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You Only Live Once

John M. Glionna is a Times staff writer

Mike Myers has this conflict over bacon.

The 35-year-old Canadian, a comedian-turned-actor and creator of such well-observed characters as heavy-metal slacker Wayne Campbell, Dieter the sexually confused West German talk-show host and the swinging, snaggle-toothed British secret agent known as Austin Powers, knows the stuff is bad for him.

Still, he can’t help himself.

“I adore bacon, and I know it’s supposedly horrible for you, but it’s so darned tasty. I defy anybody to not find bacon tasty,” says the slightly built Myers, sitting down outside a Hollywood movie studio commissary to a noon-hour meal of eight toasty strips, all washed down, of course, by an extra-large bottle of Perrier.

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“But for me, bacon means something much more. Just the smell of the stuff brings back happy, happy sets of memories.”

For Myers, the aroma evokes images of his late father, the eccentric British-born Encyclopaedia Britannica and insurance salesman with a sweetly warped sense of humor, whose idea of a perfect meal was a cup of tea and a bacon sandwich smothered in British HP steak sauce.

The father of three boys, Eric Myers was the arbiter of all that was funny in his family’s suburban Toronto home. At night, often after midnight, he would wake his sleepy-eyed sons to come downstairs and watch the old spy movies and motley cast of British comedians on the tube--from James Bond and “The Avengers” to Monty Python and Peter Sellers.

Inspired by those memories, youngest son Mike Myers in 1997 introduced theater audiences to a cool-cat, bell-bottomed British spy with bad teeth and a big-time libido, the kind of naughty little character that would have made his father laugh out loud.

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“Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery” was a Polaroid snapshot of Myers’ boyhood film influences, an insider’s cinematic wink at those offbeat British comedies that flickered from the TV set inside his living room back in the 1970s.

Thanks to Myers’ rubbery-faced comic presence, the daft espionage spoof achieved cult-like status, drawing raves not only from his target teenage and twentysomething audiences but also among more discerning middle-aged moviegoers. The film prompted even grown men to leer at their wives. “Yeah, baby!”

At a cost of just $16 million, the film took in a surprising $54 million in theaters, with another very groovy $44 million in video rentals. Almost overnight, it popularized a retro-rich Austin Powers vocabulary that includes such one-liners as “Oh, behave!,” “Saucy!” and various forms of “shag,” a 1960s British euphemism for having sex.

Myers says he dedicated the movie to his father, who died in 1991 after a battle with Alzheimer’s disease. Of all his characters, he says, “My Dad would have definitely appreciated Austin Powers the most.”

These days, Myers has been busy putting the finishing touches on the much-anticipated sequel, “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me,” a film that Myers says once again plays as a son’s paean to his father’s enduring sense of humor.

In the newest Austin adventure--set for a June 11 release--the psychedelic super-sleuth travels back to 1969 London in search of his mojo, or sexual libido, that’s been stolen by his baldheaded nemesis, the squinting, pinky-sucking Dr. Evil, a character also played by Myers--who shares co-writing and producing credits on the project.

After the success of the first film, theater owners and other industry insiders expect the sequel to be among the summer’s biggest hits.

Mike De Luca, president of production at New Line Cinema, maker of both Austin Powers projects, says the sequel is easily as zany as the first film. “I immediately thought it was a funny script,” he said. “We couldn’t wait to do it.”

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All the excitement, frankly, mystifies Myers.

“I had no idea that anybody would respond to Austin Powers at all,” says Myers, his features drawn in out-of-character seriousness. “I thought it was one universal in-joke that no one would get--because they didn’t grow up in my house. I actually felt the same way about ‘Wayne’s World’ because it was the suburban adolescent, North American heavy-metal experiences I knew growing up in the mid-1970s in Toronto. Really, I didn’t have a clue whether people would get these characters or not.”

New Line executives not only “get” the character, they’re banking on him to serve as the basis for a healthy new movie franchise.

The studio is aggressively marketing the Myers project with tie-in partners ranging from Starbucks to Volkswagen.

There’s also an animated Austin Powers series in development for HBO, and a line of merchandise ready to hit the stores that includes a “Shaguar” toy car; a plush doll modeled after Dr. Evil’s pet cat, Mr. Bigglesworth; and, for grown-ups, Austin Powers martini and shot glasses.

New Line officials say they were pleasantly surprised by the success of the first Austin film, especially after audience reaction in test screenings was mixed at best. “The first response we had to the film’s success was relief, the second was vindication,” says De Luca.

“We had a few screenings that went absolutely flat. We ended up constantly finding the wrong people to see the film. People just didn’t get the humor. I think we found the only 900 people in America who didn’t think the movie was funny. But we always thought it was funny.”

Things went so bad, De Luca recalls, that during one screening he and Myers attended, the film broke, causing the entire theater to groan. “And do you know what Mike did?” he says. “He ran up there and did 11 minutes of stand-up. He kept the whole audience entertained while they fixed the thing. That’s when I told myself, ‘This guy’s got brass.’ ”

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Studio executives expect Austin Powers to stick around awhile. With any luck, they say, he could become the twisted man’s James Bond for the new millennium.

“Mike looks at the Austin Powers role as something akin to Bond, that it could go on for 15 or 16 films,” De Luca says. “And if he wants to play the character forever, that’s fine with us. I don’t think people will tire of the concept. Mike’s been big on adding new stuff and coming up with a new formula each time out.”

*

For Myers, the success of his slapstick spy represents a satisfying professional comeback of sorts after the four years between the second “Wayne’s World” and first Austin Powers projects--a period in which he made no films, and even took a year off.

Stubbornly uncalculating when it comes to his career, he insists that he has always done whatever feels right. “I’m just happily employed,” Myers says with signature modesty. “It’s a good job with no heavy lifting. As far as my career goes, I’ve never really had a plan for it. Things always just come out of nowhere.”

Indeed, Myers’ career has the less-rehearsed feel of a comic’s improvised sketch, one that plays off audience reactions and whatever pops into mind.

Take his critically praised role in last year’s otherwise unremarkable film “54,” in which he played Studio 54 nightclub co-owner Steve Rubell, Myers’ first dramatic part. “I didn’t send out an all-points bulletin saying, ‘Get me something dramatic, dammit!’ ” he says. “It just sort of came across, and I read the script, and a couple weeks later we were shooting it.”

The same goes for the unreleased independent film “Pete’s Meteor,” a dark drama in which Myers plays a supporting role as a luckless small-time neighborhood drug dealer who inadvertently causes the death of his best friend. Rather than any conscious effort to go dramatic, the decision to do the film came split-second, like a comic’s mind working onstage.

“It was like the weirdest script I ever read in my life--like a children’s movie directed by David Lynch,” he says. “And so I did it, just like that, went off to Ireland for two weeks of filming. It’s folly to make any predictions about these things, about what you’ll do next.”

But perhaps Myers’ most unscripted move came in 1994, when--dismissing any caution about losing momentum in Hollywood--he dropped out of public sight, taking time from a hectic entertainment schedule to “do some nesting” with screenwriter wife Robin Ruzan.

They were days of traveling, reading books, seeing plays, practicing chords on his new guitar, playing pickup hockey games in the middle of a weekday afternoon at the Iceoplex arena in the San Fernando Valley--Myers’ own stubborn way of following in the footsteps of his slacker-creation, Wayne Campbell.

Myers attributes his decision to what he calls a harmonic convergence of “you know what, take some time off” that came after witnessing actor friend Rob Lowe’s blissful family life as well as some advice from fellow “Saturday Night Live” alumnus Bill Murray, who raved about his mid-career break to study French for two years at the Sorbonne.

Lorne Michaels, creator and executive producer of “Saturday Night Live,” a fellow Canadian who hired Myers on the show in 1989, also encouraged the young comic to take time off.

“Mike made his reputation by being original and by his choices,” said Michaels, the subject of a paper written by Myers in the eighth grade entitled “A Famous Canadian I’m Proud Of.”

“For him to make dull choices, which he feared he might do, he just knew when it was time to go away. There’s an old saying I have about making movies, which comes from an old blues song that goes, ‘How can we miss you if you won’t go away?’ The way to make another entrance is to get off the stage. And Mike intuitively knew that.”

Jilting his jet-set life of shuttling between apartments in New York and Los Angeles, Myers and his wife in 1996 bought a house on L.A.'s Westside, one with a yard big enough to throw the ball to their three dogs, a place where the couple can soon start a family.

But the main reason for the time off came in response to his father’s death from Alzheimer’s in 1991, just as his youngest son was peaking in his career as a “Saturday Night Live” regular, before the release of the first “Wayne’s World” movie.

“After my dad died, I had no choice but to walk away,” he says. “My heart was broken. At a certain point of heartbreak, there’s no strategy involved. I was so busy with ‘Saturday Night Live’ and ‘Wayne’s World.’ I had just gotten married and had all these great things happening. But suddenly my father wasn’t there and it was horrible. I realized that I was very unhappy and I needed time to mourn him.”

For Myers, the past years have been a lesson about the personal pain that is often the basis of comedy. They are also about the maturing of a young comic talent whose flash-fire rise to fame has been tempered by personal loss.

Mike Myers is just now learning how to go on living without his father.

“I’ve always felt I was given these emotional casino chips for the successes in my life which had no value until I went home and told my dad about things,’ he says. “My father was like my spiritual cash window. Until I told him about stuff, just to hear his reaction, I don’t know, it wasn’t real. He just had a fun way about him.”

*

Born in Liverpool, England, Eric Myers--a former British army cook--moved with wife Alice to the Toronto suburb of Scarsborough, where the couple raised their three sons.

“My strongest recollection of my childhood is hearing my father laugh through the walls, that sort of ‘wowowowowo’ when you remember as a kid. That and the tea kettle whistle going off and the sound of my dad’s toaster clicking up. I still now love tea and toast at night, and I know that’s learned behavior from my dad.”

For a young Mike Myers, his father was the original judge of comedy.

“My dad didn’t like people who had no sense of humor,” he recalls, assuming a Cockney accent to imitate his father barring certain friends from the house: “He’s not bloody funny. He can’t come in.”

Myers describes his father’s silly habits, how he loved to play Lego and soldiers with his sons, how he would stir his tea and bang his spoon against the cup to the same musical rhythm. And even how he always ended burps with the same little saying: “Brrrrp . . . sweet mystery of life I’m so glad I found you.”

“People would ask him, ‘What do you do for a living?’ My dad hated that question. It’s a particularly North American question,” Myers says. “And he had a different occupation every time. That was his game. So it would be like, ‘What do I do? I make the metal tips in shoelaces’ or ‘I play the bongo drums on the “Mission: Impossible” theme’ or ‘I’m the ambassador to Guatemala.’

“He sold insurance and Encyclopaedia Britannicas, but he used to say, ‘I’m not my job.’ As a kid I thought that was the most profound thing,” says Myers, who still wears his dad’s ring awarded for best encyclopedia salesman of 1957.

“My father was very eccentric. He held a grudge against the Hawaiians for killing Capt. Cook. He wouldn’t have a pineapple in the house.” He moves into a British street accent: “ ‘They bloody murdered him, mate. They bloody murdered him in his sleep.’ I’d say, ‘Dad, that’s, like, the 1700s. You’ve got to get on with that. The Hawaiians are basically a good and just people.’ But he’d say, ‘Not after they killed bloody Capt. Cook.’ ”

And there were the late-night movies, which affected Myers in a way that’s only now apparent. Said Lorne Michaels: “When your dad indicates something is important because he loves it so much, it entitles you to want to aspire to that. On a certain level, Eric Myers gave permission for Mike’s talent. That encouragement is probably why you have Mike Myers.”

But perhaps Eric Myers’ greatest lesson in humor, his son recalls, is how he learned to laugh at himself through his struggle with Alzheimer’s. “It was his reaction to his own forgetfulness,” he says. “He would find it funny, and that was the most life-affirming and at the same time most heartbreaking part of it.”

There was even darker humor when his dad stopped recognizing his own image.

“He came downstairs once and said to my mom, ‘There’s an old man upstairs.’ And my mom was like, ‘No, Eric, there isn’t.’ She took him up to show him that the old man was his own mirror image. And the next day my dad said, ‘Do you think the old man would like a cup of tea?’ ”

In the end, his father critically burned himself in the bathtub and spent much of the last months of his life hospitalized.

Years later, after taking time off--in part to ponder his father as his single greatest influence--Myers decided to return to his acting career.

“I guess I had just assumed that I was like my father, that I, too, was not my job and that’s the year off,” he says. “But I love performing so much that I don’t know now if I can say that as passionately. I just missed performing desperately.”

And he admits his next project after Austin Powers may be based, in typical Myers style, on more rhyme than reason.

On the drawing board is a film based on talk-show host Dieter Sprockets. He’s also considering scripts featuring cartoon mutt Scooby Doo and another based on “The Gong Show” creator Chuck Barris, who once claimed he was an operative for the CIA.

Meanwhile, Myers isn’t ruling out another professional leave of absence.

The self-described nerd weaned on Canadian educational television is even gearing up for more time at home. Thanks to his wife, he’s discovered the Internet and spends hours each night looking up everything from Frederick the Great to the science behind hailstorms.

That’s, of course, when he’s not watching the History Channel.

He’s also looking forward to the premiere of the Austin Powers sequel. With a rueful sigh, Myers recalls seeing all the famous people who attended the premiere for the first Austin film and how he broke down crying at the memory of his father, who he wished could have been there.

“I’m getting better,” he says. “I don’t feel as incapacitated without him. I just feel very fortunate to have a great job where you can do a movie that is a tribute to your father, one where you laugh a lot. Because the experience of my father is laughing.

“I can still hear him laughing now.”


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