Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Comedy of Errors

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves at 30: Mike McShane on Playing Friar Tuck

13 July 21

A $50 million budget, Hollywood’s biggest star, England’s most famous legend, an Oscar nomination, a BAFTA win, a song that became one of the best-selling singles of all time, that performance from Alan Rickman and a box office take of almost $400 million. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves left a huge impact on the legacy of Nottingham’s folk hero and, to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of its release, we caught up with some of the people responsible for bringing it to life, starting with Mike McShane...

Before going on to appear in A Bug’s Life, Office Space and Treasure Planet, character actor and improvisational comedian Mike McShane was cast in the role of Friar Tuck…

My overriding memory from the shoot thirty years ago was filming the entry into ‘Nottingham Castle’ in Carcassonne, Southern France. It was my wrap shot, and afterwards I wandered through the ancient streets, still in my costume, when two local villagers who owned a bar invited me in for a couple of glasses of cognac. My French is really remedial – I’m much better at reading than I am speaking – but I had been told that I had finished shooting, so I went along with them. They were great hearty French fellows, and kept calling me “Peré Took,” while I was getting quite squiffy. I was just quietly hoping that the director didn’t find something that we had to shoot again. One of them enquired where I was from and, after finding out it was San Francisco, pulled a bong out from behind the bar. Then we were off to the races – homegrown French nuggets sprinkled with hashish. Well, I certainly felt like Friar Tuck at that point, as we were singing songs by Jacques Brel, and they were telling me about playing Christians and Moors on the battlements as children. I eventually staggered back to the arena where they pick you up to drive to base camp, where Alan Rickman was waiting. He just looked at me, laughed and said that I smelt like a dead hippie. I couldn’t stop cracking up.

There is a distinct Hollywood vibe that, if you fight it or are victimized by it, is not good. But if it’s coming through the work and the excitement it can be legendary fun and art at the same time

On another occasion, Kevin Costner stepped into the Second Unit Director slot and picked up some reactions during a battle scene. It was MOS [without sound], and he was coaching us on what we were seeing, where the arrows were flying and all that sort of thing. I felt like I was back in the days of silent film – I really loved it. There is a distinct Hollywood vibe that, if you fight it or are victimized by it, is not good. But if it’s coming through the work and the excitement it can be legendary fun and art at the same time. Also, in the scene where I get knocked off the cart, on my first take when Robin Hood offers his hand, I reached up and punched him in the testicles to get away. You know, faked it. The director and cast loved it, but Kevin Costner didn’t, so I ended up biting his leg instead. Hey, when you’re the star, you get to say how you lose your dignity.

My wife, who is not an actor, actually doubled as Maid Marian (on Alan Rickman’s recommendation) for a medium shot during filming. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio had wrapped and left days before, and the double looked like Eric Morecambe in a wig. That’s show biz!

When it came to approaching the character of Tuck, I had played The Jolly Friar of Copmanhurst in a production of
Ivanhoe at a Shakespeare Festival years before, so I had boned up on the legend then. Eugene Pallette [Friar Tuck in 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood] was really from another time, so that wasn’t a choice for inspiration. I listened to Carmina Burana - not the Carl Orff version, but the early medieval songs the wandering priests used to sing that were rude, lusty and full of brio; I made up my own lyrics and sang them and that got me in the mood. I also called my carthorse Abelard, since he had been gelded. Get in the mood stuff, you know. 

The last time I watched the film was actually this year. The BBC were showing it, so my wife and I decided to have a date night, with the proviso that I not talk ‘shop’ while it was going on. I have a bad habit of watching films with her and going, “Oh look, it’s Bob! Great guy. I remember doing Timon of Athens with him in ’84 blah blah blah…” She’ll always look at me and say, “Really? We’re going on a walking tour through Mike’s Anecdote Village? Again?” The woman has my number.

Being in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves put me in the slot of ‘character actor’ for many years and gave me some juice, and I am grateful every day for it, as well as the people, places and experiences I have been privileged to enjoy as a result. Our version was a flashy take on a great English myth, if you like the Hollywood lens on it. Each culture has its glory fable that celebrates its skirmishes. The French have the Christians and Moors, here in America, it’s the Wild West, and in Carcassonne, they have Christians and Moors with wooden swords. When it came out a lot of the British press lambasted it, but the audience over the years, who ultimately are the real arbiters, have embraced it. And I think my authentic Cornish dialect really sealed the deal.

We have a favour to ask…

LeftLion is Nottingham’s meeting point for information about what’s going on in our city, from the established organisations to the grassroots. We want to keep what we do free to all to access, but increasingly we are relying on revenue from our readers to continue. Can you spare a few quid each month to support us?

Support LeftLion now

You might like this too...

Sleaford Mods

You might like this too...