After scoring a modest commercial hit in 1997 with Mike Myers' "Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery" ($53.9 million), Roach went on to direct the next two "Austin Powers" pictures to blockbuster status. "The Spy Who Shagged Me" took in $206 million at the U.S. box office in 1999, and "Austin Powers in Goldmember" took in $213.1 million in 2002.
In 2000 Roach teamed up with Ben Stiller and Robert De Niro for "Meet the Parents" ($166.2 million) a comedy about a young man trying desperately to cope with an intensely intimidating prospective father-in-law. The sequel, "Meet the Fockers," added to the A-list appeal with Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand joining the cast -- and has taken in $278.5 million since its release in late 2004.
Roach's box-office record is exceeded by just a handful of Hollywood directors -- think Spielberg, Lucas or Zemeckis. He is also amassing an enviable track record in home video, and "Meet the Fockers" is expected to continue Roach's winning streak when it is released on DVD next week.
In an interview with United Press International, Roach conceded it's "kind of enjoyable to watch the scoreboard" because it means a lot of people are seeing his pictures. But he said he doesn't think about the numbers too much.
"I try not to, because I know there will be a time when they won't be around," he said. "The only thing I feel, deep down in my soul when I'm sitting with an audience and they're laughing and hooting at the screen, that's when I know it works."
Hollywood is famously schizophrenic about comedy -- the studios love the grosses, but the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has traditionally treated comedy as less worthy than drama when handing out Oscars for Best Picture. Even the marketplace seems to hold back some of its love for live-action comedy: The top-grossing live-action comedy of all time, "Home Alone," is just No. 23 overall on the list of all-time movie hits, followed closely by "Meet the Fockers" at No. 25.
Still, it is not a stretch to suggest that movies like "Meet the Fockers" and "Meet the Parents" could be seen as the functional equivalent of some of the classic comedies of the American theater -- the kinds of plays that Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman won Pulitzer Prizes for -- enormously successful commercial pieces that also managed to offer serious reflection on the human condition.
"I'm only kind of just now being aware of those roots," said Roach. "I'm not of that culture. I've been reading some Woody Allen articles about Kaufman and Hart recently, also about the great comedies of the '30s and '40s -- 'The Philadelphia Story' and Preston Sturges' films. I'm being more and more grateful to those origins, even though I wasn't personally influenced by them."
He was pleasantly surprised to see that "Meet the Parents" and "Meet the Fockers" played well overseas ($78 million and $139.5 million, respectively at the foreign box office).
"I didn't know how universal this kind of comedy would be," he said. "I didn't know if people would have similar anxieties and similar in-law issues. I think a lot of us suffer from low self-esteem. I'll always see myself as a little bit of a loser."
Wait a second.
Here's a guy with an undergraduate degree from Stanford, a master's in film production from the University of Southern California, the president of his own production company, Everyman Pictures -- and he has self-esteem issues?
"I lost 20 pounds going into ('Meet the Fockers')," he said. "I was sleepless -- it was all because I didn't want to do this sequel unless I could top the expectations from the last one, and I had no idea why the last one worked."
Roach said the anxiety only mounted when Hoffman and Streisand joined the cast.
"I kind of had to tap dance to convince them that even though I only had 60 pages of script, I would take care of them," he said. "I think I built myself insurmountable hurdles because I thrive on the terror. It doesn't seem like I'm creative unless there is adrenaline."
And, of course, there is the fact that Roach's specialty, after all, is just comedy.
"There's a lot of critics of comedy who will quickly remind you that you don't rate with drama," he said, "and when you're trying really hard to be funny, critics will constantly try to give you low self-esteem if you pay attention to them."
At the moment, Roach said there are no plans for a fourth "Austin Powers" movie.
"We never stop talking about it," he said. "Usually it comes to some sudden possession when a new character overtakes (Myers) and he won't shut up about it, and his wife tells him to get out of the house and go make the film."
Roach isn't sure if another "Meet the Parents" sequel is in the cards, either.
"These are great characters, though," he said. "It's like a TV show that runs for a long time -- if you can keep it hopping, that's cool."
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