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Roger Michell, director of 'Notting Hill,' is dead at 65
In this file photo taken on September 04, 2020, South-African director Roger Michell attends a photocall for the film "The Duke" presented out of competition on the third day of the 77th Venice Film Festival at Venice Lido. Film, television and theatre director Roger Michell, who was best known for his work on the romantic comedy "Notting Hill", has died at the age of 65, his publicist announced on Thursday. Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP.

by Clay Risen

NEW YORK, NY.- Roger Michell, the British theater and film director best known for “Notting Hill,” the wildly popular 1999 romantic comedy that somewhat overshadowed the rest of his extensive and diverse body of work, died Wednesday. He was 65.

His family announced his death in a statement released by his publicist. The statement did not say where he died or what the cause was.

Michell’s first film, a 1995 adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel “Persuasion,” caught the eye of screenwriter Richard Curtis, who had scored a major success with “Four Weddings and a Funeral” the year before. Curtis was looking for someone to direct his next screenplay, about a humble London bookseller who falls in love with a movie star.

Although he found the idea of trying to match a blockbuster like “Four Weddings and a Funeral” to be daunting, Michell said yes immediately. He knew he wanted to cast Julia Roberts as the movie star, but he cast around for a male lead before settling on Hugh Grant, who had also starred in “Four Weddings.”

“We toyed with the idea of casting someone else because of an anxiety about the film being seen as a retread, a sequel,” Michell told The Guardian in 1999. “Then we thought, ‘How ridiculous — we have the greatest actor in the world for this kind of material, wanting to do this film.’”

Michell’s worries proved to be unwarranted: “Notting Hill” grossed $262 million worldwide, $6 million more than “Four Weddings” had. It was the top-grossing British film at the time (it has since been surpassed by the “Harry Potter” movies, among others), though Michell was ambivalent about its success.

“Actually I sometimes wonder whether doing ‘Notting Hill’ was a bad thing,” he told The Birmingham Post in 2002, “because it was so successful, everybody is so surprised when I do anything different.”

He continued to notch critical and commercial successes. His next film was “Changing Lanes,” a big-budget thriller with Ben Affleck and Samuel L. Jackson that did well at the box office, although most of his subsequent films were smaller productions, among them “The Mother” (2003), about a middle-age woman’s affair with a younger man, and “Enduring Love” (2004), an adaptation of a novel by Ian McEwan. Both films starred Daniel Craig, one of the many actors who worked with Michell frequently.

Michell was supposed to direct Craig as James Bond in “Quantum of Solace” (2008), but he backed out after he realized that the film had no script and was being rushed forward to meet the producers’ release date.

He remained a popular director in London theater while continuing to work in film. He had a personal policy of directing only new plays, the exception being the work of Harold Pinter, his hero.

“I have strong views about the kind of work I want to do,” he told The Financial Times in 2004. “That’s all that guides me. I don’t have any other kind of strategy. I’m ambitious — what else is there?”

Michell was born June 5, 1956, in Pretoria, South Africa, where his British father was stationed as a diplomat. As a child he moved around often; he lived in Damascus, Syria, and Beirut, and he was in Prague to witness tanks rolling through during the city during the Soviet invasion of 1968.

Michell’s first marriage, to actress Kate Buffery, ended in divorce. He was separated from his second wife, actress Anna Maxwell Martin. He is also survived by his children, Harry, Rosie, Maggie and Nancy.

Michell studied English at the University of Cambridge. After graduating in 1977, he began working for a theater company in Brighton. A year later he got his first big break: a job as an assistant director at the Royal Theater Company in London.

There he worked alongside old theater hands such as playwrights John Osborne and Samuel Beckett — whom he remembered, in a 2017 interview with The Sunday Star-Times, a New Zealand newspaper, as “the opposite of this sort of terrifying eagle presence that you might suspect from photographs.”

He also worked with the next generation of directors and writers, including Danny Boyle, who would win an Academy Award for directing “Slumdog Millionaire” (2008), and Hanif Kureishi, an up-and-coming novelist and playwright.

Michell and Kureishi later became collaborators. Michell directed a 1993 adaptation of Kureishi’s novel “The Buddha of Suburbia” (1990) as a BBC series, and Kureishi wrote the script for two of Michell’s films, “The Mother” and “Venus” (2006), starring Peter O’Toole.

Michell’s most recent film is “The Duke,” a comedy about the 1961 theft of a painting of the Duke of Marlborough from the National Gallery in London, starring Helen Mirren and Jim Broadbent. It was shown at film festivals in 2020 and is scheduled for general release next year.

Although his success with “Notting Hill” vaulted him into the top ranks of English-language directors, Michell kept a low profile, preferring to let his actors and screenwriters shine — a quality that may explain why so many actors liked working with him.

“As a species, stars are pretty frightening: They’re iconic and you’re not,” he said in the Guardian interview. “But like any other performers, they thrive on a good environment. Part of my job is to give the impression of enormous calm; it’s not necessarily how I feel.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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