John Cleese

John Cleese

Born in Weston-Super-Mare, Somerset, England, Cleese was raised an only child by his father, Reginald, an insurance salesman, and his mother, Muriel, an acrobat. From a young age, Cleese had developed a keen, subversive sense of humor which served him well at school, where he had trouble fitting in because of his significant height. After attending St Peter's Preparatory School as a boy, he went to Clifton College, where he was an accomplished student studying chemistry, physics and mathematics. Once he graduated from Clifton, Cleese returned to St. Peter's to teach biology for two years, before attending the University of Cambridge to study law. But he also joined The Footlights - the school's famed theatre group that specialized in satire and comedy - where he met future Monty Python members Graham Chapman and Eric Idle. Other notable members included future collaborator and infamous interviewer David Frost, future director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Trevor Nunn, and future National Lampoon editor, Tony Hendra.From 1961-63, Cleese wrote and performed material for the Footlights Revue "A Clump of Plinths" - later renamed "Cambridge Circus" - in London's West End. The revue later made the trip across the pond to the United States, where Cleese performed off-Broadway and met another future Python, Terry Gilliam, as well as his future first wife, actress-writer Connie Booth. Upon his return to England, Cleese somewhat shockingly embarked on a bright, respectable and awfully dull career at Freshfields, a venerable London law firm. But Cleese was saved by BBC producer Peter Titheridge, who signed him to a contract after having seen the young comedian perform with the Footlights. Cleese began his professional career writing for "The Dick Emery Show" (BBC, 1963-1981), then joined forces with Graham Chapman to write for "The Frost Report" (BBC, 1966), a satirical sketch program that featured many of England's best comedic talents of the day, including two more future Python members, Terry Jones and Michael Palin.Cleese deepened his collaboration with Chapman when the pair wrote their first screenplay, "The Magic Christian" (1968), an absurdist comedy about a homeless man (Ringo Starr) who's adopted by the world's richest man (Peter Sellers). After making his film debut as an actor in "The Bliss of Mrs. Bloom" (1968), Cleese starred in "How to Irritate People" (1968), a made-for-television mockumentary that featured various skits that reflected exactly what the title suggested, though the delivery was more straight-laced than what followed. "How to Irritate People" was also notable for bringing together on screen four of six future Monty Python performers - Cleese, Chapman, Michael Palin and Terry Jones. While continuing to write with Chapman for the BBC, including the pilot episode of the long-running comedy, "Doctor in the House" (ITV, 1969-1991), Cleese, Chapman, Jones, Palin, Eric Idle and American Terry Gilliam developed and starred in "Monty Python's Flying Circus" (BBC, 1969-1974) - perhaps the most notorious and irreverent series to emerge from England.Over the course of four seasons - or series as they say in England - "Monty Python's Flying Circus" put on display a number of skits, sketches and gags that were both absurdly slapstick and pointedly satirical, often skewering British culture and politics with biting intellectual vigor, hilarious over-the-top characters, and wild animation drawn by Gilliam. While all six members became noted for particular talents, it was Cleese who emerged as the show's true star - sometimes to the bitter disappointment of his cast mates behind the scenes. Each member had their specialty, with Cleese becoming known for playing officious bureaucrats, loose-limbed maniacs and foreigners - often French - with outrageous accents. Some of Cleese's better-known skits were playing "Ken Clean-Air Systems," a mongoloid boxer who does nothing but train, sleep and rub gravel in his hair; a competitor in the goofball competition "Upper Class Twit of the Year;" a disgruntled customer who tries to return a deceased Norwegian Blue in the "Dead Parrot" sketch - perhaps the most popular ever aired on the show - and as a government civil servant who demonstrates his high-legged kick on his way to work in "Ministry of Silly Walks." Though incredibly popular, particularly in America, "Ministry of Silly Walks" was ironically Cleese's least favorite sketch.During the show's run, the Pythons made their first of four features, "And Now for Something Completely Different" (1971), an ironically titled string of re-shot skits that had already aired on the show, including "Dead Parrot" and "How Not to Be Seen," in which Cleese's steady, bureaucratic voice was put to good use. Once the show ended, the comedy troupe made their second film, "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" (1974), a cult classic that put an irreverent spin on the Arthurian tales, featuring Chapman as the hapless monarch traveling across England during the Dark Ages on a quest to find the holiest of all Christian artifacts. Along the way, he meets all manner of ridiculous characters - a blood-thirsty Sir Lancelot (Cleese), the cowardly Sir Robin (Idle), a Black Knight who refuses to back down even after his arms and legs are hacked off, a killer bunny that can bite the head off a man, and the famous Knights Who Say "Ni!"Cleese enjoyed considerable success outside of Monty Python with a more conventional, but nonetheless uproarious sitcom "Fawlty Towers" (BBC-2, 1975; BBC-2, 1979), co-written with his wife, Connie Booth. Cleese portrayed Basil Fawlty, the perpetually frustrated owner of a resort inn - a sort of middle-class Ralph Kramden on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Despite the show's popularity, Cleese felt two seasons worth was all he could do with the character. Meanwhile, in 1972, Cleese ventured into business as one of the co-founders of Video Arts Ltd., a company specializing in witty training films - in which he often starred - that became the largest training film company in the world outside the United States. Following the second series of "Fawlty Towers," Cleese rejoined his mates for "Monty Python's Life of Brian" (1979), a biting, hilarious and exceedingly irreverent satire on religion that followed a young Jewish man (Chapman) born during the time of Christ (Ken Colley), who is mistaken for the messiah and hounded to death by his insistent followers. As often was the case with Monty Python, Cleese - and his five co-stars - depicted numerous characters, including the officious leader of an anti-Roman group, a Jewish high priest who is stoned to death, and a clueless Centurion in the Roman army.By the time the 1980s rolled along, Cleese was well on his way toward making a name for himself outside of Python. He starred in a number of British comedies throughout the decade - "Privates on Parade" (1982), "Yellowbeard" (1983) and "Clockwise" (1986), to name a few. He did reunite with the Pythons for one last major production, "Monty Python's The Meaning of Life" (1983), a funny, but uneven return to their sketch comedy roots that depicted a series of vignettes skewering the various stages of life - "Birth," "Growth and Learning," "Fighting Each Other," "Middle Age," "Live Organ Transplants," "The Autumn Years" and "Death." Meanwhile, Cleese become a familiar face in American television commercials and had several memorable turns in Hollywood features: "The Great Muppet Caper" (1981), "Silverado" (1985) and "The Big Picture" (1989). Perhaps his greatest film success was "A Fish Called Wanda" (1988), a blockbuster comedy directed by Ealing Studio veteran Charles Crichton and starring Cleese as an uptight British barrister, Jamie Lee Curtis as a sexy con artist, Kevin Kline as her macho boyfriend and Michael Palin as an hilariously tortured animal lover with a stutter. Having written the screenplay, Cleese also served as executive producer, and the little gem that cost slightly more than $7 million to make took in more than $200 million.Following the surprise success of "Wanda," which was aided in part with Cleese's famous dance wearing nothing but a small picture frame, he appeared alongside Eric Idle and Rick Moranis in "Splitting Heirs" (1993), a strained comedy in the Monty Python tradition which failed to deliver the requisite laughs. Cleese then co-starred in "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein" (1994), "The Swan Princess" (1996) and "The Wind in the Willows" (1996), before reuniting with his "Wanda" co-stars for "Fierce Creatures" (1997), a pleasant enough, but ultimately disappointing comedy that had no relation character- or plot-wise to their previous effort. As the new millennium approached, Cleese's presence on-screen became more widespread. He played an obnoxious hotel clerk with a penchant for women's clothes in the remake of "The Out-of-Towners" (1999), the apprentice gadget-master, R, who works alongside Q (Desmond Llewelyn) in the James Bond movie, "The World Is Not Enough" (1999), and Simon & Schuster head Dick Snyder in the Jacqueline Susann biopic, "Isn't She Great" (2000). Cleese may have initially smarted from his ratings-impaired and critically drubbed sitcom "Wednesday at 9:30 (8:30 Central)" (ABC, 2002) and an appearance in one of filmdom's biggest bombs, "The Adventures of Pluto Nash" (2002), but he managed to redeem himself with two hugely popular films - portraying Nearly Headless Nick in "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" (2002), a character that he first introduced in "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" (2001). He also assumed the role of Q after the passing of Llewelyn in "Die Another Day"(2002) - this time bringing even more of his trademark cheek and disdain to the part. The comedian's talents were woefully underused in his turn as Lucy Liu's staid father in "Charlie's Angels 2: Full Throttle" (2003). That same year, Cleese joined the cast of "Will & Grace" (NBC, 1998-2006) in a delightful recurring role as Lyle "Finney" Finster, the paramour of Karen Walker (Megan Mullally) and father of Karen's arch-nemesis (Minnie Driver). The actor also lent his haughty tones to the voice of King Harold, father of Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz), in the sequels "Shrek 2" (2004) and "Shrek the Third" (2007). Cleese and the other surviving members of the Python troupe gave their blessing to Eric Idle's Broadway production of "Spamalot," a stage musical drawn from their 1975 film "Monty Python and the Holy Grail." The 2005 debut earned rave reviews and broke box office records, and although Cleese did not appear in person, he was the only Python in the cast, as he provided the voice of God for the original production. Meanwhile, Cleese ventured more into animated features, providing voiceovers for the captured pigeon, Mercury, in "Valiant" (2005), Samuel the Sheep in "Charlotte's Web" (2006) and Dr. Glickenstein in the barely-seen, but well-reviewed "Igor" (2008). Back in the world of live action, Cleese co-starred in the major Hollywood disaster flick, "The Day the Earth Stood Still" (2008), then was confirmed to play Chief Inspector Dreyfus, the scourge and nemesis of the bumbling Inspector Clouseau (Steve Martin), in "The Pink Panther 2" (2009).