Richard Lester Liebman was born to a Jewish family in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. A child prodigy, he began studies at the University of Pennsylvania at the age of 15.
Lester started in television in 1950, working as a stage hand, floor manager, assistant director and then director in less than a year, because no one else was around who knew how to do the work.
Lester directed Action in the Afternoon an American western television series that aired live on CBS from February 2, 1953 to January 29, 1954. The series originated from the studios and back lot of WCAU-TV in Philadelphia, and was broadcast Monday through Friday regardless of the weather. The half-hour series aired variously at 3:30 pm or 4:00 pm, throughout its run.
In 1953, Lester moved to London and began work as a director in television, working for the low-budget producers The Danziger Brothers on episodes of Mark Saber, a half-hour detective series.
He worked as a writer on
Curtains for Harry (1955) and The Barris Beat (1956).
A variety show he produced caught the eye of Peter Sellers, who enlisted Lester's help in translating The Goon Show to television as The Idiot Weekly, Price 2d (1956). It was a hit, as were two follow-up shows, A Show Called Fred (1956) and Son of Fred (1956).
Lester recalled that A Show Called Fred was "broadcast live and that's why I went into film directing where you can do a second take!"
Lester directed episodes of the TV series After Hours (1958).
Lester received acclaim with a short film he made with Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers, The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film (1959). He did another short, The Sound of Jazz (1959).
Lester's first feature as director was It's Trad, Dad! (1962), a low budget musical which consisted of a series of music acts including John Leyton and Gene Vincent.
His second was The Mouse on the Moon (1963) starring Margaret Rutherford, a sequel to The Mouse That Roared (1959). He returned to TV, directing episodes of Room at the Bottom (1964).
The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film was a favourite of the Beatles, particularly John Lennon. When the band members were contracted to make a feature film, they chose Lester from a list of possible directors. A Hard Day's Night (1964) showed an exaggerated and simplified version of the Beatles' characters, and proved to be an effective marketing tool. Many of its stylistic innovations survive today as the conventions of music videos, in particular the multi-angle filming of a live performance. Lester was sent an award from MTV as "Father of the Music Video".
A Hard Day's Night was a huge critical and commercial success. Lester then directed the first of several quintessential "swinging" films, the sex comedy The Knack …and How to Get It (1965). Lester's first of three films with actor Michael Crawford, it won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
Lester followed this with the Beatles film Help! (1965). A spoof of the popular James Bond spy thrillers, it was another huge commercial success.
Lester received a Hollywood offer to direct the film adaptation of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966).
He then made the darkly surreal anti-war movie How I Won the War (1967) co-starring Crawford and Lennon, which he referred to as an "anti-anti-war movie". Lester commented that anti-war movies still took the concept of war seriously, contrasting "bad" war crimes with wars fought for "good" causes like the liberation from Nazism or, at that time, Communism, whereas he set out to deconstruct it to show war as fundamentally opposed to humanity. Although set in World War II, the film serves as an oblique reference to the Vietnam War and at one point, breaking the fourth wall, references this directly.
Lester made Petulia (1968) with Julie Christie and George C. Scott, and a score by John Barry. He returned to his anti-war theme with the post-apocalyptic black comedy The Bed Sitting Room (1969), based on a play by Spike Milligan and John Antrobus.
How I Won the War and Bed Sitting Room performed poorly at the box office and Lester found himself unable to raise finance for a series of projects, including an adaptation of the Flashman novels.
Lester's career revived when he was hired by Alexander and Ilya Salkind to do a version of The Three Musketeers (1973), based on a script by George MacDonald Fraser. The producers decided to split the first film into two after principal photography was completed, the second being called The Four Musketeers (1974). Many of the cast principals sued the Salkinds as a result, stating that they were only contracted to make one film. Both movies were commercially successful.
Lester was called in at the last minute as a replacement director on Juggernaut (1974), a thriller set on a cruise liner.
The success of the Musketeers films enabled Lester to raise finance for Royal Flash (1975), based on the second of the Flashman novels by MacDonald Fraser.
Lester followed this with Robin and Marian (1976), from a script by James Goldman, starring Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn. He then made The Ritz (1976) based on a play by Terrence McNally.
Lester also directed Butch and Sundance: The Early Days (1979) and Cuba (1979) with Connery; neither film was successful commercially.
Lester's next film was a huge success: Superman II. Production on Superman II began before Superman was completed, and had to be halted to concentrate on getting the first movie completed. After the first Superman film was released in late 1978, the Salkinds went back into production on Superman II without informing Superman director Richard Donner; they placed Lester behind the camera for the completion of the film. Although Donner had shot a majority of what was planned for the film, much of his footage was jettisoned or reshot during Lester's time on the project.
Gene Hackman, who played Lex Luthor, refused to return for the reshoots, so Lester instead used a stunt double and an impersonator to loop Luthor's lines onto footage of Hackman shot by Donner. Some of Donner's original footage was later integrated into television versions of the film. In November 2006, Donner's footage was reedited into Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut, consisting primarily of his footage with Lester's footage used only for scenes not shot during Donner's principal photography.
Lester directed Superman III (1983), but this third installment was not as well received as its predecessors, yet was considered a box office success.
Lester directed the comedy Finders Keepers (1984), starring Michael O'Keefe, Louis Gossett, Jr, and Beverly D'Angelo. The film was a flop, though today it is notable as one of the early films featuring Jim Carrey.
In 1988, Lester reunited most of the Three Musketeers cast to film another sequel titled The Return of the Musketeers, released the following year. During filming in Spain, actor Roy Kinnear, a close friend of Lester, died after falling from a horse. Lester finished the film, then effectively retired from directing at age 56, returning only to direct the concert film of Paul McCartney titled Get Back (1991).
In 1993, he presented Hollywood U.K., a five-part series on British cinema in the 1960s for the BBC.
Director Steven Soderbergh is among many who have called for a reappraisal of Lester's work and influence. He wrote Getting Away with It, published in 1999, about Lester's career, which consists of interviews with Lester.