Success did not come easily to actor/comedian Eddie Izzard.
Before bursting on the mainstream comedy circuit in the early 1990s, the British entertainer spent roughly a decade in relative obscurity, working as a street performer in London’s Covent Garden and as a standup comedian at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
“Those lean years told me if I can go 10 years with nothing happening and still stay in the fight, I could make it,” recalled Izzard, who performed a sold-out show Saturday at the Performing Arts Center in San Luis Obispo. “It’s the determined and the lucky that get through. ... And I’m determined.”
Born in Yemen to a British Petroleum accountant and a midwife, Izzard spent part of his childhood in Northern Ireland and Wales. After his mother died of cancer when Izzard was 6, the young boy attended a series of British boarding schools.
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Izzard briefly studied accounting at the University of Sheffield in north-central England before dropping out at age 19 to pursue a career in entertainment.
“It was my goal at 25 to have a television show,” Izzard said. “The main thing in my plan was to get somewhere as fast as possible.”
What he didn’t realize, he said, was “Nobody gives a damn if you do rubbish work but you knock it out in two years.”
For a time, the comedian joked, “I guess it’s not my millennia.”
Then came a pivotal performance at a 1991 AIDS benefit produced by legendary British comedy duo Fry and Laurie, which led to a series of high-profile gigs. (His dramatic climb was chronicled in the 2009 documentary “Believe: The Eddie Izzard Story.”)
Known for his occasional cross-dressing and irreverent attitude toward religion, politics and other hot-button topics, Izzard has gained a cult following with stream-of-consciousness narratives that encompass everything from dinosaurs to Stonehenge to Steve Mc-Queen.
His “Death Star Canteen” routine imagines “Star Wars” villain Darth Vader attempting to order lunch at an Imperial cafeteria, while the skit “Cake or Death” recasts the Spanish Inquisition as dessert despotism.
Izzard credited Scottish comedian Billy Connolly with influencing his freewheeling comedy style — equal parts “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” and off-kilter college lecture.
“You essentially have to keep your confidence and talk and talk and talk and talk,” explained Izzard, who’s so confident in his abilities that he performs entire sets in French.
Although some subject matter might sail over the heads of audience members, Izzard said he demands a certain level of intelligence from his fans.
“It’s not that certain people come (to my shows),” said the performer, who earned two Emmy Awards for his 2000 comedy special “Dress to Kill.” “It’s that I insist on them coming.”
Izzard has also made his mark as an actor, appearing in films as varied as “Across the Universe,” “Cars 2” and “Valkyrie,” as well as two entries in the “Ocean’s Eleven” franchise. His television credits include “The Riches,” “United States of Tara” and the short-lived “Munsters” remake “Mockingbird Lane.”
“I see comedy like a dessert in a meal. It has a sugary quality,” explained Izzard, whereas dramatic acting roles such as Long John Silver in the recent Sky1 miniseries “Treasure Island” are far more meaty. “It’s the place I want to go.”
Izzard’s visit to San Luis Obispo comes on the heels of performances at London’s Wembley Stadium, New York City’s Madison Square Garden and Los Angeles’ Hollywood Bowl — where, in 2011, he became the first solo stand-up comedian to take the stage. He’s currently gearing up for a tour of Europe in 2013 and 2014 titled “Force Majeure.”
It may have taken a while, Izzard said, but he’s finally arrived.
“I just hacked my way up the mountain,” he said.