John Cleese

Active - 1957 - 2020  |   Born - Oct 27, 1939 in Weston-super-Mare, England  |   Genres - Comedy

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Biography by Rebecca Flint Marx

An instigator of some of the more groundbreaking developments in twentieth-century comedy, John Cleese is one of Britain's best-known actors, writers, and comedians. Famous primarily for his comic efforts, such as the television series Fawlty Towers and the exploits of the Monty Python troupe, he has also become a well-respected actor in his own right.

Born John Marwood Cleese (after his family changed their surname from "Cheese") on October 27, 1939, Cleese grew up in the middle-class seaside resort town of Weston-Super-Mare. He enrolled at Cambridge University with the intention of studying law, but soon discovered that his comic leanings held greater sway than his interest in the law. He joined the celebrated Cambridge Footlights Society--he was initially rejected because he could neither sing nor dance, but was accepted after collaborating with a friend on some comedy sketches--where he gained a reputation as a team player and met future writing partner and Python Graham Chapman.

Cleese entered professional comedy with a writing stint on David Frost's The Frost Report in 1966. While working for that BBC show, he and Chapman (who was also writing for the show) met fellow Frost Report writers Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin. Continuing his writing collaboration with Chapman (with whom he wrote the 1969 Ringo Starr/Peter Sellers vehicle The Magic Christian), Cleese soon was working on what would become Monty Python's Flying Circus with Chapman, Idle, Jones, Palin, and Terry Gilliam. The show, which first aired in 1969, was an iconoclastic look at British society: its genius lay in its seemingly random, bizarre take on the mundane facets of everyday life, from Spam to pet shops to the simple act of walking. Cleese stayed with Monty Python for three series; after he left, he reunited with his fellow Pythons for three movies. The first, Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1974), was a revisionist take on the Arthurian legend that featured Cleese as (among other things) the Black Knight, who refuses to end his duel with King Arthur even after losing his arms and legs. Life of Brian followed in 1979; a look at one of history's lesser-known messiahs, it featured lepers, space aliens, and condemned martyrs singing a rousing version of "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" while hanging from their crucifixes. The Pythons' third outing, the 1983 Monty Python's the Meaning of Life, was a series of increasingly outrageous vignettes, including one about the explosion of a stupendously obese man and another featuring a dinner party with Death.

In addition to his work with the Pythons, Cleese, along with first wife Connie Booth, created the popular television series Fawlty Towers in 1975. It ran for a number of years, during which time Cleese also continued to make movies. Throughout the 1980s, he showed up in films ranging from The Great Muppet Caper (1981) to Privates on Parade (1982) to Silverado (1985), which cast him as an Old West villain. In 1988, Cleese struck gold with A Fish Called Wanda, which he wrote, produced, and starred in. An intoxicating farce, the film won both commercial and critical success, earning Cleese a British Academy Award and an Oscar nomination for his screenplay, and an Oscar for co-star Kevin Kline. Cleese continued to work steadily through the 1990s, appearing in Splitting Heirs (1993) with Idle, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1994), The Wind in the Willows (1997) and George of the Jungle (1997). Fierce Creatures, his 1997 sequel to A Fish Called Wanda, proved a disappointment, but Cleese maintained his visibility, reuniting with the surviving Pythons on occasion and starring in The Out-of-Towners and The World is Not Enough, the nineteenth Bond outing, in 1999.

As the new century got underway, Cleese wrote and hosted a documentary series about the human face, and he took a small but recurring role in the Harry Potter film series. In 2002 he appeared in the infamous Eddie Murphy turkey The Adventures of Pluto Nash, and showed up in another Bond film. In 2007 he was cast to voice the role of Fiona's father in Shrek 2, leading to a series of appearances for him in other animated films such as Igor, Planet 51, and Winnie the Pooh. He also appeared opposite Steve Martin in 2009's The Pink Panther 2.

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  • Family name was originally Cheese but his father changed it in 1915 to Cleese upon joining the Army.
  • Taught biology for two years at a preparatory school before attending Cambridge to study law.
  • Performed with the Cambridge Footlights comedy group where he met future Monty Python members Graham Chapman and Eric Idle.
  • Wrote and performed in the comedy revue Cambridge Circus, which played off-Broadway in New York.
  • Professional writing career began with The Dick Emery Show in 1963; later wrote for the satirical sketch show The Frost Report, which also featured Terry Jones and Michael Palin.
  • Cofounded Monty Python's Flying Circus in 1969; cowrote and appeared in the group's BBC series and their films, including Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Life of Brian.
  • Costarred and cowrote the sitcom Fawlty Towers.
  • Earned a 1988 Oscar nomination for writing A Fish Called Wanda.
  • Wrote several books, including Families and How to Survive Them.
  • Appeared as Q in two James Bond movies; was Nearly Headless Nick in the Harry Potter films.
  • Has worked to save endangered lemurs and had a new species of lemur named for him.
  • Served as a professor of comedy at Cornell University in New York.