"Look, matey, I
know a dead parrot when I see one,
and I'm looking at one right now."
a customer in a Pet Shop, Monty Python
When the Globe Theatre was
rebuilt in London, a service was offered whereby you could have your
name on a tile in the courtyard, for a donation to the project.
Cleese and fellow python Michael Palin both signed up for tiles, but
Palin's was spelled wrong. Cleese paid extra to ensure it would be
John Cleese (born 27
October 1939) is an English actor, comedian, writer and film
producer. He achieved success at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and as
a scriptwriter and performer on The Frost Report. In the late 1960s,
he co-founded Monty Python, the comedy troupe responsible for the
sketch show Monty Python's Flying Circus and the four Monty Python
films: And Now for Something Completely Different, Monty Python and
the Holy Grail, Life of Brian and The Meaning of Life.
was born in Weston-super-Mare, Somerset, England, the only child of
Reginald Francis Cleese (left), an insurance salesman, and his wife
Muriel Evelyn (née Cross). His family's surname was originally
Cheese, but his father had thought it was embarrassing and changed it
when he enlisted in the Army during World War I.
Cleese was educated at St
Peter's Preparatory School, where he received a prize for English
studies and did well at cricket and boxing. When he was 13, he was
awarded an exhibition at Clifton College, an English public school in
Bristol. He was already more than 6 feet (1.83 m) tall by then. He
allegedly defaced the school grounds, as a prank, by painting
footprints to suggest that the statue of Field Marshal Earl Haig had
got down from his plinth and gone to the toilet. Cleese played
cricket in the First XI and did well academically, passing 8 O-Levels
and 3 A-Levels in mathematics, physics, and chemistry.
could not go straight to Cambridge University as the ending of
conscription in the United Kingdom meant there were twice the usual
number of applicants for places, so he returned to his prep school
for two years to teach science, English, geography, history and Latin
(he drew on his Latin teaching experience later for a scene in Life
of Brian, in which he corrects Brian's badly written Latin graffiti).
He then took up a place he had won at Downing College, Cambridge to
read Law. He also joined the Cambridge Footlights. He recalled that
he went to the Cambridge Guildhall, where each university society had
a stall, and went up to the Footlights stall where he was asked if he
could sing or dance. He replied "no" as he was not allowed
to sing at his school because he was so bad, and if there was
anything worse than his singing it was his dancing. He was then asked
"Well, what do you do?", to which he replied, "I make
At the Footlights
theatrical club he spent a lot of time with Tim Brooke-Taylor and
Bill Oddie and 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. He was
also in the cast of the 1962 Footlights Revue Double Take!
Cleese graduated from
Cambridge in 1963 with a 2:1. Despite his successes on The Frost
Report, his father would send him cuttings from The Daily Telegraph
offering management jobs in places like Marks and Spencer.
Cleese was a scriptwriter,
as well as a cast member, for the 1963 Footlights Revue A Clump of
Plinths. The revue was so successful at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe
that it was renamed Cambridge Circus and taken to the West End in
London and then on a tour of New Zealand and Broadway, with the cast
also appearing in some of the revue's sketches on The Ed Sullivan
Show in October 1964.
After Cambridge Circus,
Cleese briefly stayed in America, performing on and Off-Broadway.
While performing in the musical Half a Sixpence, Cleese met future
Python Terry Gilliam, as well as American actress Connie Booth,
(below) whom he married on February 20th 1968.
He was soon offered work 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 were so popular that the BBC commissioned a regular series with
the same title that ran from 1965 to 1974. Cleese returned to Britain
and joined the cast. In many episodes, he is credited as "John
Otto Cleese" (according to Jem Roberts, this may have been due
to the embarrassment of his actual middle name Marwood.)
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 co-performers from I'm Sorry, I'll Read That
Again and 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. While working on The Frost Report, the
future Pythons developed the writing styles that would make their
collaboration significant. Cleese's and Chapman's sketches often
involved authority figures, some of whom were performed by Cleese,
while Jones and Palin were both infatuated with filmed scenes that
opened with idyllic countryside panoramas. Idle was one of those
charged with writing David Frost's monologue. During this period
Cleese met and befriended influential British comedian Peter Cook.
was as a performer on The Frost Report that Cleese achieved his
breakthrough on British television as a comedy actor, appearing as
the tall, patrician figure in the classic class sketch, contrasting
comically in a line-up with the shorter, middle class Ronnie Barker
and the even shorter, working class Ronnie Corbett. This series was
so popular 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). Cleese and Chapman also wrote
episodes for the first series of Doctor in the House (and later
Cleese wrote six episodes of Doctor at Large on his own in 1971).
These series were successful, and in 1969 Cleese and Chapman were
offered their very own series. However, owing 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, with Terry Gilliam creating the animations. The
four of them had, on the back of the success of Do Not Adjust Your
Set, been offered a series for Thames Television, 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.
Monty Python's Flying
Circus ran for four seasons from October 1969 to December 1974 on BBC
Television, though Cleese quit the show after the third. Cleese's two
primary characterisations were as a sophisticate and a stressed-out
loony. He portrayed the former as a series of announcers, TV show
hosts, and government officials (for example, "The Ministry of
Silly Walks"). The latter is perhaps best represented in the
"Cheese Shop" and by Cleese's Mr Praline character, the man
with a dead Norwegian Blue parrot and a menagerie of other animals
all named "Eric". He was also known for his working class
"Sergeant Major" character, who worked as a Police
Sergeant, Roman Centurion, etc. He is also seen as the opening
announcer with the now famous line "And now for something
completely different", although in its premiere in the sketch
"Man with Three Buttocks", the phrase was spoken by Eric Idle.
Along with Gilliam's
animations, Cleese's work with Graham Chapman provided Python with
its darkest and angriest moments, and many of his characters display
the seething suppressed rage that later characterised his portrayal
of Basil Fawlty.
Unlike Palin and Jones,
Cleese and Chapman actually wrote together, in the same room; Cleese
claims that their writing partnership involved his 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, and he also suggested 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 convincingly
as a variety of authority figures, such as policemen, detectives,
Nazi officers or government officialswhich he would then
proceed to undermine. Most famously, in the "Ministry of Silly
Walks" sketch (actually written by Palin and Jones), Cleese
exploits his 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
"The Argument Sketch", where Cleese plays a stone-faced
bureaucrat employed to sit behind a desk and engage people in
pointless, 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
the shorter 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 the programme lasted
four series, by the start of series 3, Cleese was growing tired of
dealing with Chapman's alcoholism. 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
three episodes of the fourth series which used material from these
sessions, 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
participated in various live performances over the years.
From 1970 to 1973, Cleese
served as rector of the University of St Andrews. His election proved
a milestone for the university, revolutionising and modernising the
post. For instance, the rector was traditionally entitled to appoint
an "Assessor", a deputy to sit in his place at important
meetings in his absence. Cleese changed this into a position for a
student, elected across campus by the student body, resulting in
direct access and representation for the student body.
Around this time, Cleese
worked with comedian Les Dawson on his sketch/stand-up show Sez Les.
The differences between the two physically (the tall, lean Cleese and
the short, stout Dawson) and socially (the public school, and then Cambridge-educated
Cleese and the working class, self-educated Mancunian Dawson) were
marked, but both worked well together from series 8 onwards until the
series ended in 1976.
Cleese achieved greater
prominence 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 three BAFTA awards when produced and in 2000,
it topped the British Film Institute's list of the 100 Greatest
British Television Programmes. The series also featured Prunella
Scales as Basil's acerbic wife Sybil, Andrew Sachs as the much abused
Spanish waiter Manuel ("... he's from Barcelona"), and
Booth as waitress Polly, the series' voice of sanity. Cleese based
Basil Fawlty on a real person, Donald Sinclair, whom he had
encountered in 1970 while the Monty Python team were staying at the
Gleneagles Hotel in Torquay while filming inserts for their
television series. Reportedly, Cleese was inspired by Sinclair's
mantra, "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 said her husband was totally misrepresented in the series. 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 was
screened from September 19th 1975 on BBC 2, initially to poor
reviews, but gained momentum when repeated on BBC 1 the following
year. Despite this, a second series did not air until 1979, by which
time Cleese's marriage to Booth had ended, but they revived their
collaboration for the second series. Fawlty Towers consisted of only
twelve episodes; Cleese and Booth both maintain that this was to
avoid compromising the quality of the series.
A Fish Called Wanda was released in 1988.
The heist-comedy film was written by John Cleese and Charles
Crichton. It was directed by Crichton and stars Cleese as Archie
Leach, Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Kline, and Michael Palin. Kline won
the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance as
Otto. Cleese and Palin won BAFTA Awards for Best Lead and Best
Supporting for their acting. Cleese received an Academy Award
nomination for Wanda's screenplay. Cynthia
Cleese starred as Leach's daughter in the film.
Both Cleese and Terry Gilliam are the only
members of Monty Python to be nominated for Oscars to date.
Coincidentally, they were both for Best Original Screenplay.
Gilliam's was for Brazil.
Graham Chapman (above) was
diagnosed with throat cancer in 1989; Cleese, Michael Palin, Peter
Cook, and Chapman's partner David Sherlock, witnessed Chapman's
death. Chapman's death occurred a 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's eulogy at
Chapman's memorial service, in which he "became the first person
ever at a British memorial service to say 'fuck'", has since
In 1996, The follow-up to A
Fish Called Wanda, Fierce Creatures, which again starred Cleese
alongside Kevin Kline, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Michael Palin was
released, but was greeted with mixed reception by critics and
audiences. Cleese has since often stated that making the second film
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."
married his third wife, American psychotherapist Alyce Faye
Eichelberger in 1992. They divorced in 2008. The divorce settlement
left Eichelberger with £12 million in finance and assets,
including £600,000 a year for seven years. Cleese said that
"What I find so unfair is that if we both died today, her
children would get much more than mine". We agree his third
marriage was a bad experience but Fierce Creatures? It's not Wanda
but we still like it.
has a passion for lemurs. Following the 1997 comedy film Fierce
Creatures, in which the ring-tailed lemur played a key role, he
hosted the 1998 BBC documentary In the Wild: Operation Lemur with
John Cleese, which tracked the progress of a reintroduction of
Black-and-white Ruffed Lemurs back into the Betampona Reserve in
Madagascar. The project had been partly funded by Cleese's donation
of the proceeds from the London premier of Fierce Creatures. Cleese
is quoted as saying, "I adore lemurs. They're extremely gentle,
well-mannered, pretty and yet great fun... I should have married
one." A newly discovered species of lemur, avahi cleesei, was
named after him.
Cleese met first wife Connie Booth in the
US during the late 1960s and the couple married in 1968. In 1971,
Booth gave birth to Cynthia Cleese, their only child. Booth made
appearances on Monty Python's Flying Circus along with Carol
Cleveland (honorary seventh member of the troup who appeared in 30 of
the 45 episodes in the series). With Booth, Cleese wrote the scripts
for and co-starred in both series of Fawlty Towers, even though the
two were actually divorced before the second series was finished and
aired. Cleese and Booth are said to have remained close friends since.
Cleese married American actress Barbara
Trentham in 1981. Their daughter Camilla, Cleese's second child, was
born in 1984. He and Trentham divorced in 1990. During this time,
Cleese moved from the United Kingdom to Los Angeles. After the end of
his third marriage he returned to the UK.
Other non-pyton roles included:
In 1985, Cleese had a small
dramatic role as a sheriff in Silverado, which had an all-star cast
that included Kevin Kline, with whom he would star with in A Fish
Called Wanda three years later. In 1986, he starred in Clockwise as
an uptight school headmaster obsessed with punctuality and constantly
getting into trouble during a journey to a headmasters' conference.
in 1980 Cleese played
Petruchio, in Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew in the BBC
Television Shakespeare series.
In 1981 he starred with
Sean Connery and Michael Palin in the Terry Gilliam-directed Time
Bandits as Robin Hood (above). He also participated in Monty Python
Live at the Hollywood Bowl (1982), and starred in The Secret
Policeman's Ball for Amnesty International.
In 1994 Cleese would play a
supporting role in Kenneth Branagh's adaptation of Mary Shelley's
Frankenstein alongside Branagh himself and Robert De Niro.
Rat Race, 2001, Cleese plays the eccentric
hotel owner Donald P. Sinclair, the name of the Torquay hotel owner
on whom he had based the character of Basil Fawlty. The inspiration
for Fawlty Towers (1975) came from a hotel stay he had with the other
Pythons in the Gleneagles Hotel in Torquay, England. The hotel
manager was called Donald Sinclair, someone Cleese considered to be
the rudest man he had ever encountered. He later played a character
by the name of Donald P. Sinclair in Rat Race (2001).
Cleese also appeared in the film The
Adventures of Pluto Nash with Eddie Murphy (2002); as Lyle Finster on
the US sitcom Will & Grace (his character's daughter, Lorraine,
was played by Minnie Driver) and The Pink Panther 2, with Steve
In 1999, Cleese appeared in
the James Bond film, The World Is Not Enough as Q's assistant
(above), 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 films, Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace and
Skyfall; in the latter film, Ben Whishaw was cast in the role of Q.
played Nearly Headless Nick in the first two Harry Potter films,
Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone (2001) and Harry Potter
and the Chamber of Secrets (2002).
Cleese provided the voice of King Harold
in Shrek 2 (2004), Shrek the Third (2007) and Shrek Forever After (2010).
3rd Rock from the Sun
- Mary Loves Scoochie: Part 1 and 2 (2001)
- Dick and the Other Guy (1998)
- Just Your Average Dick (1998)
- Stop Me if You've Heard this One... (1968)
- Simon Says (1987), he won an Emmy Award
for best actor in a guest starring role
- City of Death (1979)
- as Basil Fawlty (1975,
The Frost Report (1966)
How to Irritate People (1968) with
Michael Palin, Graham Chapman, Connie Booth and Tim Brooke-Taylor
Monty Python's Flying Circus
- writter and cast member (1969 to 1974)
The Muppet Show
- guest star (1977)
Sez Les (1971, 1974)
Wednesday 9:30 (8:30 Central)
- No Escape (2002)
- Fired (2002)
- Death Be Not Pre-Empted (2002)
- The Chinese Baby (2002)
- The Art of Groveling (2002)
- Diversity (2002)
- Pilot (2002)
- Space Invaders (2013)
- Mind Games (2012)
- The Violet Hour (1982)
- Lucifer and the Lord (1982)
- How to Get Rid of It (1982)
Will & Grace
- I Do, Oh, No, You Di-in't: Part 1 and 2 (2004)
- Flip-Flop: Part 1 and 2 (2004)
- The Accidental Tsuris (2004)
- Heart Like a Wheelchair (2003)
The Magic Christian
The Best House in London
The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer
And Now for Something Completely Different
Elementary, My Dear Watson
Romance with a Double Bass
Monty Python and the Holy Grail
Meetings, Bloody Meetings
The Strange Case of the End of
Civilization as We Know It
Monty Python's Life of Brian
The Secret Policeman's Ball
The Great Muppet Caper
Privates on Parade
Monty Python's The Meaning of Life
A Fish Called Wanda
Erik the Viking
The Big Picture
An American Tail: Fievel Goes West
Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are?
Mary Shelley's Frankenstein
Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book
The Swan Princess
The Wind in the Willows
George of the Jungle
In the Wild: Operation Lemur
The World Is Not Enough
Isn't She Great
The Magic Pudding
Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Roberto Benigni's Pinocchio
Die Another Day
The Adventures of Pluto Nash
Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle
George of the Jungle 2
Around the World in 80 Days
Man About Town
Shrek the Third
The Day the Earth Stood Still
The Pink Panther 2
Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole
Shrek Forever After
The Big Year
Winnie the Pooh
God Loves Caviar
The Last Impresario
Cleese is Provost's Visiting Professor at
Cornell University, after having been Andrew D. White
Professor-at-Large from 1999 to 2006. He makes occasional,
well-received appearances on the Cornell campus.
In 1996, Cleese declined
the British honour of Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE).
In 2004, Cleese was credited as co-writer
of a DC Comics graphic novel titled 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.
In December 1977, Cleese
appeared as a guest star on The Muppet Show. Cleese was a fan of the
show, and co-wrote much of the episode. Cleese also made a cameo
appearance in their 1981 film The Great Muppet Caper.
Cleese won the TV Times
award for Funniest Man on TV 197879.
With Robin Skynner, the
group analyst 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 The Avengers episode,
"Look- (stop me if you've heard this one) But There Were These
Two Fellers..." Dec. 4th, 1968, Cleese appears as Marcus Rugman,
an egg clown-face collector.
He also appeared in an
episode of Doctor Who in 1979. This cameo appearance as an Art Lover
in the episode City of Death was done as a favour to writer/script
editor Douglas Adams (Hitchhicker's Guide to the Galaxy).
Appeared in a series of educational short
subjects produced by the British company Video Arts designed to teach
management and trainees how to handle stress and unusual situations.
Cleese took advantage of his comic talents and portrayed events as
absurd situations so that audiences would better remember their training.
He starred in Clockwise,
for which he won the 1987 Peter Sellers Award For Comedy.
produced and acted in a number of successful business training films,
including Meetings, Bloody Meetings and More Bloody Meetings. These
were produced by his company Video Arts.
Just to see if anyone would notice, during
the early 1970s Cleese added one obviously fake film per year to his
annual filmography listing in Who's Who. For the record, these fake
films were "The Bonar Law Story" (1971), "Abbott &
Costello Meet Sir Michael Swann" (1972), "The Young Anthony
Barber" (1973) and "Confessions of a Programme Planner"
(1974). Although Cleese confessed to the gag in the 1980s, mentions
of these bogus films still appear from time to time in scholarly
works on Cleese, including the entry in the Encyclopedia of
Television, 1st ed. (1996) edited by Horace Newcomb.
When the Globe Theatre was rebuilt in
London, a service was offered whereby you could have your name on a
tile in the courtyard, for a donation to the project. Cleese and
fellow python Michael Palin both signed up for tiles, but Palin's was
spelled wrong. Cleese paid extra to ensure it would be spelled "Pallin."
Has played the father of two of the
Charlie's Angels. First he played Lucy Liu's father in Charlie's
Angels: Full Throttle (2003). The next year he played Cameron Diaz's
father in Shrek 2 (2004).