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Oscar rarely clowns around, but in 1989 the Academy couldn’t resist A Fish Called Wanda. The R-rated caper starring John Cleese, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Palin, and Kevin Kline was nominated for three awards, and Kline — who played an American vulgarian named Otto — got the last laugh, winning for Best Supporting Actor.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Prior to A Fish Called Wanda, you were known for more dramatic films, like Sophie’s Choice and The Big Chill. How did you get the part of Otto?
[John Cleese] wrote that character for me. According to Cleese, he got the idea when we were rehearsing Silverado. Lawrence Kasdan wrote a part for him in Silverado, and he came out to set, and we actually shared a rental apartment. I tend to clown around in rehearsals, or be silly, as a way of mining whatever comedic elements are in any given scene. But it’s also just my basic M.O. for just about anything, to act silly. He said, “That silly side of you, that clowning side of you, is something that I wanted to tap into, when I wrote Wanda.”

What did you think when you read the script?
Was I shooting Cry Freedom, the Richard Attenborough film about Steve Biko? I think that’s when I read it or just when we’d finished. I remember Donald Woods telling me — Donald was the character that I played in Cry Freedom — he sort of confided in me that Dickie had mentioned to him that he was worried about Kevin involving himself with these Monty Python people. [Laughs] I mean, Dickie had seen me play Hamlet, and cast me in Cry Freedom, and I think thought of me as a serious actor, which I suppose I can be, when the situation merits. Anyway, I just thought it was funny that Dickie was worried.

Well, I suppose “Dickie” hadn’t entered his dinosaur-inventing-in-JurassicPark phase at this point.
Well, that came a while after. [Laughs] He just thought I was maybe trashing my reputation, as indeed I think I set out to do as often as possible. But so, when I read it, I thought, This is something altogether different. I was a little perplexed by it. In fact, I remained slightly confused throughout the filming, because the character had so many wonderful inconsistencies. He seemed to be preternaturally, lethally stupid but, although it was mostly posturing and posing, there was some attempt at intelligent, recognizably human, behavior. John actually had a t-shirt made which said, “Who is this guy?” Because I just said, “Who is this guy?” He was so absurd to me. Ultimately, I just went with the wonderful inconsistencies and just embraced it. I remember the very first day I said, “Is that too much?” He said, “No, no. More! More! I want more!” I thought, Alright, what the hell — and just went crazy.

Were you surprised to be nominated for an Academy Award?
Completely. I was awakened and someone said, “You just got nominated.” I said, “For what?” They said, “For A Fish Called Wanda.” [Laughs] I was actually out in L.A. rehearsing I Love You to Death. I thought, I don’t have time to go to this Oscar ceremony, I’m not going to win! People were very forthcoming, saying, “Just so you know, you’re the darkest of dark horses.”

But you did go — and you did win. What do you remember about the actual night?
I remember the opening number was Rob Lowe and Snow White. [Laughs]

Kevin Kline
Credit: Kevin Winter/DMI/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

That’s infamous!
Yeah, exactly. But I didn’t care. I was like, “It’s my first time at the Oscars, it’s all fine.” I remember when I won, everything got very quiet in my head, and I went up and I got it.

In your speech, it looks like you almost forget to thank your wife, Phoebe Cates.
Well, we literally had just gotten married. I did remember her name, though, which I’m proud of.

Watch Kline’s Best Supporting Actor acceptance speech, above.