John Cleese

John Cleese

Date of birth: 27-10-1939
John Cleese is one of the towering figures of British comedy, both physically and metaphorically, the respect he earned from Monty Python and for creating Fawlty Towers undimmed by the less consistent work of his later career.

Cleese was born in Weston-Super-Mare, His father, Reg, an insurance salesman had originally been called Cheese, but changed his surname when he joined the army to avoid being taunted.

John was was privately educated at St. Peter's Preparatory School; Clifton College, Bristol, and Downing College, Cambridge, where he read law and, crucially, joined the Cambridge Footlights, where he met Graham Chapman, with whom he started writing.

Although initially turned down for the troupe, he wrote for their revue in 1961, 1962 and 1963, starring in the latter two productions. It was the 1963 show, A Clump Of Plinths, that gave him and his co-stars their first break; taking the Edinburgh Fringe by storm, then transferring to the West End, Broadway, and a tour of New Zealand under the name Cambridge Circus.

After the New York run, Cleese decided to stay on in the US as an actor, with roles in such stage shows as Half A Sixpence, and trying his hand at journalism, working for Newsweek. While in America he met Terry Gilliam, who was working for a magazine called Help! (he recruited Cleese to appear in a photo-story) as well as a waitress and aspiring actress called Connie Booth, who he would marry in 1968. She gave birth to their only child, Cynthia, in 1971.

Back in Britain, Cleese was given a job as a writer with BBC radio, working on such programmes as The Dick Emery Show, and making the sketch show I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again with his Cambridge Circus co-stars. The show eventually ran from 1965 to 1974.

In 1965, Cleese and Chapman started writing for David Frost’s The Frost Report, and he also appeared on the programme, including the classic class-based sketch in which he appeared alongside Ronnies Barker and Corbett, each looking up or down on each other. Future Monty Python members Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin were also on the illustrious writing team.

Cleese and Chapman also wrote episodes of Doctor In The House, and in 1965 were invited to work with Tim Brooke-Taylor and Marty Feldman on At Last The 1948 Show – the title jokingly referring to the length of time it took the BBC to commission the programme.

In 1969, Cleese and Chapman were offered their own series. But Cleese, reluctant to take the responsibility in the light of alcoholic Chapman’s unreliable behaviour, invited Palin to join them. Since Palin was awaiting an ITV commission with Idle and Jones, they came on board, too, along with Gilliam – and so Monty Python was born as an ensemble piece.

The BBC series ran for four series, from October 1969 to December 1974, but Cleese did not take part in the final run, feeling that the troupe had reached its prime.

However, he was persuaded to return for the film Monty Python and The Holy Grail in 1975, and they subsequently made Life Of Brian and The Meaning Of Life for the big screen, too.

From 1970 to 1973 Cleese served as rector of the University of St Andrews, a role he took surprisingly seriously.

Cleese managed to follow Python with an even more enduring creation, Basil Fawlty, the rude, exasperated hotelier based on a real person, Donald Sinclair. He and Booth, who co-created the series, had been inspired by Sinclair’s bizarre antics running the Gleneagles Hotel in Torquay, where they stayed during location filming on Python – including hiding Idle’s briefcase behind a garden wall, fearing it was a bomb.

The first series began in Septmeber 1975 – but it was four years until the second appeared, due in part to Cleese and Booth’s meticulous planning of each episode. By the time the second series appeared, the couple’s marriage had failed, but they still managed to write together.

He married Barbara Trentham on February 15, 1981. Their daughter Camilla was born in 1984, but they divorced in 1990.

In 1982 he rejoined the Pythons for their Hollywood Bowl show, and masterminded the Amnesty International benefit The Secret Policeman’s Ball, persuading many of comedy’s top stars to take part. Cleese also set up a training company, Video Arts, using his comedy talents in films designed to help workers in their jobs. The company netted him and his three co-founders a total of £42million when it was sold in the late Eighties.

He also has a keen interest in psychotherapy, and has written two books with analyst Robin Skynner: Families And How To Survive Them and Life And How To Survive It.

Outside Python, his Eighties film roles include Time Bandits, Privates On Parade, Yellowbeard, Silverado, Clockwise and Eric The Viking.

In 1988 he wrote and starred in A Fish Called Wanda opposite Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Kline and Michael Palin, and was nominated for an Oscar for his script. But the long-awaited follow-up, Fierce Creatures, in 1996 was widely considered a disappointment.

In 1982, Cleese married Alyce Faye Eichelberger, his third blonde American wife, and they remain together to this day, spending most of their time on his Californian ranch.

In the Eighties, he also made party political broadcasts for the Liberal Democrats and the SDP-Liberal Alliance

In 1996, Cleese was offered the CBE, but turned it down.

Cleese’s notable guest appearances include The Muppet Show in 1978; playing Petrucio in a 1980 TV version of The Taming Of The Shrew; playing Q’s assistant in the 1999 James Bond movie The World Is Not Enough and Q himself in Die Another Day three years later.

He has also, lucratively, appeared on some of the most successful US sitcoms in recent years, with a one-off rols in Cheers; and recurring characters in Third Rock Form The Sun (playing Liam Neesam) and Will & Grace, (Lyle Finster).

He is known to a younger generation as Nearly Headless Nick in the Harry Potter films, or possibly as the voice of Princess Fiona's father, King Harold, in Shrek. And he is set to plays Chief Inspector Dreyfus in the 2009 revival of Pink Pather.

Cleese has also leant his voice to George Of The Jungle, Valiant and Charlotte’s Web, the video game Jade Empire, TomTom satellite navigation systems, and Eric Idle’s West End and Broadway Python musical Spamalot, in which he was the voice of God.

In 2005 Cleese toured New Zealand with a live show, but hopes this would spawn more performances around the world appear to have amounted to little, although he did take part in the 2006 Just For Laughs festival in Montreal.

He has both a species of lemur, Avahi cleesi, and an asteroid, 9618 Johncleese, named in his honour.

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New movie for John Cleese – and his daughter

Romcom filming in Bath this summer

John Cleese is set to star in a new film alongside his daughter Camilla and screen legend Sylvia Syms.

Camilla Cleese plays the female lead in One Night in Bath.

The Fawlty Towers legend reportedly asked producers for a role alongside Camilla and plays an aggressive businessman in the film, which co-stars stand-ups Russell Kane, Henning Wehn, TanyaLee Davis and Becky Brunning, with cameos from Tom Ward and Geoff Whiting.

Described as 'a big, expansive, feel-good romp, with a thoroughly modern twist', the plot of One Night In Bath has the main character Al meticulously planning and executing a grandiose marriage proposal to his girlfriend Lauren.

But instead of sweeping his prospective fiancé off her feet, he inadvertently engineers the worst day of her life, causing her emotional and physical trauma, public humiliation and an aeronautical near-death experience.

Russell Howard had been rumoured to be playing the male lead, but the reports have been denied by his agent. Geoff Whiting, the Bath-based booker for Mirth Control's nationwide gigs, who is acting as One Night in Bath's casting director, said he has been sounded out for the role.' 'He's been approached to be in it,' Whiting told Chortle. 'It is under consideration, he's just seen the script.'

Howard 'is keen to be involved,' co-writer and producer Chris Harris added, although he stressed that the comedian hadn't made any formal commitment.

One Night in Bath is currently scheduled to shoot in late August.

'The film is a typical boy-meets girl situation' Harris's co-writer and executive producer Jonathan Willis told the Bath Chronicle. 'The boy brings the girl to Bath. He wants to show her around and do all the wonderful things there is to do in Bath but it all goes horribly wrong.

'We’ve got a great cast.  Camilla Cleese is the female lead. We wanted someone quirky and we’d watched her doing stand-up and thought she’d be absolutely perfect.

'After casting Camilla, I got this phone call. I heard a voice say "It's John Cleese here! Is there a part for me in your film?" So we’ve got him playing an aggressive and nasty businessman. It is the first time John and his daughter have acted together, so it could be comedy gold.'

Willis co-writes and produces with Chris Harris. The director is Martin Owen, who previously helmed the horror Abducted, featuring comedian Andy Dick as a serial killer of reality stars.

Currently starring in the BBC sitcom Hold The Sunset, Cleese and his daughter have previously worked together on a so-far-unstaged musical version of A Fish Called Wanda.

Last year, Camilla was also part of a troupe that revived classic At Last The 1948 Show sketches by her father, Graham Chapman, Marty Feldman and Tim Brooke-Taylor in Chicago. She made her Edinburgh Fringe stand-up debut in 2014 in American...ish, with Cort McCowan and Sarah Tiana.

Syms made her name in films like the classic 1958 wartime drama Ice Cold In Alex, before moving into comedy, starring with Tony Hancock in The Punch and Judy Man and Sid James in The Big Job.

In 1972 she switched to sitcom with ITV's My Good Woman, in which she played a committed charity worker, alongside Leslie Crowther as her besotted husband, before returning to the channel with the comedy At Home with the Braithwaites in the noughties. More recently she has appeared in Rev and the Mighty Boosh clique film Bunny and The Bull.

Wehn will be playing a hot air balloon pilot in One Night In Bath, despite his fear of heights. 'Luckily we can shoot his scenes on the ground' Willis told the Chronicle.

- by Jay Richardson

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Published: 28 Feb 2018

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