans to seduce Archie in case George reveals the location of the diamonds. Ken locates the fish food container with George’s key and hides it in a treasure chest inside his aquarium, as instructed by George. However, Wanda spies on him, then steals the key and places it in her necklace locket when Ken is distracted. Eileen Coady, the elderly woman nearly killed by Wanda, identifies George in a line-up. Wanda goes to Archie Leach’s office to interview him about George’s case and learns that George plans to plead “not guilty” despite the old woman’s claims. Upon learning that Wanda knows George, Archie refuses to speak further, but she claims not to care, suggesting she came to see him for personal reasons. Archie returns home to his passionless wife, Wendy, who complains incessantly about her upper class life and their spoiled daughter, Portia. While the married couple retires to separate beds, Otto entices Wanda by speaking Italian while they have sex. The next day, at George’s hearing, Otto sees George pass a note to Ken before the court is dismissed. Outside, Otto steals the note, which contains Eileen Coady’s name and address. He realizes George has instructed Ken to kill the eyewitness, and bets Ken one pound that he does not go through with the murder. Meanwhile, Wanda slips her phone number to Archie, who invites her to his house after Wendy and Portia leave for the opera. Otto follows Wanda to Archie’s house, sneaks inside, and observes Wanda and Archie kissing. Hoping to drive Otto away, Wanda asks Archie to fetch champagne; however, Wendy and Portia return home early, causing Wanda and Otto to scatter. As Archie returns with champagne, he finds Wendy on the couch instead of Wanda. She demands to know whose car is blocking the driveway, and Otto appears, introducing himself as a CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) agent, searching the neighborhood for Soviet spies. Although Wanda scrambles to retrieve her locket, which fell on the floor, Wendy picks it up and assumes it is a gift from her husband, as it is engraved with a “W.” Archie embraces Wendy long enough for Wanda to escape. The next day, Wanda calls to demand her locket back, while Wendy happily fondles the necklace at the breakast table. After one failed attempt, Ken tries to murder Eileen Coady by sending an attack dog after her, but the dog kills one of the woman’s dogs instead. Archie arranges to meet Wanda at a friend’s unoccupied apartment, but she is disappointed when he does not return the locket. As the two kiss in bed and joke about Otto’s stupidity, Otto breaks in and hangs Archie outside a window until he apologizes. In a third attempt to kill Eileen Coady, Ken misses his target but runs over another one of her dogs. Wanda convinces Otto to apologize to Archie, but when Otto goes to Archie’s home, he interrupts a burglary. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Otto, Archie is robbing his own house in order to retrieve Wanda’s locket. Otto overpowers Archie, ties his wrists, and hits him in the head, finally recognizing him just before Wendy returns home. Otto flees moments before Wendy enters the room. With a heap of stolen jewelry lying beside him, Archie sucks the locket into his mouth, then sneaks it into his pocket after Wendy unties his wrists. He explains that a thief overpowered him but refuses to stay for a police report, insisting he has an urgent appointment. At his friend’s apartment, Archie returns the locket to Wanda. She becomes aroused when Archie reveals that he speaks Italian as well as Russian, but she is disappointed to learn that Archie is not rich. The two undress in separate rooms, but Archie is caught, fully naked, when a family who recently rented the apartment arrives. Later, Archie ends the affair with Wanda over the phone. Otto returns to his house to apologize once again, and Wendy overhears as Otto mentions Archie’s fake robbery and affair with Wanda. In a final attempt to kill Eileen Coady, Ken shoots a large block of concrete that hangs outside her house, but it falls on her last remaining dog. Ken leaves his perch in defeat, but discovers on the street that his intended victim has just died from a heart attack. He reports the good news to George, who instructs Ken to buy four plane tickets to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. At his apartment, Ken and Wanda celebrate the triumph before she rushes off to act as an alibi witness for George. Otto comes to the apartment, and Ken offhandedly reveals that the loot is stashed near the airport, but refuses to give the exact location. Otto ties Ken up and eats all of the fish in the aquarium except Wanda, Ken’s favorite. As Otto traps the fish in his mouth, Ken confesses the diamonds are in a safety deposit box at the Cathcart Towers Hotel. On the witness stand, Wanda incriminates George by saying he left the apartment on the morning of the crime with a sawed-off shotgun. George attacks her and chaos erupts. Having deduced that Wanda is her husband's lover, Wendy slaps Archie and tells him she wants a divorce. In a holding cell, Archie encourages George to reduce his sentence by confessing and demands to know where the diamonds are. George does not answer himself, but says that Ken knows where they are. Archie sees Wanda trying to hail a taxi and forces her into his car. Although he wants to go to Rio de Janeiro with her, he accuses her of being a liar and admits he has fallen in love. Wanda cuddles up to him and says she has the key to the safety deposit box. At Ken’s apartment, Wanda waits in the car while Archie runs upstairs. Meanwhile, Otto jumps in the car and drives off as Wanda calls out to Archie in distress. Archie and Ken follow on a scooter, racing to the Cathcart Hotel. There, Otto and Wanda retrieve the diamonds and check in for the flight to Rio. Before they board, however, Wanda knocks Otto on the head, takes his ticket, and locks him in a closet. Otto shoots his way out and steals another passenger’s ticket, but Archie appears and steals his gun. Otto challenges Archie to a fight and quickly retrieves the gun, leading Archie to the runway and forcing him to climb inside a barrel of waste. As Otto readies himself to shoot his rival, Ken appears, driving a road roller toward a section of wet cement where Otto has unwittingly stepped. Although initially laughing as Ken approaches in the slow-moving vehicle, Otto realizes his feet are stuck and his gun is out of bullets. Ken rolls over Otto, immersing him in the wet cement, and realizes his stutter is gone as he yells in triumph. Archie runs onto the plane and greets Wanda in Italian. As the happy couple discusses their future, they do not notice Otto outside their window, covered in cement. As the plane takes off, Otto loses his grip and falls away.  

Production Company: Prominent Features  
Production Text: MGM Presents
A Michael Shamberg Prominent Features Production
Distribution Company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures, Inc.  
Director: Charles Crichton (Dir)
  Jonathan Benson (Asst dir)
  Melvin Lind (2d asst dir)
  David Skynner (3d asst dir)
Producer: Michael Shamberg (Prod)
  John Comfort (Assoc prod)
  Steve Abbott (Exec prod)
  John Cleese (Exec prod)
Writer: John Cleese (Wrt)
  John Cleese (Story)
  Charles Crichton (Story)
Photography: Alan Hume (Dir of photog)
  Neil Binney (Cam op)
  Simon Hume (Focus puller)
  Jimmy Waters (Grip)
  Graham Hall (Clapper loader)
  Bobby Bremner (Gaffer)
  Bill Thornhill (Best boy)
  David James (Stills photog)
  Agfa XT Negative (Photog on)
Art Direction: Roger Murray-Leach (Prod des)
  John Wood (Art dir)
  Kevin Phipps (Asst art dir)
Film Editor: John Jympson (Film ed)
  William Webb (Asst film ed)
Set Decoration: Stephanie McMillan (Set dec)
  Roy Evans (Const mgr)
  Leon Apsey (Head of const)
  Bruce Bigg (Prop master)
  Alfie Smith (Standby prop supv)
  Mickey Swift (Standby propman)
  Brian Read (Prod buyer)
Costumes: Hazel Pethig (Cost des)
  Ray Usher (Ward master)
  Steve Cornish (Ward asst)
  Jenny Hawkins (Ward asst)
Music: John Du Prez (Mus)
  Peter Holt (Mus ed)
  André Jacquemin (Mus prod)
  Dick Lewzey (Orchestral rec)
  John Williams (Guitar soloist)
  CTS Studios Wembley (Mus rec at)
  Redwood Recording Studios (Mus prod at)
Sound: Chris Munro (Sd rec)
  Colin Wood (Boom op)
  Andrew Sissons (Sd maintenance eng)
  Gerry Humphreys (Re-rec mixer)
  Jonathan Bates (Sd ed)
  Twickenham Film Studios (Re-rec at)
Special Effects: George Gibbs (Spec eff supv)
  Dave Watson (Spec eff tech)
  Plume Design (Titles by)
  Damson Studios (Title seq by)
Make Up: Paul Engelen (Makeup supv)
  Lynda Armstrong-Lawlor (Makeup artist)
  Barry Richardson (Chief hairdresser)
Production Misc: Priscilla John (Casting dir)
  Diana Dill (Continuity)
  Janine Lodge (Prod coord)
  Sophie Clarke-Jervoise (Asst to Dr. Cleese)
  Alexandra Stone (Prod's asst)
  Peter Byck (Asst to Mr. Shamberg, US)
  Ralph Kamp (Prod asst)
  Liz Lehmans (Prod asst)
  Andy Birmingham (Prod accountant)
  Yvonne Heeks (Asst accountant)
  Ian Miles (Financial controller)
  William Lang (Loc mgr)
  Chris Knowles (Asst loc mgr, London)
  Nick Daubeny (Loc mgr, Oxford)
  Bill Edwards (Unit pub)
  Robert Conway (Legal adv)
  Pauline Clift (Animals supplied by)
  Wet Pets (Fish by)
  Lee Electric (Lighting) Limited (Lighting by)
Stand In: Romo Gorrara (Stunt coord)
Color Personnel: Technicolor® Limited (Colour by)
MPAA Rating: R
Country: Great Britain and United States
Language: English

Source Text:

PCA NO: 29002
Physical Properties: Sd:
  Lenses/Prints: Panaflex® Camera and Lenses by Panavision®

Genre: Romantic comedy
Sub-Genre: Crime
Subjects (Major): Betrayal
  Jewel thieves
  London (England)
  Swindlers and swindling
Subjects (Minor): Aged persons
  Americans in foreign countries
  Attempted murder
  Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, 1844-1900
  Hired killers
  Rio de Janeiro (Brazil)

Note: The following title cards precede end credits: “Archie and Wanda were married in Rio, had seventeen children, and founded a leper colony”; “Ken became Master of Ceremonies at the London Sea World”; and “Otto emigrated to South Africa and became Minister for Justice.” End credits include a “Special Thanks” to British Airways and the following statement: “Filmed at Twickenham Film Studios and on location in London & Oxford.”
       Writer-actor-executive producer John Cleese’s character, “Archie Leach,” was named after actor Cary Grant, who was born Archibald Alexander Leach near Cleese’s birthplace in England; Cleese stated in a 25 Oct 1987 LAT article, “It is the nearest thing I’ll ever get to being Cary Grant.”
       According to production notes in AMPAS library files, A Fish Called Wanda marked the debut production of Prominent Features, a company formed by “Monty Python” comedy-group collaborators Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin. The 25 Oct 1987 LAT noted that Universal Pictures and Dino De Laurentiis’s company passed on funding the project before Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc. (MGM) came on board, agreeing to provide the $7.3 million budget before seeing a script. John Cleese initially invested $160,000 of his own money to fund the script and, by early 1986, secured four main actors and the director, Charles Crichton, who co-wrote the story with Cleese over the course of two years, as stated in a 17 Jul 1988 NYT article. MGM was concerned about Crichton’s stamina, as the director was in his mid-70’s; thus, Cleese agreed to step in and direct in case Crichton became ill during filming.
       After a two-week rehearsal period, principal photography began 13 Jul 1987 at Twickenham Studios in London, England, according to 5 Sep 1987 Screen International production charts. The ten-week shoot included location filming at Hatton Gardens in London’s diamond district, The Inns of Court and The Old Bailey in London, and the Town Hall of Oxford, England, as well as exteriors outside Oxford’s jail.
       Certain scenes were altered after test screenings in Los Angeles, CA, and New York City, as reported in the 17 Jul 1988 NYT. Based on uncomfortable reactions from the audience, MGM asked filmmakers to “soften” the ending and re-shoot part of a scene in which Michael Palin’s character runs over a dog.
       As noted in a 21 Apr 1987 HR news item, MGM/UA distributed the film domestically, while United International Pictures handled territories outside the U.S. and Canada. In its first weekend, opening 15 Jul 1988 at two New York City theaters and one Los Angeles location, the film earned $115,418, for an impressive $38,473 per screen average. A 20 Jul 1988 HR “Hollywood Report” column noted that the film had enjoyed successful sneak previews in Boston, MA; Chicago, IL; Dallas and Fort Worth, TX; Philadelphia, PA; San Diego and San Francisco, CA; Washington, D.C.; Seattle, WA; and Toronto, Canada. The release was planned to expand to 200 screens by 29 Jul 1988, and roughly 750 screens by 5 Aug 1988. On 3 Feb 1989, DV reported the U.S. box-office earnings as $60 million, with an additional $38 million worldwide, to that time.
       Critical reception was mixed. While the 15 Jul 1988 LAT review described the film as a “convulsively funny affair” and “low comedy at high speed,” a NYT review of the same date disparaged the screenplay and its tonal inconsistencies. Several reviews, including the 11 Jul 1988 HR and 15 Jul 1988 NYT, singled out the performances by Kevin Kline and Jamie Lee Curtis as high points. Kevin Kline went on to win an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, and the film received Academy Award nominations for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. The British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) awarded John Cleese Best Actor and Michael Palin Best Actor in a Supporting Role, and nominated the film in the following categories: Best Film; Best Actor (Kevin Kline); Best Actress (Jamie Lee Curtis); Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Maria Aitken); Best Direction; Best Editing; and Best Original Screenplay.
       The Jul 1988 release of A Fish Called Wanda was protested by members of the National Stuttering Project, as reported in a 29 Mar 1989 LAT article, due to its “cruel and demeaning” portrayal of the character “Ken Pile,” a stutterer. In early 1989, protestors reconvened to picket MGM headquarters after Academy Award nominations were announced. MGM/UA eventually donated $2,500 to the National Stuttering Project, as noted in an 8 Nov 1989 LAT news item, and Kevin Kline made a public apology for offending stutterers with his role, according to a 16 Mar 1990 LAT brief. A 4 May 1990 LAT item noted that ABC-TV planned to edit some of the stuttering scenes before airing the film, but, according to the 14 Sep 1991 LAT, Cleese and producer Michael Shamberg disapproved of the edits, and were disappointed that ABC failed to preserve the film’s original humor by accommodating “pressure groups.”
       According to a 24 May 1989 LAT brief, 71-year-old Danish doctor Ole Bentzen “killed himself laughing” at a screening of the film in Copenhagen, Denmark, dying of “heart failure induced by mirth.” Doctors explained that Bentzen’s laughter caused accelerated contractions of his heart muscles that prohibited the organ from pumping adequate amounts of blood to the brain.
       John Cleese, Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Kline, and Michael Palin reunited in 1997’s Fierce Creatures (see entry), which was referred to as a sequel to A Fish Called Wanda and tentatively titled Death Fish II, according to a 12 Dec 1994 LAT article; however, while the actors played characters similar to their roles in A Fish Called Wanda, the film was not actually a sequel.
       A Fish Called Wanda marked co-writer-director Charles Crichton’s last feature film credit before his death in 1999.

Bibliographic Sources:   Date   Page
Daily Variety   3 Feb 1989.   
Hollywood Reporter   21 Apr 1987.   
Hollywood Reporter   11 Jul 1988   p. 3, 14.
Hollywood Reporter   20 Jul 1988.   
Los Angeles Times   25 Oct 1987   Calendar, p. 27.
Los Angeles Times   15 Jul 1988   Calendar, p. 1.
Los Angeles Times   29 Mar 1989   Calendar, p. 9.
Los Angeles Times   24 May 1989   Calendar, p. 2.
Los Angeles Times   8 Nov 1989   Calendar, p. 2.
Los Angeles Times   16 Mar 1990   Calendar, p. 2.
Los Angeles Times   14 Sep 1991   Calendar, p. 7.
Los Angeles Times   12 Dec 1994   Calendar, p. 3.
New York Times   15 Jul 1988   Section C, p. 8.
New York Times   17 Jul 1988   Section A, p. 23.
Screen International   5 Sep 1987.   
Variety   31 Dec 1987.   
Variety   13 Jul 1988   p. 12.

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