John Marwood Cleese (born 27 October, 1939) is a British actor, comedian, writer, film producer, and singer who is probably best known as being a prominent member of Monty Python, a group of comedians responsible for the legendary sketch show Monty Python's Flying Circus and for three memorable motion pictures; Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Life of Brian and The Meaning of Life. Outside of Python, he also co-created, wrote and starred in the renowned sitcom Fawlty Towers and has also starred in multiple films, most notably A Fish Called Wanda and the first two Harry Potter movies.
Cleese was educated at St Peter's Preparatory School, Weston-super-Mare where he was a star pupil, receiving a prize for English and doing well at sports including cricket and boxing. At 13 he received an exhibition to Clifton College, an English public school in Bristol, he was a tall child and was well over 6ft when he arrived there. Whilst at the school he is said to have defaced the school grounds for a prank by painting footsteps to suggest that the school's statue of Field Marshal Earl Haig had got down from his plinth and gone to the toilet. Cleese played cricket for the first team and after initial indifference he did well academically, passing 8 O levels and 3 A levels in Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry.
After leaving school he went back to his prep school to teach science before taking up a place he had won at Downing College, Cambridge where he read Law and joined the Cambridge Footlights Revue. It was there that he met his future writing partner Graham Chapman. Cleese wrote extra material for the 1961 Footlights Revue I Thought I Saw It Move, and was Registrar for the Footlights Club during 1962, as well as being one of the cast members for the 1962 Footlights Revue Double Take! He graduated from Cambridge in 1963 with a 2:1 Degree.
Cleese had started his acting career as part of the Cambridge Footlights revue cast of 1963 and later on went to the US to perform on and off-Broadway. While working there, he not only met future Python member Terry Gilliam, but also American actress Connie Booth, whom he married on February 20, 1968.
Cleese remarried in 1981, to American actress Barbara Trentham. Their daughter Camilla, Cleese's second child, was born in 1984. The marriage began to collapse after the success of Cleese's 1988 film A Fish Called Wanda, and in 1990, he and Trentham divorced. It was also during this time that Cleese moved from the United Kingdom to California in the US.
In 2008, Cleese confirmed that he has been learning German for a while and described himself as "speaking simple German fluently now." Referring to the famous Fawlty Towers episode "The Germans", he explained "Everybody thinks that was a joke about the Germans but they missed it. It was a joke about English attitudes to the war and the fact that some people were still hanging on to that rubbish." At the German theme park, Movie Park Germany, he plays a time-travelling scientist who greets the visitors entering the attraction. During the ride, he can be heard commentating to the audience. Cleese has also starred in a Polish bank advertisement.
Cleese currently lives in Santa Barbara California, with intervening periods spent working in London.
After Cambridge Circus, Cleese decided to stay on in America, performing on and off-Broadway. While performing in the musical Half a Sixpence, Cleese met not only future Python Terry Gilliam but also American actress Connie Booth, whom he married on February 20, 1968.
As Cleese's comic reputation grew, he was soon offered a position as a writer with BBC Radio, where he worked on several programmes, most notably as a sketch writer for The Dick Emery Show. The success of the Footlights Revue led to the recording of a short series of half-hour radio programmes, called I'm Sorry, I'll Read That Again, which was so popular that the BBC commissioned a regular series with the same title.
After his return to England, Cleese started performing as a cast member of the highly successful BBC Radio show I'm Sorry, I'll Read That Again, which ran from 1965 to 1974. In many episodes, he is credited as "John Otto Cleese".
In 1965, Cleese and Chapman began writing on The Frost Report. The writing staff chosen for The Frost Report consisted of a number of writers and performers who would go on to make names for themselves in comedy. They included future Goodies Bill Oddie and Tim Brooke-Taylor, and also Frank Muir, Barry Cryer, Marty Feldman, Ronnie Barker, Ronnie Corbett, Dick Vosburgh and future Python members Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin. It was while working on The Frost Report, in fact, that the future Pythons developed the writing styles that would make their collaboration significant. Cleese and Chapman's sketches often involved authority figures, some of which were performed by Cleese, while Jones and Palin were both infatuated with filmed scenes that open with idyllic countryside panoramas. Idle was one of those charged with writing David Frost's monologue. It was during this period that Cleese met and befriended influential British comedian Peter Cook.
Such was the popularity of the series that in 1966 Cleese and Chapman were invited to work as writers and performers with Brooke-Taylor and Feldman on At Last the 1948 Show, during which time the Four Yorkshiremen sketch was written by all four writers/performers (the Four Yorkshiremen sketch is now better known as a Monty Python sketch). John Cleese and Graham Chapman also wrote episodes of Doctor in the House. These series were successful and, in 1969, Cleese and Chapman were offered their very own series. However, due to Chapman's alcoholism, Cleese found himself bearing an increasing workload in the partnership and was therefore unenthusiastic about doing a series with just the two of them. He had found working with Palin on The Frost Report an enjoyable experience, and invited him to join the series. Palin had previously been working on Do Not Adjust Your Set, with Idle and Jones, and Terry Gilliam doing animations. The four of them had, on the back of the success of Do Not Adjust Your Set, been offered a series for ITV, which they were waiting to begin when Cleese's offer arrived. Palin agreed to work with Cleese and Chapman in the meantime, bringing with him Gilliam, Jones and Idle.
Unlike Palin and Jones, Cleese and Chapman actually wrote together, in the same room; Cleese claims that their writing partnership involved him sitting with pen and paper, doing most of the work, while Chapman sat back, not speaking for long periods, then suddenly coming out with an idea that often elevated the sketch to a different level. A classic example of this is the "Dead Parrot" sketch, envisaged by Cleese as a satire on poor customer service, which was originally to have involved a broken toaster, and later a broken car (this version was actually performed and broadcast, on the pre-Python special How To Irritate People). It was Chapman's suggestion to change the faulty item into a dead parrot, as well as suggesting that the parrot be specifically a Norwegian Blue, giving the sketch a surreal air which made it far more memorable.
Their humour often involved ordinary people in ordinary situations behaving absurdly for no obvious reason. Like Chapman, Cleese's poker face, clipped middle-class accent and imposing height allowed him to appear convincing as a variety of authority figures - which he would then proceed to undermine. Many of his characters have a kind of incipient madness, but remain utterly straight-faced and impassive while behaving in a ludicrous fashion. Most famously, in the "Ministry of Silly Walks" sketch (actually written by Palin and Jones), Cleese exploits his extraordinary stature as the crane-legged civil servant performing a grotesquely elaborate walk to his office.
Chapman and Cleese also specialised in sketches where two characters would conduct highly articulate arguments over completely arbitrary subjects, such as in the "cheese shop", the "dead parrot" sketch and, perhaps most notably, "The Argument Sketch", where Cleese plays a stone-faced bureaucrat employed to sit behind a desk and engage people in pointless, infuriatingly trivial bickering. All of these roles were opposite Palin (who Cleese often claims is his favourite Python to work with) – the comic contrast between the towering Cleese's crazed aggression and diminutive Palin's shuffling inoffensiveness is a common feature in the series. Occasionally, the typical Cleese-Palin dynamic is reversed, as in "Fish Licence", wherein Palin plays the bureaucrat with whom Cleese is trying to work (though it is still Cleese who plays the "loony" half of the duo).
Though the programme lasted four series, by the start of series 3, Cleese was growing tired of coping with Chapman's alcoholism. According to Gilliam, Cleese was the "most Cambridge" of the Cambridge-educated members of the group (Cleese, Chapman, and Idle), by which Gilliam meant that Cleese was the tallest (6'4") and most aggressive of the whole group. He felt, too, that the show's scripts had declined in quality. For these reasons, he became restless and decided to move on. Though he stayed for the third series, he officially left the group before the fourth season. Despite this, he remained friendly with the group, and all six began writing Monty Python and the Holy Grail; Cleese received a credit on episodes of the fourth series which used material from these sessions, and even makes a brief appearance in one episode, though he was officially unconnected with the fourth series. Cleese returned to the troupe to co-write and co-star in the Monty Python films Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Monty Python's Life of Brian and Monty Python's The Meaning of Life, and would participate in various live performances over the years.
Cleese went on to achieve possibly greater success in the United Kingdom as the neurotic hotel manager Basil Fawlty in Fawlty Towers, which he co-wrote with his wife Connie Booth. The series won widespread critical acclaim and is still considered one of the finest examples of British comedy, having won three BAFTA awards when produced and recently topping the British Film Institute list of the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes. The series also featured Andrew Sachs as the much abused Spanish waiter Manuel ("...he's from Barcelona"), Prunella Scales as Basil's fire-breathing dragon of a wife Sybil, and Booth as waitress Polly. Cleese based Basil Fawlty on a real person, Donald Sinclair, whom he encountered in 1970, when he and the rest of the Monty Python team were staying at the Gleneagles Hotel in Torquay while filming Monty Python's Flying Circus. Cleese was reportedly inspired by Sinclair's mantra of "I could run this hotel just fine, if it weren't for the guests". He later described Sinclair as "the most wonderfully rude man I have ever met", although Sinclair's widow has since said her husband was totally misrepresented in the comedy.
During the Pythons' stay, Sinclair allegedly threw Idle's briefcase out of the hotel "in case it contained a bomb", complained about Gilliam's "American" table manners, and threw a bus timetable at another guest after they dared to ask the time of the next bus to town.
The first series began on 19 September 1975, and while not an instant hit, soon gained momentum. However, the second series did not air until 1979, by which time Cleese's marriage to Booth had ended. The two nevertheless reprised their writing and performing roles in the second series. Fawlty Towers consisted of only 12 episodes; Cleese and Booth both maintain that this was to avoid compromising the quality of the series.
In 1978, Cleese appeared as guest star on The Muppet Show. Instead of singing along, he showed up with a pretend album, his own new vocal record John Cleese: A Man & His Music, and finally strangled Kermit the Frog. Cleese won the TV Times award for Funniest Man On TV - 1978 / 1979.
Timed with the 1983 UK elections, he appeared in a video promoting proportional representation.
During the 1987 UK general election, he recorded a nine minute party political broadcast for the SDP-Liberal Alliance, which talks about the similarities and failures of the other two parties in a more humorous tone than the standard political broadcast. He has since supported the Alliance's successor, the Liberal Democrats, narrating a radio election broadcast for the party during the 2001 UK general election.
In 1988 he wrote and starred in A Fish Called Wanda, as the lead, Archie Leach, along with Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Kline and Michael Palin. Wanda became an incredible success, and Cleese was nominated for an Academy Award for his script. Cynthia Cleese starred as Leach's daughter.
Chapman was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1989; Cleese, Michael Palin, Peter Cook and Chapman's partner David Sherlock, witnessed Chapman's passing. Chapman's death occurred one day before the 20th anniversary of the first broadcast of Flying Circus with Jones commenting, "the worst case of party-pooping in all history." Cleese gave a stirring eulogy at Chapman's memorial service, in which he "became the first person ever at a British memorial service to say 'fuck'".
Cleese also produced and acted in a number of successful business training films, including Meetings, Bloody Meetings and More Bloody Meetings about how to set up and run successful meetings. These were produced by his company Video Arts.
With Robin Skynner, the Group Analyst (Group Analysis) and family therapist, Cleese wrote two books on relationships: Families and how to survive them, and Life and how to survive it. The books are presented as a dialogue between Skynner and Cleese.
In 1996, Cleese declined the British honour of Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE). The follow-up to A Fish Called Wanda, Fierce Creatures - which again starred Cleese himself alongside Kevin Kline, Jamie Lee Curtis and Michael Palin - was also released this year, but was greeted with mixed reception by critics and cinema-goers. Cleese has since often stated, that making that second movie had been a mistake. When asked by his friend, director and restaurant critic Michael Winner, what he would do differently if he could live his life again, Cleese responded, "I wouldn’t have married Alyce Faye Eichelberger and I wouldn’t have made Fierce Creatures.
In 1999, Cleese appeared in the James Bond movie, The World Is Not Enough as Q's assistant, referred to by Bond as R. In 2002, when Cleese reprised his role in Die Another Day, the character was promoted, making Cleese the new quartermaster (Q) of MI6. In 2004, Cleese was featured as Q in the video game James Bond 007: Everything or Nothing, featuring his likeness and voice. Cleese did not appear in the subsequent Bond film, Casino Royale, and it is unknown whether Cleese will reprise the role in future Bond films.
He is currently Provost's Visiting Professor at Cornell University, after having been Andrew D. White Professor-at-Large from 1999-2006. He makes occasional, well-received appearances on the Cornell campus, but he lives in the town of Montecito, California.
In a 2005 poll of comedians and comedy insiders The Comedian's Comedian, Cleese was voted second only to Peter Cook. Also in 2005, a long-standing piece of Internet humour, "The Revocation of Independence of the United States", was wrongly attributed to Cleese.
Cleese recently lent his voice to the BioWare video game Jade Empire. His role was that of an "outlander" named Sir Roderick Ponce von Fontlebottom the Magnificent Bastard, stranded in the Imperial City of the Jade Empire. His character is essentially a British colonialist stereotype who refers to the people of the Jade Empire as savages in need of enlightenment. His armour has the design of a fork stuck in a piece of cheese on it.
He also had a cameo appearance in the computer game Starship Titanic as "The Bomb" (credited as "Kim Bread"), designed by Douglas Adams. When the bomb is activated it tells the player that "The ship is now armed and preparing to explode. This will be a fairly large explosion, so you'd best keep back about ". When the player tries to disarm the bomb, it says "Well, you can try that, but it won't work because nobody likes a smartarse!"
In 2003, Cleese also appeared as Lyle Finster in long-running US sitcom Will & Grace.
In 2004, Cleese was credited as co-writer of a DC Comics graphic novel entitled Superman: True Brit. Part of DC's "Elseworlds" line of imaginary stories, True Brit, mostly written by Kim Howard Johnson, suggests what might have happened had Superman's rocket ship landed in Britain, not America.
From 10 November to 9 December 2005, Cleese toured New Zealand with his stage show John Cleese — His Life, Times and Current Medical Problems. Cleese described it as "a one man show with several people in it, which pushes the envelope of acceptable behaviour in new and disgusting ways." The show was developed in New York with William Goldman and includes Cleese's daughter Camilla as a writer and actor (the shows were directed by Australian Bille Brown.) His assistant of many years, Garry Scott-Irvine, also appeared, and was listed as a co-producer. It then played in universities in California and Arizona from January 10 to March 25 2006 under the title "Seven Ways to Skin an Ocelot". His voice can be downloaded for directional guidance purposes as a downloadable option on some personal GPS-navigation device models by company TomTom.
In June 2006, while promoting a football (soccer) song in which he was featured, entitled Don't Mention the World Cup, Cleese appears to have claimed that he decided to retire from performing in sitcoms, instead opting to writing a book on the history of comedy and tutoring young comedians. This was an erroneous story, the result of an interview with The Times of London (the piece was not fact checked before printing).
In 2007, Cleese is appearing in ads for Titleist as a golf course designer named "Ian MacCallister", who represents "Golf Designers Against Distance".
On September 27, 2007, The Podcast Network announced it had signed a deal with Cleese to produce a series of video podcasts called HEADCAST to be published on TPN's website. Cleese released the first episode of this series in April 2008 on his own website, Headcast.co.uk
John Cleese's most recent live comedic performance was at the 2006 Just For Laughs festival in Montreal, Canada. Cleese was host for one of the galas and performed sketches very reminiscent to his Monty Python days. His first sketch was him performing his own eulogy as he promised to kill himself as the grand finale, remarking "Top that Jason Alexander...you bastard." The second sketch was him as the judge of 'Cleese Idol', where contestants from Montreal would be performing his skits, so he could find his successor. He shot the last contestant as well as the special guest host, Ben Mulroney (the host of Canadian Idol). The gala ended with his "execution", where he asked people to choose the method of execution by text messaging a number (which was fake). The choices were stoning, electric chair, firing squad, hanging and guillotine. The guillotine won, and Cleese was beheaded just as he was about to say something to the crowd.
According to recent reports, Cleese is currently working on a musical version of A Fish Called Wanda with his daughter Camilla. He also said that he is working - for the first time since 1996's Fierce Creatures - on a new film screenplay. Cleese collaborates on it with writer Lisa Hogan, under the current working title "Taxing Times". According to him, it is "about the lengths to which people will go to avoid tax. [...] It's based on what happened to me when I cashed in my UK pension and moved to Santa Barbara.
Video game credits
|At Last the 1948 Show|
|Tim Brooke-Taylor — Graham Chapman — John Cleese — Marty Feldman — Aimi MacDonald|
|I'm Sorry, I'll Read That Again|
|Tim Brooke-Taylor — John Cleese — Graeme Garden — David Hatch — Jo Kendall — Bill Oddie|