John Cleese was born on 27 October 1939 in Weston-super-Mare (England). Despite his humble origins, Cleese was educated at private schools. He studied law at Cambridge University, where he met Graham Chapman, a future Monty Python partner, while playing in the Footlights Dramatic Club in the early 1960s. He acted in several plays and moved to New York, where he met Terry Gilliam and Connie Booth, whom he would marry later. In 1965 he wrote and starred in I’m sorry, I’ll read that again, a BBC radio show, and The Frost Report, a satirical television show where he met Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin..
Together with these three, as well as Gilliam and Chapman, he created the Monty Python's Flying Circus in 1969. This comedy sketch show ran for 45 episodes over four series, featuring scenes that have become very popular, such as The Ministry of Silly Walks, The Funniest Joke in the World and The Dead Parrot. Two extra episodes were made for German television, Monty Python's Fliegender Zirkus.
The show ended in 1974, because John Cleese had decided to leave the show after the third series, feeling that the scripts had declined in quality. However, he remained part of the Pythons as he co-wrote and co-starred in their three films: Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979) and Monty Python's The Meaning of Life (1983).
Here is a famous scene from Holy Grail, "French Taunting":
He also took part in Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl (1982), a recorded performance of many of the Pythons' successful sketches.
Meanwhile, he played the role he is most known for: Basil Fawlty, the sharp-tongued, grumpy owner of a seaside hotel in the series called Fawlty Towers. He co-starred with Prunella Scales (as Basil’s wife, Sybil), Connie Booth (as the maid Polly) and Andrew Sachs (as the clumsy waiter Manuel). The series aired in 1975 and 1979, with only twelve episodes made in order not to compromise the quality of the show, but the episodes were so hilarious that they have had a lasting success up to now.
After that, John Cleese made a guest appearance in an episode of The Muppet Show and acted in some plays, for instance as Petruchio in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. In 1988 he wrote and played the lead part in A Fish Called Wanda. A year later, when Graham Chapman died of throat cancer, he was 'the first person ever at a British memorial service to say "fuck"', he claims.
His film career went on, most notably playing Nearly Headless Nick in the first two Harry Potter movies, ‘Q’ in two Bond movies (The World Is Not Enough and Die Another Day), and Princess Fiona’s father in Shrek 2 and Shrek the Third . More recently he appeared in some commercials, lent his voice to several computer games and even has a podcast. John Cleese is to be remembered for his use of slapstick comedy, but also of ironical and cynical humour.
Martin Cugnon & Simon Labate