At 84 years old, John Cleese has this physical status:
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, whom he married on 20 February 1968. At their wedding at a Unitarian Church in Manhattan, the couple attempted to ensure an absence of any theistic language. "The only moment of disappointment," Cleese recalled, "came at the very end of the service when I discovered that I'd failed to excise one particular mention of the word 'God.'" Later, Booth became a writing partner. 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).
Also 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 went 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, eventually collaborating with Cook on several projects and forming a close friendship that lasted until Cook's death in 1995.
It was as a performer on The Frost Report that Cleese achieved his breakthrough on British television as a comedy actor, appearing as the tall, upper class patrician figure in the classic "Class" sketch (screened on 7 April 1966), contrasting comically in a line-up with the shorter, middle class Ronnie Barker and the even shorter, working class Ronnie Corbett. The British Film Institute commented, "Its twinning of height and social position, combined with a minimal script, created a classic TV moment." 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 series 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 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. Cleese also appeared during some abrupt scene changes as a radio commentator (usually outfitted in a dinner suit) where, in a rather pompous manner, he would make the formal and determined announcement "And now for something completely different", which later became the title of the first Monty Python film.
Partnership with Graham Chapman
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 wrote together in the same room; Cleese claims that their writing partnership involved him doing most of the work, while Chapman sat back, not speaking for long periods before suddenly coming out with an idea that often elevated the sketch to a new 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 intimidating height allowed him to appear convincingly as a variety of authority figures, such as policemen, detectives, Nazi officers or government officials, which he then proceeded to undermine. In the "Ministry of Silly Walks" sketch (written by Palin and Jones), for example, Cleese exploits his stature as the crane-legged civil servant performing a grotesquely elaborate walk to his office. On the Silly Walks sketch, Ben Beaumont-Thomas in The Guardian writes, "Cleese is utterly deadpan as he takes the stereotypical bowler-hatted political drone and ruthlessly skewers him. All the self-importance, bureaucratic inefficiency and laughable circuitousness of Whitehall is summed up in one balletic extension of his slender leg."
Chapman and Cleese also specialised in sketches wherein two characters conducted highly articulate arguments over completely arbitrary subjects, such as in the "cheese shop", the "dead parrot" sketch and "Argument Clinic", 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 Flying Circus 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. 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. He remained friendly with the group, and all six began writing Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Much of his work on Holy Grail remains widely quoted, including the Black Knight scene. Cleese returned to the troupe to co-write and co-star in two further Monty Python films, Monty Python's Life of Brian and Monty Python's The Meaning of Life. His attack on Roman rule in Life of Brian–when he asks "What have the Romans ever done for us?", before being met with a string of benefits including sanitation, roads and public order–was ranked the seventh funniest line in film in a 2002 poll. Since the last Python film (Meaning of Life in 1983) Cleese has participated in various live performances with the group 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 the Cambridge-educated Cleese vs. 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 appeared on a single, "Superspike", with Bill Oddie and a group of UK athletes, billed the "Superspike Squad", to fund the latter's attendance at the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal.
Cleese starred in the low-budget spoof of the Sherlock Holmes detective series The Strange Case of the End of Civilization as We Know It (1977) as the grandson of the world's greatest consulting detective. In December 1977, Cleese appeared as a guest star on The Muppet Show. Ranked one of the best guest stars to appear on the show, Cleese was a fan of The Muppet Show and co-wrote much of the episode. In it he is "kidnapped" before the show begins, complains about the number of pigs, and gets roped into doing a closing number with Kermit the Frog, Sweetums, pigs, chickens and monsters. Cleese also made a cameo appearance in their 1981 film The Great Muppet Caper and won the TV Times award for Funniest Man on TV – 1978–79. In 1979, he starred in a TV special, To Norway, Home of Giants, produced by Johnny Bergh.
Throughout the 1970s, Cleese also 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.
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. In a 2001 poll conducted by Channel 4 Basil Fawlty was ranked second (behind Homer Simpson) on their list of the 100 Greatest TV Characters. The series also featured Prunella Scales as Basil's acerbic wife Sybil, Andrew Sachs as the much abused Spanish waiter Manuel, 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 he dared to ask the time of the next bus to town.
The first series was screened from 19 September 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 two seasons, each of only six episodes; Cleese and Booth both maintain that this was to avoid compromising the quality of the series. The popularity of Fawlty Towers has endured, and in addition to featuring high in greatest-ever television show polls it is often rebroadcast. In a 2002 poll, Basil's "don't mention the war" comment (said to the waitress Polly about the German guests) was ranked the second funniest line in television.
During the 1980s and 1990s, Cleese focused on film, though he did work with Peter Cook in his one-off TV special Peter Cook and Co. in 1980. In the same year, Cleese played Petruchio, in Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew in the BBC Television Shakespeare series. In 1981 he appeared in the Terry Gilliam-directed Time Bandits as Robin Hood. He also participated in Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl (filmed 1980, released 1982) and starred in The Secret Policeman's Ball for Amnesty International. In 1985, Cleese had a small dramatic role as a sheriff in the American Western Silverado, which had an all-star cast that included Kevin Kline, with whom he starred in A Fish Called Wanda three years later. In 1986, he starred in the British comedy film Clockwise as an uptight school headmaster obsessed with punctuality and constantly getting into trouble during a journey to speak at the Headmasters' Conference. Written by Michael Frayn, the film was successful in the UK but not in the United States. It earned Cleese the 1987 Peter Sellers Award For Comedy at the Evening Standard British Film Awards.
In 1988, Cleese wrote and starred in A Fish Called Wanda as the lead, Archie Leach, along with Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Kline, and Michael Palin. Wanda was a commercial and critical success, becoming one of the top ten films of the year at the US box office, and Cleese was nominated for an Academy Award for his script. Kline won the Oscar for his portrayal of bumbling, violent, narcissistic ex-CIA agent Otto West in the film.
In 1989, Graham Chapman was diagnosed with throat cancer; 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 that it was "the worst case of party-pooping in all history." Cleese gave a eulogy at Chapman's memorial service.
Cleese later played a supporting role in Kenneth Branagh's adaptation of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1994) alongside Branagh himself and Robert De Niro. With Robin Skynner, the English psychiatrist, 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.
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 in 1997, 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."
In 1999, Cleese appeared in the James Bond film The World Is Not Enough as Q's assistant, 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.
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 2001, Cleese was cast in the comedy Rat Race as the eccentric hotel owner Donald P. Sinclair, the name of the Torquay hotel owner on whom he had based the character of Basil Fawlty. That year he appeared as Nearly Headless Nick in the first Harry Potter film: Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (2001), a role he would reprise in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002). In 2002, Cleese made a cameo appearance in the film The Adventures of Pluto Nash, in which he played "James", a computerised chauffeur of a hover car stolen by the title character (played by Eddie Murphy). The vehicle is subsequently destroyed in a chase, leaving the chauffeur stranded in a remote place on the moon. In 2003, Cleese appeared as Lyle Finster on the US sitcom Will & Grace. His character's daughter, Lorraine, was played by Minnie Driver. In the series, Lyle Finster briefly marries Karen Walker (Megan Mullally). 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 on a farm in Britain, not America.
From 10 November to 9 December 2005, Cleese toured New Zealand with his stage show John Cleese—His Life, Times and Current Medical Problems. Cleese described it as "a one-man show with several people in it, which pushes the envelope of acceptable behaviour in new and disgusting ways". The show was developed in New York City with William Goldman and includes Cleese's daughter Camilla as a writer and actor (the shows were directed by Australian Bille Brown). His assistant of many years, Garry Scott-Irvine, also appeared and was listed as a co-producer. The show then played in universities in California and Arizona from 10 January to 25 March 2006 under the title Seven Ways to Skin an Ocelot. His voice can be downloaded for directional guidance purposes as a downloadable option on some personal GPS-navigation device models by company TomTom.
In a 2005 poll of comedians and comedy insiders, The Comedians' Comedian, Cleese was voted second to Peter Cook. In 2006, Cleese hosted a television special of football's greatest kicks, goals, saves, bloopers, plays, and penalties, as well as football's influence on culture (including the Monty Python sketch "Philosophy Football"), featuring interviews with pop culture icons Dave Stewart, Dennis Hopper, and Henry Kissinger, as well as eminent footballers, including Pelé, Mia Hamm, and Thierry Henry. The Art of Soccer with John Cleese was released in North America on DVD in January 2009 by BFS Entertainment & Multimedia. Also in 2006, Cleese released the song "Don't Mention the World Cup".
Cleese lent his voice to the BioWare video game Jade Empire. His role was that of an "outlander" named Sir Roderick Ponce von Fontlebottom the Magnificent Bastard, stranded in the Imperial City of the Jade Empire. His character is essentially a British colonialist stereotype who refers to the people of the Jade Empire as "savages in need of enlightenment". His armour has the design of a fork stuck in a piece of cheese. In 2007, Cleese appeared in ads for Titleist as a golf course designer named "Ian MacCallister", who represents "Golf Designers Against Distance". Also in 2007, he was involved in filming of the sequel to The Pink Panther, titled The Pink Panther 2, with Steve Martin and Aishwarya Rai.
Cleese collaborated with Los Angeles Guitar Quartet member William Kanengiser in 2008 on the text to the performance piece "The Ingenious Gentleman of La Mancha". Cleese, as narrator, and the LAGQ premiered the work in Santa Barbara. The year 2008 also saw reports of Cleese working on a musical version of A Fish Called Wanda with his daughter Camilla.
At the end of March 2009, Cleese published his first article as "Contributing Editor" to The Spectator: "The real reason I had to join The Spectator". Cleese has also hosted comedy galas at the Montreal Just for Laughs comedy festival in 2006, and again in 2009. Towards the end of 2009 and into 2010, Cleese appeared in a series of television adverts for the Norwegian electric goods shop chain Elkjøp. In March 2010 it was announced that Cleese would be playing Jasper in the video game Fable III.
In 2009 and 2010, Cleese toured Scandinavia and the US with his Alimony Tour Year One and Year Two. In May 2010, it was announced that this tour, set for May 2011, would extend to the UK (his first tour there). The show is dubbed the "Alimony Tour" in reference to the financial implications of Cleese's divorce. The UK tour started in Cambridge on 3 May, visiting Birmingham, Nottingham, Salford, York, Liverpool, Leeds, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Oxford, Bristol and Bath (the Alimony Tour DVD was recorded on 2 July, the final Bath date). Later in 2011 John took his Alimony Tour to South Africa. He played Cape Town on the 21 & 22 October before moving over to Johannesburg, where he played from 25 to 30 October. In January 2012 he took his one-man show to Australia, starting in Perth on 22 January and throughout the next four months visited Adelaide, Brisbane, Gold Coast, Newcastle, New South Wales, Melbourne, Sydney, and finished up during April in Canberra.
In October 2010, Cleese was featured in the launch of an advertising campaign by The Automobile Association for a new home emergency response product. He appeared as a man who believed the AA could not help him during a series of disasters, including water pouring through his ceiling, with the line "The AA? For faulty showers?" During 2010, Cleese appeared in a series of radio advertisements for the Canadian insurance company Pacific Blue Cross, in which he plays a character called "Dr. Nigel Bilkington, Chief of Medicine for American General Hospital".
In 2012, Cleese was cast in Hunting Elephants, a heist comedy by Israeli filmmaker Reshef Levi. Cleese had to quit just prior to filming due to heart trouble and was replaced by Patrick Stewart. Between September and October 2013, Cleese embarked on his first-ever cross-Canada comedy tour. Entitled "John Cleese: Last Time to See Me Before I Die tour", he visited Halifax, Ottawa, Toronto, Edmonton, Calgary, Victoria and finished in Vancouver, performing to mostly sold-out venues. Cleese returned to the stage in Dubai in November 2013, where he performed to a sold-out theatre.
Cleese was interviewed and appears as himself in filmmaker Gracie Otto's 2013 documentary film The Last Impresario, about Cleese's longtime friend and colleague Michael White. White produced Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Cleese's pre-Python comedy production Cambridge Circus. At a comic press conference in November 2013, Cleese and other surviving members of the Monty Python comedy group announced a reuniting performance to be held in July 2014.
Cleese joined with Eric Idle in 2015 and 2016 for a tour of North America, Canada and the ANZUS nations, "John Cleese & Eric Idle: Together Again At Last . . . For The Very First Time," playing small theatres and including interaction with audiences as well as sketches and reminisces. In a Reddit Ask Me Anything interview, Cleese expressed regret that he had turned down the role played by Robin Williams in The Birdcage, the butler played by Anthony Hopkins in The Remains of the Day, and the clergyman played by Peter Cook in The Princess Bride.
In 2017, he wrote Bang Bang! a new adaptation of Georges Feydeau's French play Monsieur Chasse! for the Mercury Theatre, Colchester, before making its American premiere at the Shadowland Stages in Ellenville, New York in 2018 followed by touring the UK in spring 2020.
In 2021, Cleese cancelled an appearance at Cambridge University after learning that art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon had been blacklisted by the student union for impersonating Adolf Hitler. His visit to the university was intended to be part of a documentary on wokeism. Cleese said he was "blacklisting myself before someone else does".
In April 2022, he was cast in Roman Polanski's upcoming drama film The Palace. In October, it was announced that Cleese will present a news show on GB News in 2023, alongside Andrew Doyle. He said he wanted to promote "proper argument".