Born in New York City in 1948, Christopher Guest gained fame when he began writing and performing for Saturday Night Live in the 1970s. He went on to write, direct and star in a number of classic satirical films, including the 1984 hit This is Spinal Tap--for which he wrote all the music--and Waiting for Guffman (1996). His other notable films include Best in Show and A Mighty Wind.
Christopher Guest was born to Peter Haden-Guest, a British diplomat to the United Nations, and his American wife, Jean Pauline Hindes, in New York City on February 5, 1948. The young Guest spent most of his childhood in London, where his father, the 4th Baron of Saling, in Essex, was a member of the House of Lords. As a teenager, Guest attended The High School of Music and Art in New York, ferrying back and forth between London and the United States. He credits his geographically diverse childhood for giving him his remarkable ability as a mimic: "I've always picked up accents without even really meaning to. It used to get me into trouble as a child. I'd be in a restaurant and the waiter would say [in an Indian accent], 'May I please take your order?' And I'd say [in the same Indian accent], 'Yes, you may.' My parents would tell me, 'No, you can't do this.' And I'd say, 'What do you mean? I have to do this. I've heard it and now I must replicate it.'"
One of Guest's earliest performances came in the Broadway show Moonchildren in 1972. But it wasn't long before he began moving in the direction of comedy, first contributing to The National Lampoon Radio Hour and then working with Chevy Chase in the off-Broadway revue National Lampoon's Lemmings. In the late 1970s, Guest began writing and performing for Saturday Night Live. It was there that he struck gold with This is Spinal Tap, a parody of an English rock band based on Guest's real experiences touring with an unnamed band in 1978. Guest would later team up with Rob Reiner and others to write the script and music for This is Spinal Tap (1984). In the cult classic, Guest plays lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel. First a satirical band, the group would eventually find itself selling out 6,000 seat arenas to excited live audiences for the next 20 years. Remarking on this unusual turn of events, Guest once said, "The ultimate irony is that we are playing every note live and nearly all 'real' bands are now using prerecorded DAT tapes."
Following this success, Guest joined Saturday Night Live in 1984 for a one year run as a cast member. Throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s, he made cameo appearances in such hit movies as Little Shop of Horrors and The Princess Bride. In 1989, he directed his first film, The Big Picture, which, while still a comedy, lacked the improvisation that had been Guest's signature style. Though happy with the film's outcome, the director went back to his Spinal Tap roots and helped create a sub-genre of films now known as "mockumentaries."
In 1996, Guest directed, co-wrote and starred in the oddball hit Waiting for Guffman, a hilarious satire that follows a tightly wound choreographer (played by Guest) in his attempts to direct small-town talent in the performance of a lifetime. A high level of improvisation is the underpinning of Waiting for Guffman; the writing, filming and performances all happen organically. Taking jazz music as an analogy for his style of film-making, Guest once said, "You know the basic melody and the key changes but it's how you get from one change to the next that matters, and you don't know in advance how you're going to do it. I'm completely blank before the camera rolls. I have absolutely no idea what I'm going to say."
Most members of the original Waiting for Guffman cast soon formed a sort of repertory group that would ultimately appear in Guest's next two films, Best in Show and A Mighty Wind. The group included talent like Catherine O'Hara, Michael McKean, Parker Posey, Jane Lynch, Ed Begley, Jr. and John Michael Higgins, among others. Keeping to a collective ethos, each member of the troupe received the same payment and portion of the profits from each of the films.
When Guest's father died in 1996, the actor became the 5th Baron Haden-Guest, of Saling, in the County Essex. For three years, until hereditary peers were barred in 1999, Guest regularly attended the House of Lords.
Though the actor largely avoids talking about his equally famous wife, Guest married the actress Jamie Lee Curtis in 1984. In the past, she has more candidly told the story of how, after seeing his picture in Rolling Stone magazine, she contacted his agent and boldly passed along her number. Though it took a chance meeting months later in a restaurant for Guest to finally make that call, the two now enjoy one of the longest-lived high-profile marriages in Hollywood.
The couple eventually settled in Los Angeles and adopted two children, Anne Haden-Guest (born in 1986) and Thomas Haden-Guest (1996). Despite the Hollywood fame and the English lordship, Guest maintains his life is surprisingly pedestrian, once remarking: "I spend a lot of time dropping my children off and picking them up—it's a very regular life."
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