Whatever happened to Rowan Atkinson?

With all of its deadpan crowing and snickering silliness, British comedy can be a tough sell for audiences outside the U.K. In spite of that, for much of the '90s and early '00s, the comedy world agreed that the bashful, near-silent antics of Mr. Bean were downright hilarious. They also agreed that Bean's creator, Rowan Atkinson, was the "everyman" comedian the world needed and deserved. 

Many of us have lost track of the U.K. funnyman since he officially retired his most beloved character, but that may just be because we haven't been paying close enough attention. Now seems like as good a time as any to smirk our best Mr. Bean smirk and take a look at what the great Rowan Atkinson has been up to.

An auspicious beginning

To fully understand where Atkinson has gone, it'll help to understand where he started. After all, he wasn't always the class clown we might assume. He actually studied electrical engineering while at university. Theater was more of a side project—until it wasn't. After earning raves as a performer for the Oxford Revue in 1976, Atkinson decided he'd try his luck as a performer.

In a matter of a few years, he had his first hit with the 1979 BBC series Not The Nine O'Clock News. But his life really started to change when the BBC greenlit his Elizabethan comedy series The Black Adder. Following the travails of the scheming Prince Edmund through Middle Ages England, it made a star of Atkinson in the U.K. and earned him a reputation as "the man with the rubber face." Those antics, however, were only the beginning of the comedian's shenanigans.

The dawn of Bean

After spending the better part of the '80s in period garb, Atkinson saw his career take off when he donned the common clothing of an everyday Englishman for Mr. Bean. First appearing in 1990 for a Thames Television New Year's Day special, Atkinson's hapless but lovable buffoon was the sort of character that U.K. citizens of all races and classes could connect with—and they did.

What was so different about the character? To begin with, Mr. Bean almost never spoke, communicating largely through grunts, groans and Atkinson's wildly expressive facial gestures. With the show's silent movie approach, many of the laughs that made him so memorable were driven by situational circumstances—not to mention Atkinson's physical and visual take on comedy. Those silent film antics and Mr. Bean's modern-day setting proved immensely popular, and once the show started airing in the U.S., Atkinson's meteoric rise seemed complete. 

His stardom has remained intact over the two decades that followed. But after 22 years of playing Bean, Atkinson laid the character to rest in 2011, and we've heard little from the actor/comedian since. What exactly has he been up to?

He definitely did not die

Trust us, Rowan Atkinson is very much alive. The hearts of Mr. Bean fans worldwide skipped a collective beat in March of 2017, when reports surfaced of his death via car crash—a story that didn't seem so far-fetched, as Atkinson has long been a car enthusiast, even racing them himself on occasion. His reps quickly moved to dispel the rumors, but sadly, this wasn't the first time Atkinson found himself on the wrong side of the dreaded "fake news" cycle. It was reported that the actor/comedian had taken his own life in 2016 after years of battling depression. Once again, that rumor—as well as the continued claims of Atkinson's emotional instability—were proven false. We really can't imagine why anyone would pull such a cruel stunt, but whatever the cause, let's all hope we won't have to deal with any future "fake news" nonsense in the Mr. Beaniverse.

But he has flirted with death on occasion

That being said, those rumors of Atkinson having cheated death a couple of times are very true, and 2001 in particular proved a dangerous year. His first brush with mortality came on a return flight from vacation in Africa, when the plane's pilot passed out halfway home and couldn't be revived. Luckily, Atkinson was able to take control of the small aircraft and land the plane himself, thus saving the pilot—not to mention his wife and two children.   

Atkinson's passion for cars has led him to a couple of near-death experiences too. The first came when he crashed his beloved Aston Martin V8 Zagato while showing it off at a 2001 Aston Martin Owners Club meeting. He managed to walk away from that crash unhurt, though the comedian wasn't quite as lucky when he ran his McLaren F1 into a tree in 2011. Though the pricey supercar was totaled—even bursting into flames—Atkinson managed to pry himself free and walked away with little more than some cuts, bruises, and a fractured shoulder. He even found a way to make a few bucks in the deal, auctioning the car off for a whopping $12.2 million. That's all well and good, but we're starting to think it's time for someone to revoke Mr. Atkinson's driver's license.

And he did get that quickie divorce

After sharing two decades of marriage—as well as two children—Atkinson and his wife Sunetra Sastry separated in 2014. Of course, matters became a little more dire for the marriage once news of Atkinson's ongoing romance with 32-year-old The Windsors star Louise Ford broke. With ammunition like that, the comedian's estranged wife was granted a divorce on the grounds of her soon-to-be ex-husband's "unreasonable behavior." All told, the official court proceedings—which the Mr. Bean star did not attend—lasted a mere 65 seconds. That gives new meaning to the term "quickie divorce."   

The funnyman has also gotten political

Though Atkinson became a star by playing a near-silent character, he's never been shy about making his voice heard in the realm of U.K. politics. It should come as no surprise that his political passions are particularly focused on the topic of free speech. After all, what could be more important for a comedian?

Political and religious figures have often felt the comedian's wrath in his work, but they started to feel it in real life when he led a group of UK actors and comedians—including the likes of Stephen Fry and Ian McEwan—in efforts to undercut the UK's proposed Racial and Religious Hatred Bill, which they viewed as a potentially dangerous opening to give religious groups the power to censor the arts.

Atkinson's political maneuvering didn't stop there. In 2012, he openly supported efforts to repeal decades-old legislation that insisted a simple insult could be grounds for arrest and possible jail time. While Atkinson has no plans to run for office in the future, he knows how to use his fame as a forum for the public interest.

He's gotten serious on the small screen too

Though Atkinson's foes have learned to take him seriously when it comes to politics, his fans are still learning to do so when it comes to his acting. Many were caught off guard when he landed the lead role in the 2016 TV movie Maigret Sets A Trap. Set in 1950's, Maigret follows the titular detective as he tries to track down a serial murderer on the streets of Montmartre.

We know, that doesn't sound very funny. And it isn't. Maigret Sets A Trap is a most moody affair that seems a little out of place in comparison to much of Atkinson's work, but after so many years of cracking us up with his mugging and slapstick set pieces, one can hardly blame the veteran actor for needing a change of pace. When Maigret came his way, Atkinson didn't flinch at the chance to play it straight for once—and he pulled it off, delivering a performance as compelling in its introspection and nuance as it is charming in its humanity. Atkinson was so good, in fact, that he's gone on to portray the daring detective in two additional Maigret adaptations since—with another on the way.

But he's still Mr. Bean

No matter how good Atkinson is as Maigret, he'll always be Mr. Bean in our hearts. Many of those hearts broke in late 2011 when Atkinson announced his intent to retire his most adored character. After all, through two feature films, a long running live-action television series and a longer running animated show, Mr. Bean had sort of become family to many fans—even if he was that oddball uncle you only see at holidays. With that level of adoration, the idea of retiring the character seemed more like murder than just moving on.

Alas, the physical comedy Mr. Bean required proved too taxing on the aging Atkinson, forcing him to say a fond farewell to his most popular creation—sort of. Though he no longer performs as Mr. Bean on the regular, he's resurrected the character for cameos, including a snarky Snickers commercial and one brilliant safety video for British Airways. Still, Mr. Bean's pitch-perfect, Chariots Of Fire-inspired appearance at the 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony remains Atkinson's most memorable Mr. Bean moment in his post-Bean career.

He's still Rufus too

Though he stole our hearts as Mr. Bean, Atkinson has made a habit of stealing scenes with smaller roles in bigger films like Never Say Never Again, Four Weddings And A Funeral and Hot Shots! Part Deux. He even delivered some delightful voice work as Zazu in Disney's Oscar-nominated The Lion King. But none of those roles stole the show quite as dramatically as Atkinson's riotous portrayal of smarmy jewelry salesman Rufus in 2003's Love Actually.

And let's be honest, though he only logs about four minutes of actual screen time in the modern Christmas classic, Atkinson very nearly steals the entire film. Rufus instantly became another classic character to add to Atkinson's oeuvre—one fans were clamoring to catch up with when director Richard Curtis announced he'd be revisiting the Love Actually characters in a short film titled Red Nose Day Actually—with Rufus in tow. The film premiered on the BBC last year, and though the special doesn't quite match the original in charm, it was worth it just to see Rufus again.

He also turned laps on Top Gear

Despite those near-death experiences, Atkinson has remained passionate about cars, which led to a memorable guest appearance on the hit BBC series Top Gear in 2011. But Atkinson's appearance didn't see the star turning laps in one of his classic Aston Martins or his speedy McLaren F1; rather, he took part in the show's "Star In A Reasonably Priced Car" segment. His vehicle of choice? The very reasonable Kia Cee'd. Once Atkinson took to the track, he made the most of the occasion by turning in the second-best time ever recorded on the segment. Still, we can't help but wonder if he might've fared better in that lime green Mr. Bean-approved Mini Cooper.

He still answers the call of the stage

Like the best U.K. thespians, Atkinson got his start on the stage, and throughout his career, he's always journeyed back to it in order to keep his skills sharp. Over the years, he's shared the stage with everyone from Monty Python vet John Cleese in 1979's The Secret Policeman's Ball to a 10-year-old Christian Bale in 1984's The Nerd. He's also performed the work of highly respected writers like Anton Chekov and Charles Dickens.  

Recent years have seen the actor bring his Blackadder character Prince Edmund to the Royal Albert Hall for a sketch show benefiting the Prince's Trust and winning accolades for his starring role in Richard Eyre's production of Quartermaine's Terms. While there's no telling exactly what the future holds for Mr. Atkinson as a performer, it's a safe bet that the stage will figure prominently. So if the opportunity arises to catch him on in the act, get yourself to the theater.  

And he's become a UK legend to boot

Whether you see him on the stage or the screen, you should count yourself lucky that you've caught him at all. After all, how often do you get to witness the work of a bona fide U.K. comedy legend? Atkinson earned that "legendary" status when a 2003 poll published in The Observer ranked the comedian as one of the 50 funniest people in Britain. Just two years later, he found himself voted the 24th best comedian ever by his peers in Channel 4's Top 50 Comedians list.

If that's not enough for "legendary" status, Atkinson was also appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2013 for his contributions to U.K. arts, sciences and charities. That award comes from the Queen Of England herself. Like we said—legend.

Did we mention you can call him Mr. Franchise, too?

Atkinson's career has included three shows that have essentially become TV franchises. But his franchise appeal doesn't stop with the small screen—the gifted actor proved he had leading man chops in 2003's slapstick spy adventure Johnny English. Co-Starring John Malkovich and pop star Natalie Imbruglia, the film pitted Atkinson as the titular MI5 agent out to save England from a madman.

Atkinson played the role with equal parts 007 swagger and Inspector Clouseau idiocy, and rode Johnny English to box office success on both sides of the Atlantic. He returned to the character for 2011's follow up Johnny English Reborn, though the sequel didn't pack the same commercial punch; still, Reborn proved popular enough for Studio Canal and Universal Studios to greenlight a third film. Johnny English 3 is scheduled to arrive in theaters in 2018, further expanding Atkinson's fourth franchise. Not many actors can make that claim.

What comes next?

If Rowan Atkinson has proven anything throughout his illustrious career it's that there's little he can't accomplish. So what's next for the famous funnyman? Well, he's got more Maigret on the way. There's more Johnny English coming as well. Outside of that, it seems that the only limit to Atkinson's future is Atkinson himself. Will he return to the stage? Will he keep stealing scenes in movies? Will he keep crashing cars? Or does he have another iconic character hidden behind that rubber face of his? Only time will tell. All we know for sure is that, in our heart of hearts, we really hope he makes another Mr. Bean movie. And we refuse to apologize for that.