Michael Edward Palin, CBE (born 5 May 1943) is an English comedian, actor, writer and television presenter best known for being one of the members of the comedy group Monty Python and for his travel documentaries.
Palin wrote most of his material with Terry Jones. Before Monty Python, they had worked on other shows such as The Ken Dodd Show, The Frost Report and Do Not Adjust Your Set. Palin appeared in some of the most famous Python sketches, including "The Dead Parrot", "The Lumberjack Song", "The Spanish Inquisition" and "Spam". Palin continued to work with Jones, co-writing Ripping Yarns. He has also appeared in several films directed by fellow Python Terry Gilliam and made notable appearances in other films such as A Fish Called Wanda, for which he won the BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. In a 2005 poll to find The Comedian's Comedian, he was voted the 30th favourite by fellow comedians and comedy insiders.
After Python, he began a new career as a travel writer. His journeys have taken him across the world, the North and South Poles, the Sahara desert, the Himalayas and most recently, Eastern Europe. In 2000 Palin became a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for his services to television.
When he was five years old, Palin had his first acting experience at Birkdale playing Martha Cratchit in a school performance of A Christmas Carol. At the age of ten, Palin, still interested in acting, made a comedy monologue and read a Shakespeare play to his mother while playing all the parts. After his school days in 1962 he went on to read modern history at Brasenose College, Oxford. With fellow student Robert Hewison he performed and wrote, for the first time, comedy material at a university Christmas party. Terry Jones, also a student in Oxford, saw that performance and began writing together with Hewison and Palin. In the same year Palin joined the Brightside and Carbrook Co-Operative Society Players and first gained fame when he won an acting award at a Co-Op drama festival. He also performed in the Oxford Revue with Jones.
In 1966 he married Helen Gibbins, whom he first met in 1959 on holiday in Southwold in Suffolk — the county to which he has returned in recent years to live. This meeting was later fictionalised in Palin's play East of Ipswich. The couple have three children and a grandchild. While still a baby, his son William briefly appeared in Monty Python and the Holy Grail as Sir Not-appearing-in-this-film.
After finishing university in 1965 Palin became a presenter on a comedy pop show called Now! for the television contractor Television Wales and the West. At the same time Palin was contacted by Jones, who had left university a year earlier, for assistance in writing a theatrical documentary about sex through the ages. Although this project was eventually abandoned, it brought Palin and Jones together as a writing duo and led them to write comedy for various BBC programmes, such as The Ken Dodd Show, The Billy Cotton Bandshow, and The Illustrated Weekly Hudd. They were also in the team of writers working for The Frost Report, whose other members included Frank Muir, Barry Cryer, Marty Feldman, Ronnie Barker, Ronnie Corbett, Dick Vosburgh, and future Monty Python members Graham Chapman, John Cleese and Eric Idle. Although the members of Monty Python had already encountered each other over the years, The Frost Report was the first time all the British members of Monty Python (its sixth member, Terry Gilliam, was at that time an American citizen) worked together. During the run of The Frost Report the Palin/Jones team contributed material to two shows starring John Bird: The Late Show and A series of Bird's. For A series of Bird's the Palin/Jones team had their first experience of writing narrative instead of the short sketches they were accustomed to conceiving.
Following The Frost Report the Palin/Jones team worked both as actors and writers on the show Twice a fortnight with Graeme Garden, Bill Oddie and Jonathan Lynn, and the successful children's comedy show Do Not Adjust Your Set with Idle and David Jason. The show also featured musical numbers by the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, including future Monty Python musical collaborator Neil Innes. The animations for Do Not Adjust Your Set were made by Terry Gilliam, who joined the cast on Cleese's recommendation and began working with the Palin/Jones team for the first time. Eager to work with Palin sans Jones, Cleese later asked him to perform in How to Irritate People together with Chapman and Tim Brooke-Taylor. The Palin/Jones team were reunited for The Complete and Utter History of Britain.
During this period Cleese contacted Palin about doing the show that would ultimately become Monty Python's Flying Circus. On the strength of their work on The Frost Report and other programmes Cleese and Chapman had been offered a show by the BBC, but Cleese was reluctant to do a two-man show for various reasons, among them Chapman's reputedly difficult personality. At the same time the success of Do Not Adjust Your Set had led Palin, Jones, Idle, and Gilliam to be offered their own series and, while it was still in production, Palin agreed to Cleese's proposal and brought along Idle, Jones, and Gilliam. Thus the formation of the Monty Python troupe has been referred to as a result of Cleese's desire to work with Palin and the chance circumstances that brought the other four members into the fold.
In Monty Python, Palin played various roles, which ranged from manic enthusiasm (such as the lumberjack of the Lumberjack Song) to unflappable calmness (such as the Dead Parrot vendor, Cheese Shop proprietor, or Postal Clerk). As a straight man he was often a foil to the rising ire of characters portrayed by John Cleese.
Palin frequently wrote with Terry Jones for the sketches, including "The Lumberjack Song" and "Spam". Some sketches Palin wrote by himself (or began by himself), such as the "Spanish Inquisition sketch", in which a fairly widespread catchphrase was created: "''Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!"
These sketches take everyday situations: idle chatter in the sitting room; dining out—and introduce an unexpected rogue element: Cardinals of the Spanish Inquisition; an impossibly overweight man with the improbable surname of Creosote. From here, Palin and Jones commence to elaborate upon the newly created environment, carrying it to logical or illogical extremes: having waiter Cleese feed Mr. Creosote until he actually explodes, showering the other diners in viscera; or attempting to torture innocent old ladies with cushions and comfy chairs.
After the Monty Python television series ended in 1974, the Palin/Jones team worked on Ripping Yarns, an intermittent television comedy series broadcast over three years from 1976. They had earlier colloborated on the play "Secrets" from the BBC series Black and Blue in 1973. Palin also appeared in All You Need Is Cash (1978) as Eric Manchester (based on Derek Taylor), the press agent for The Rutles.
He appeared in Terry Gilliam's films Time Bandits, Jabberwocky, and Brazil. His biggest international role in a movie outside of Python was as stuttering would-be assassin Ken Pile in A Fish Called Wanda, for which he won the BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. The film was such a success that Cleese reunited the main cast almost a decade later to make Fierce Creatures.
After filming for Fierce Creatures finished, Palin went on a travel journey for a BBC documentary and, returning a year later, found that the end of Fierce Creatures had failed at test screenings and had to be reshot.
Apart from Fierce Creatures, Palin's last film role was a small part in The Wind in the Willows, a film directed by and starring Terry Jones. Palin also appeared with John Cleese in his documentary, The Human Face. Palin was in the cast of You've Got Mail, the Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan romantic comedy as a subplot novelist, but his role was eventually cut entirely for reasons that remain opaque.
He also assisted Campaign for Better Transport (UK) and others with campaigns on sustainable transport, particularly those relating to urban areas, and has been president of the campaign since 1986.
Palin has also appeared in serious drama. In 1991 Palin worked as producer and actor in the film American Friends based upon a real event in the life of his great grandfather, a fellow at St John's College, Oxford. In that same year he also played the part of a headmaster in Alan Bleasdale's Channel 4 drama series G.B.H..
Palin also had a small cameo role in Australian soap opera Home and Away. He played an English surfer with a fear of sharks, who interrupts a heart-to-heart between two main characters to ask whether there were any sharks in the sea. This was filmed while he was in Australia for the Full Circle series, with a segment about the filming of the role featuring in the series.
In 2008 Palin reportedly entered talks with Terry Gilliam to step in for Jean Rochefort and play Don Quixote alongside Johnny Depp in the relaunched production of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. Main production start is planned for 2009.
Palin's first travel documentary was part of the 1980 BBC Television series Great Railway Journeys of the World, in which, humorously reminiscing about his childhood hobby of train spotting, he travelled throughout the UK by train, from London to the Kyle of Lochalsh, via Manchester, York, Edinburgh and Inverness. At the Kyle of Lochalsh, Palin bought the station's long metal platform sign and is seen lugging it back to London with him.
In 1994, Palin travelled through Ireland for the same series, entitled "Derry to Kerry". In a quest for family roots, he attempted to trace his great grandmother — Brita Gallagher — who set sail from Ireland 150 years ago during the Great Famine (1845-1849), bound for a new life in Burlington, New Jersey. The series is a trip along the Palin family line.
Starting in 1989, Palin appeared as presenter in a series of travel programmes made for the BBC. These programmes have been broadcast around the world in syndication, and were also sold on VHS tape and later on DVD:
Following each trip, Palin wrote a book about his travels, providing information and insights not included in the TV programme. Each book is illustrated with photographs by Basil Pao, the stills photographer who was on the team. (Exception: the first book, Around the World in 80 Days, contains some pictures by Pao but most are by other photographers.)
All seven of these books were also made available as audio books, and all of them are read by Palin himself. Around the World in 80 Days and Hemingway Adventure are unabridged, while the other four books were made in both abridged and unabridged versions, although the unabridged versions can be very difficult to find.
For four of the trips a photography book was made by Pao, each with an introduction written by Palin. These are large coffee-table style books with pictures printed on glossy paper. The majority of the pictures are of various people encountered on the trip, as informal portraits or showing them engaged in some interesting activity. Some of the landscape photos are displayed as two-page spreads.
Palin's travel programmes are responsible for a phenomenon termed the "Palin effect": areas of the world that he has visited suddenly become popular tourist attractions — for example, the significant increase in the number of tourists interested in Peru after Palin visited Machu Picchu. In a 2006 survey of "15 of the world's top travel writers" by The Observer, Palin named Peru's Pongo de Mainique (canyon below the Machu Picchu) his "favourite place in the world".
In 2008, Palin announced he was working on a First World War documentary about Armistice Day, 11 November 1918, when thousands of soldiers lost their lives in battle after the war had officially ended. Palin filmed on the battlefields of northern France and Belgium for the programme, provisionally entitled The Last Day of the First World War.
In honour of his achievements as a traveller, especially rail travel, Palin has two British trains named after him. In 2002, Virgin Trains' new £5m high speed Super Voyager train number 221130 was named "Michael Palin" - it carries his name externally and a plaque is located adjacent to the onboard shop with information on Palin and his many journeys. Also, National Express East Anglia have named a British Rail Class 153 (unit number 153335) after him. In 2008, he received the James Joyce Award of the Literary and Historical Society in Dublin.
Palin was instrumental in setting up The Michael Palin Centre for Stammering Children in 1993.
All his travel books can be read at no charge, complete and unabridged, on his website.