In 1963, John Cleese decided to follow his interest in comedy. He had been in a Footlights show called Cambridge Circus. Cleese soon landed a job writing jokes for BBC Radio. He later made the move to television, working on a new venture called Monty Python's Flying Circus, a zany comedy series. Cleese created a new TV series, Fawlty Towers, in 1975. He has since starred in films and written several books.
John Marwood Cleese was born in Weston-super-Mare, England on October 27, 1939. A talented comedian, John Cleese has been delighting audiences since the 1960s. He is most famous for his work with a comedy group known as Monty Python, and for such solo projects as the popular British television series Fawlty Towers.
Cleese grew up in a small coastal town in England. His father, Reginald, worked as an insurance salesman while his mother Muriel was a homemaker. His family name had originally been "Cheese," but his father changed it to "Cleese" when he entered the military in WWI to avoid being picked on. He made the name change permanent when he returned home from service.
As a child, Cleese loved soccer and cricket. He went to St. Peter's, a preparatory school in Weston, when he was 8. He had his first acting role in a school production when he was 12, but he had no great theatrical aspirations. Instead Cleese dreamed of becoming a professional athlete. "The whole idea of show business was not an option—like wanting to be an astronaut," he explained in The Pythons: Autobiography.
After St. Peter's, Cleese went to Clifton College. There he learned that being funny could be a good way to make friends. At home, Cleese watched television with his parents who sometimes tuned in to such American comics as Jack Benny, George Burns, and Phil Silvers. He also became a devoted fan of The Goon Show, a radio program that featured the likes of Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers.
Finishing his studies at Clifton in 1958, Cleese returned to St. Peter's as a teacher. He worked there for two years before heading off to Cambridge University, planning to study law. Cleese displayed his comedic talents as a member of the famed Footlights Dramatic Club, which previously had featured the likes of Peter Cook and David Frost. With the Footlights, he performed at the Beyond the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1962. He befriended Graham Chapman, a fellow member of the troupe, and the two would later become collaborators.
'Monty Python's Flying Circus'
After he earned his degree in 1963, Cleese decided to follow his interest in comedy. He had been in a Footlights show called Cambridge Circus (first known as A Clump of Plinths) that year at the university, which later went to London. "I had a choice between earning 12 a week working as an article clerk in a law firm or 30 a week in the theater. I thought, 'This sounds a bit more interesting,'" he told Back Stage West. Cleese even traveled with the show when it ran on Broadway for several weeks in October 1964.
Cleese soon anded a job writing jokes for BBC Radio. He later made the move to television, becoming a writer and performer on The Frost Report featuring David Frost. Other members of the writing staff included Graham Chapman, Eric Idle, Michael Palin, and Terry Jones. Based on weekly themes, each episode of the program would feature musical satire and sketch comedy. He also starred in At Last the 1948 Show with Chapman, Tim Brooke-Taylor, and Marty Feldman in 1967.
Cleese started working on a new television venture with Chapman, Idle, Palin, Jones, and Terry Gilliam. Together they developed Monty Python's Flying Circus, an outlandish comedy series featuring off-the-wall sketches and odd animation segments. At first, the BBC and the public did not know what to make of this unusual show when it debuted in October 1969. Monty Python avoided standard punchlines in their skits, which threw off audiences at the time.
At 6-feet 5-inches tall, Cleese towered over most of the cast. He often played authority figures and showed a talent for hurling insults. Cleese, with his crisp speaking style, took on a number of memorable roles, including the stuffy representative of the Ministry of Silly Walks or the consumer who buys a dead parrot. "John's performances were the linchpin of Python," Michael Palin told People.
In 1972, Cleese branched out in a new direction. He helped found Video Arts Ltd, a company that produces humorous training videos for corporations. Putting his writing and acting talents to the test, Cleese created and appeared in programs on customer service, organization, and meetings among other topics. The company's videos have been used by such companies as General Motors and Saks Fifth Avenue.
During the show's third season, Cleese started to lose interest. The group often worked in teams to write the sketches, with Cleese frequently pairing up with Chapman. Chapman suffered from a drinking problem at the time. "I felt we were repeating ourselves. And also I was writing with the alcoholic, and no one else wanted to," he explained to Entertainment Weekly. He left Monty Python's Flying Circus before its fourth season.
Working with his wife, Connie Booth, Cleese created a new television series, Fawlty Towers. The popular sitcom first aired in 1975 and featured Cleese as the high-strung Basil Fawlty who runs an inn with his wife (Prunella Scales). His real-life wife played a hotel waitress named Polly on the show. His marriage to Booth ended in 1978, but the two continued to work together on Fawlty Towers until 1979.
While he had been tired of the Monty Python television series, Cleese did participate in the group's film projects. He appeared in, and helped write, Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979), and Monty Python's The Meaning of Life (1983). The films won high praise and delighted the group's ever-growing legions of fans. They are now considered some of the best comedies ever made.
Cleese had another career breakthrough in 1988 with A Fish Called Wanda. For this comedy, he starred as an English barrister who gets mixed up with criminals (Jamie Lee Curtis and Kevin Kline) who are after some stolen jewels. Michael Palin also had a supporting role in the film, which Cleese co-wrote with Charles Crichton. The comedy raked in more than $200 million at the box office and earned Cleese and Crichton an Academy Award nomination for their script.
The following year, Cleese reunited with his fellow Python colleagues to say good-bye to one of their own. Graham Chapman died of cancer in a London hospital on October 4, 1989, with Cleese; Palin; Chapman's partner David Sherlock; and some of Chapman's family by his side. That December, Cleese and several other members of Python spoke at Chapman's memorial service.
In 1997, Cleese tried to recreate the success of A Fish Called Wanda in Fierce Creatures by reuniting the cast for a new comedy. Unfortunately, the film received harsh reviews and performed poorly at the box office. Cleese had better luck with other franchises, signing on in the James Bond film series as an assistant gadget expert in The World Is Not Enough (1999). In 2002's Die Another Day, he returned as Q, the chief gadget expert. He also appeared in the first two Harry Potter films as a ghost named Nearly Headless Nick.
Cleese has also enjoyed some success on American television. He won an Emmy Award in 1987 for a guest appearance on the sitcom Cheers. More recently, Cleese had a recurring role on the hit comedy Will & Grace from 2003 to 2004.
His distinctive English accent has been put to good use on several animated projects as well. In Shrek 2 (2004), Shrek the Third (2007), and Shrek Ever After (2010), Cleese voiced King Harold.
Married three times, Cleese went through a bitter divorce in 2009. His third wife, American psychotherapist Alyce Faye Eichelberger, won a roughly $20 million settlement from Cleese. He soon announced that he would go on tour to raise money to pay the alimony to his ex-wife. Cleese has two daughters, Cynthia and Camilla. Cynthia is from his marriage to Connie Booth, and Camilla is from his second marriage to Barbara Trentham.
In Recent Years
An author of several books, Cleese contributed to 2005's The Pythons: Autobiography. He also reunited with the surviving members of Monty Python for several events in 2009 to celebrate the group's fortieth anniversary. These days, Cleese works on a variety of other projects. He continues to tour and recently made a guest appearance on the comedy series Entourage.
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