Nationality: British. Born: John Marwood Cleese in Weston-Super-Mare, 27 October 1939. Education: Attended Clifton College; studied law at Downing College, Cambridge, graduated 1963. Family: Married 1) Connie Booth, 1968 (divorced 1978), daughter: Cynthia; 2) Barbara Trentham, 1981 (divorced 1990), daughter: Camilla; 3) Alyce Faye Eichelberger, 1992. Career: 1963—appeared on stage in West End as a cast member of Cambridge Footlights
Interlude (Billington) (as TV publicist); The Best House in London (Savile); The Bliss of Mrs. Blossom (McGrath)
The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer (Billington) (as Plumer, + co-sc); The Magic Christian (McGrath) (as director in Sotheby's, + co-sc); The Statue (Amateau) (as Harry)
And Now for Something Completely Different (Macnaughton) (+ co-sc)
It's a 2 ¢ 6 ″ above the Ground World ( The Love Ban ) (Thomas)
Romance with a Double Bass (Robert Young) (as Musician Smychkov, + co-sc)
Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Gilliam and Terry Jones) (as Sir Lancelot/minor roles, + co-sc)
The Strange Case of the End of Civilisation as We Know It (McGrath—for TV) (as Arthur Sherlock Holmes, + co-sc)
Monty Python's Life of Brian ( Life of Brian ) (Terry Jones) (as Reg/minor roles, + co-sc); The Secret Policeman's Ball (Graef)
The Taming of the Shrew (Jonathan Miller—for TV) (as Petruchio)
Time Bandits (Gilliam) (as Robin Hood); The Great Muppet Caper (Henson) (as Neville)
The Secret Policeman's Other Ball (Temple); Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl (Terry Hughes and Ian MacNaughton) (various roles, + co-sc); Privates on Parade (Blakemore) (as Major Giles Flack)
Monty Python's the Meaning of Life (Terry Jones) (as Second Fish/Grim, + co-sc, co-mus); Yellowbeard (Damski) (as Blind Pew)
Silverado (Kasdan) (as Sheriff Langston)
Clockwise (Morahan) (as Brian Stimpson)
The Secret Policeman's Third Ball
A Fish Called Wanda (Charles Crichton) (as Archie Leach, + exec pr, sc)
The Big Picture (Guest) (as bartender); Erik the Viking (Terry Jones) (as Halfdan the Black)
Bullseye! (Winner) (as man on the beach in Barbados who. . . )
An American Tail: Fievel Goes West (Nibbelink and Wells—animation) (as voice of Cat R. Waul)
Splitting Heirs (Robert M. Young) (as Raoul P. Shadgrind)
Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (Branagh) (as Prof. Waldman); Rudyard Kipling's the Jungle Book ( The Jungle Book ) (Sommers) (as Dr. Plumford); The Swan Princess (Richard Rich—animation) (as voice of Jean-Bob)
Fierce Creatures (Robert M. Young) (as Rollo Lee, + co-sc, co-pr)
The Out-Of-Towners (Weisman) (as Mr. Mersault)
The World Is Not Enough (Apted) (as R); 30 years of Monty Python: A Revelation ( It's the Monty Python Story (for TV) (as himself)
Isn't She Great (Andrew Bergman) (as Henry Marcos); Quantum Project (Zanetti) (as Alexander Pentcho); The Magic Pudding (animation) (as voice of Albert the Magic Pudding); Edwurd Fudwupper Fibbed Big (animation)
Rentadick (Jim Clark) (co-sc)
The Strange Case of the End of Civilisation as We Know It , with Jack Hobbs and Joe McGrath, London, 1970.
Fawlty Towers , with Connie Booth, Volume I, London, 1977; Volume II, 1979.
Families and How to Survive Them , with Robin Skynner, London, 1983.
The Golden Skits of Wing-Commander Muriel Volestrangler, FRHS and Bar , London, 1984.
The Complete Fawlty Towers , with Connie Booth, London, 1988.
A Fish Called Wanda: The Screenplay , New York, 1988.
Life and How to Survive It , with Robin Skynner, London, 1993.
Pocket Full of Pythons , vol. 2, New York, 2000.
Interview in Time Out (London), 5 November 1982.
Interview in Interview (New York), April 1985.
Interview with Quentin Falk, in Sight and Sound (London), Spring 1988.
Interview with Allan Hunter and Philip Strick, in Films and Filming (London), October 1988.
Interview with Robert Benayoun and others, in Positif (Paris), February 1989.
Interview in Premiere (Boulder), January 1997.
Perry, George, Life of Python , London, 1983.
Johnson, Kim "Howard," The First 200 Years of Monty Python , New York, 1989.
Margolis, Jonathan, Cleese Encounters , New York, 1992.
Current Biography 1984 , New York, 1984.
Castro, Janice, "Monty Python in the Boardroom: Comic John Cleese Gets Laughs with Corporate Training Films," in Time (New York), 20 October 1986.
Gilliatt, Penelope, "Height's Delight," in New Yorker , 2 May 1988.
"This Man Is Not Fishing for Compliments," in Life (New York), September 1988.
Voss, Bristol, "John Cleese Gets Serious about Training," in Sales & Marketing Management , March 1991.
Dwyer, Paula, "John Cleese's Flying Business Circus: He's a One-Man Conglomerate and Playing It Straight—Sort Of," in Business Week , 21 June 1993.
"John Cleese," in Film Dope (Nottingham), no. 50, April 1994.
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The bulk of John Cleese's acting career featured his work as a comedian and ranged from an occasional sophisticated stage comedy to surreal, odd humor typical of British comedy linked to the radio Goon Show , the college revue, and the variety stage. Critics lauded as superior his Petruchio in the BBC TV version of The Taming of the Shrew . However, most of the actor's portraits were in original comedies, some of which he had a hand in writing. Cleese's most popular and critically successful solo performance—at least in the United States—appeared in 1988 with A Fish Called Wanda . He was the lead actor, writer, and executive producer of this movie in which he played a role close to that of the light, sophisticated male comedian of the thirties—a character with romantic possibilities with the female comedienne. As Archie Leach, a lawyer, the actor played the role of a person who realized he led a staid existence and wanted to break away from such a stuffy life.
The premise of A Fish Called Wanda tends to follow that which was sometimes used by writer-director Preston Sturges who created such witty comedies as Easy Living (1937), as a writer, and The Lady Eve (1941), as a writer-director. This Cleese vehicle uses the kind of picaresque characters that Sturges used for a broader type of comedy. The 1988 comedy features two American con-artist-robbers, Wanda, played by Jamie Lee Curtis, and Otto, enacted by Kevin Kline. These two free-spirited oddballs provide comic contrast with the conservative lawyer, Archie.
As Wanda moves in to seduce Archie, he says, before they kiss, "Sorry if I seem pompous." Cleese handles the line with even more effective understatement than he employed in all the stuffy English gentlemen he portrayed in the broad comic Monty Python and Fawlty Towers shows.
When confronted by the other con artist, Otto, the lawyer is, once more, no match when intimidated. Expansive, high-intensity comedy evolves when Otto stalks Archie to thwart any sexual encounter with Wanda. Kevin Kline, who received an Academy Award for the supporting role of Otto, enacts a foil diametrically the opposite of the lawyer. This volatile, comically explosive cross between a neo-Nazi and Mafia hit man, provides a counterpoint to Cleese's humorously impotent personality. Pushing Archie backwards on a window sill so that he dangles upside down, held only by Otto leaning on his legs, the temperamental, jealous madman demands an apology for trying to seduce Wanda. Cleese, as Archie, responds in lawyer type terms: "All right. All right. I apologize. I'm really, really sorry—unreservedly. . . . I offer a complete and utter retraction. The imputation was totally without basis."
Less than a decade earlier, broader portraits of the upper-class Englishman show Cleese as a master of depicting this type of comic figure. Critic Anthony Slide lauds the actor's enactment of a minor role in Time Bandits (1981) and views it as a lampoon of royalty: "Cleese is unquestionably the funniest man in the film, and one can only wish that his sequence had been longer. As Robin Hood, Cleese appears to have based his characterization on the present British Royal Family, patronizingly distributing wealth to the poor. 'Have you met the poor? Charming people,' he says." (Essay on Time Bandits in Magill's Cinema Annual 1982 .)
A few more examples of the variety of roles and the range of John Cleese's acting deserve a concluding survey. In Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) as Lancelot he botches a heroic rescue from the tower of a person he believes is a fair damsel. After he has hacked his way through a crowd of wedding guests, killing a multitude with his sword, he finds out that the prisoner in the tower is the groom who does not want to get married. His discovery is capped with a meek, "Sorry." As a con man and informer named Blind Pew in a swashbuckling pirate movie, Yellowbeard (1983) Cleese enacts one of his most picaresque parts. With an exaggerated claim that he has such acute hearing he can detect the pirate Yellowbeard from the rustling of his beard, he gives his pronouncements in a harsh voice, using the accent of a growling, low-class cockney. Three years later, in the 1986 Clockwise , Cleese is back playing the would-be cultured gentleman as a headmaster who is a tyrant and an unreasonable disciplinarian, barking reprimands over a public address system as he views questionable activities on a school playground. In his physical demeanor and voice this character that Cleese portrays is another authority figure lampoon. Then, ten years later, the actor creates another picaresque character. As an insane lawyer in Splitting Heirs (1993) the comedian kills a number of people "to clear the path" for the rightful heir to achieve the title of duke. When the heir finds the lawyer is responsible for the deaths, he declares, "You're mad!" With aplomb the killer jovially replies, "Well, we are all a bit mad."
While the inventory of humor in the actor's craft proves to be his vocal intonations, phrasings, and timing of responses, Cleese has a definite, unusual physical side to his comedy. In his Monty Python period he was noted for his silly walks—exaggerated, eccentric movements of his long legs. A 6¢ 4″ man, he also created funny movements when frustrated or angry by odd jumps and twists or, when playing an eccentric character, by just walking away with an erratic gait. The former was most often displayed when he portrayed Basil Fawlty in the situation comedy series Fawlty Towers . The latter is evident in Splitting Heirs , with his creation of the quirky, deranged lawyer.
In 1994 Cleese portrayed characters removed form his usual comedic personae: Dr. Waldeman in Frankenstein and Dr. Plumford in Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book , a live action cinema version of the novel. However, that same year he would contribute to the cartoon, The Swan Princess , with the voice-over portrait for a frisky frog named Jean-Bob. His most distinctive voice-over portrayal developed when he dubbed in the dialogue for a gorilla named Ape for the 1997 George of the Jungle. This amazing talking primate provides an officious counselor and cook for a handsome but dense strongman who is a live action lampoon of Tarzan. While this character has the uptight, British pretension Cleese was so famous for in the Monty Python television and film series, his advice to George sometimes lapses into the primitive mating habits of his genes.
Two other enactments reveal some of the famous officious and pretentious characters he employed in his Monty Python and Fawlty Towers days: A manager of a zoo in Fierce Creatures (1997) with the same cast as the successful film comedy, A Fish Called Wanda , and a hotel manager in a 1999 remake of the 1970 The Out of Towners , a vehicle for Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis. In the more recent version starring Steve Martin and Goldie Hawn, critics found this humorous dramatic reinstatement inferior to the original. However, some evaluators gave kudos to Cleese, who provides the most intriguing and risible moments in the movie.
John Cleese has enjoyed a rich and varied career as both a writer and actor for stage, television, and movies. His innovation as a writer obviously makes it possible for him to design parts with which he can exhibit a variety of roles and a range of acting skills. This combination of writing and acting to best show his talent was, of course, most evident in the 12 Fawlty Towers television shows and the feature movie A Fish Called Wanda .
—Donald W. McCaffrey