Thursday, October 27, 2011

Happy Birthday John (Cleese)!

Starting Out

Graham Chapman & John with Cats

Jones, Chapman, Cleese, Idle, Gilliam, & Palin

Funny Walks

"Romance with a Double Bass" with Connie & John

Lovely Connie Booth

"Fawlty Towers"

"Almost dead," at a lively 72

This morning it is my great pleasure to to wish a happy birthday to one of my favorite English actors, comedians, writers, film producers, and lemur lovers, Monsieur Jonathan Marwood Cleese.
John had the good sense to be born on my birthday, the 27th of October, a long, long time ago, in far away, damp and musty England, in Weston-super-Mare to be exact, a sea side resort in the Unitary Authority of North Somerset, which of course is within the ceremonial county of Somerset. Weston's twin city in Germany is Hildesheim, which is near a river, but far away from the sea, so it's not really a twin now is it?!
In any case, John started his career as a small, tiny infant (picture above), and he went on to show business and all that, married the lovely American actress and comedian, Connie Booth, Monty Python... Holy Grail... That's about it really. Was Lucy Liu's dad in Charlie's Angels... and then Cameron Diaz's in "Shrek II," Cameron was also in Charlie's Angels of course, so John was involved in some sick, paternal relationship with these girls which I find disgustingly difficult to define.
Let's see... nothing much else really... tall fellow. 6' 4 3/4" by the age of 13. Freakish if you ask me. Lives in Southern California now, in Montecito, a ritzy neighborhood south of Santa Barbara where Oprah and Michael Douglas live. Crocodile Dundee. I saw Jonathan Winters in a supermarket there once. What's the matter John, Sepulveda not good enough for you!? I lived in Sepulveda. It's a perfectly good town... has a big, long boulevard named after it... Bet you drink bottled water too, don't ya?
Be that as it may, his mom, Muriel, is listed as a stay at home housewife and acrobat. Well, there's no reason to two occupations need to be mutually exclusive, now is there? I once had a girlfriend, De ette Smith, whose parents had a full blown trapeze in their backyard.
Hey, anything to pass the time, you know.
John's dad, Reginald Francis, worked in insurance sales, as did one of my step fathers. Norman, the psychotic one.
It seems the family name was Cheese, before Reginald changed it when entering the army in 1915. Probably a good move on his part.
As young John would have enough problems getting along in school due to his freakish height. Accordingly he took up boxing and cricket while at St Peter's Preparatory School, which came in handy when deflecting those who would torment him. He was also good in English studies, and displayed an early sense of humor, reportedly defacing the school grounds by painting footprints to suggest that the school's statue of Field Marshal Earl Haig had got down from his pedestal and gone to the toilet.
After leaving school, he went back there to teach science, English, geography, history, and Latin, before studying law at Downing College, Cambridge. While there he joined the Cambridge Footlights, an amateur theatrical club which grew in prominence in the 1960s for its performances of comedy and satire. That's where he met this guy named Graham Chapman, an alcoholic doctor and future bungee jumper who never practiced medicine, who wrote comedy instead. Chapman would later appear in one of my favorite films, "Yellowbeard," the story of a misunderstood pirate just trying to get along.
Both Cleese and Chapman, and a great many other future British comedians, where greatly influenced by the radio comedy, "The Goon Show," starring the legendary Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan, and Harry Secombe.
I've never heard "The Goon Show," but I certainly liked Mr. Sellers. That we have in common.
John wrote and performed in comedy programs, several of them being very successful, including one in particular which toured under the name "Cambridge Circus." When he graduated, John went on to write for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), then rejoined Cambridge Circus in 1964, which toured New Zealand and America. He remained in America after leaving Cambridge Circus, performing and doing a little journalism, and there met Terry Gilliam, an animator and strip cartoonist.
He returned to England and continued writing for the BBC, and other entities, working in a series of collaborations with some of the finest comedy writing talent in England at the time, some of whom - Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, and Chapman - eventually joined him in what would become Monty Python.
John met the wonderful American actress, Connie Booth, while in the US during the late 1960s and they married in 1968. In 1971 they would have their only child, Cynthia. Connie would appear several times on the Python show, as well as in one of my favorite short films, 1974's "Romance with a Double Bass," which I would have provided as a clip in it's entirety if it was available. But due to a few innocent scenes which may have involved a little bit of nudity (picture above), youtube doesn't have the whole film, the puritan bastards. I certainly recommend it though, if you ever come across it dear readers.
Here's a clip of the two working together in a book shop:
They would both write and star in the popular British television program, "Fawlty Towers," which oddly enough (you know how these Brits are) ran for 6 episodes in 1975, and then 6 more in 1979, for a total of just twelve episodes. Connie and John had divorced by the time the second series was produced in 1979, but they continued to work together, and remain good friends.
And despite the sparsity of episodes, the British Film Institute placed "Fawlty Towers," first on its 2000 list of the greatest British television programs of any genre ever to have been screened.
I'm impressed.
Alright, back to 1969. John and Graham 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 enjoyed working with Michael Palin, and invited him to join the series. Palin had been working with Eric Idle and Terry Jones, on a show called "Do Not Adjust Your Set" (not "The Outer Limits"), with Terry Gilliam creating the animations. Palin agreed to work with Cleese and Chapman, bringing with him Gilliam, Jones, and Idle.
There's a picture of all six of them above.
They started their own show, by golly, called "Monty Python's Flying Circus," which ran for four seasons, from October 1969 to December 1974 on BBC Television. This show would be what they probably would be best known for for the rest of their lives. It certainly influenced me, and to this day I display the remnants of a silly walk which I find quite embarrassing at times. Most of the time actually. Well see for yourself:
John and Chapman wrote together, as did Palin and Jones. Terry Gilliam provided the idiosyncratic animation... and Eric Idle mostly wrote by himself, the unsociable berk.
Each brought something different and wonderful to the show, which lasted for forty-five episodes over the four years it ran. "The Python phenomenon developed from the television series into something larger in scope and impact, spawning touring stage shows, films, numerous albums, several books and a stage musical as well as launching the members to individual stardom. The group's influence on comedy has been compared to The Beatles' influence on music." -Wikipedia
It was a sketch show, and here are some of my favorite sketches featuring Marwood:
First, the classic Norwegian Blue:
Next, a little self defense (pay attention ladies. Your virtue may depend on it):
And just for the pure sweet hell of it, probably my favorite sketch, which does not feature John, but Michael Palin. It's very short. The Seduced Milkman:
I showed this to my lovely case manager at the time, Erin, who said this about it: "Men are so easy."
She's right. We are. But I didn't get into a long conversation about how much each of the sexes invest in the reproductive process which is the standard defense against general allegations of male promiscuity. Perhaps I should have.
In any case by the time the fourth season came around John had tired of dealing with Graham's drinking, and he thought the writing had deteriorated, so he decided to leave the program.
However he remained friendly with his fellow Pythons, and began work on the second and best and most popular of their 5 films as Monty Python, 1974's "Monty Python and the Holy Grail."
It's my favorite of the 5, and the only one that Erin has ever seen so it must be good. Here's 3 clips:
A little French Taunting:
The Killer Bunny:
And the Three Questions:
"Monty Python and the Holy Grail," cost $400,000 1974 dollars to produce (a little over 1.7 million today). It earned $127,878,662 ($558,938,228.23 today). By anybody's measure the film was a huge success.
"This film is #41 on Bravo's "100 Funniest Movies". In 2000, readers of Total Film magazine voted "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" the 5th greatest comedy film of all time. The next Monty Python film, Monty Python's Life of Brian, was ranked #1. A similar poll of Channel 4 viewers in 2005 placed Holy Grail in 6th (with Life of Brian again topping the list). A 2004 poll by the UK arm of Amazon and the Internet Movie Database named "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" as the best British picture of all time."
Still the Python's didn't start seeing an appropriate amount of monetary return until the next few Python movies were produced.
John continued a very successful independent career making films, television shows, guest appearances, books, and voice work. The others continued successful careers as well, Palin and Idle appearing regularly in films, and Gilliam becoming a well respected big time Hollywood director, with films such as "Time Bandits," "Brazil," "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," and "The Brothers Grim," under his belt.
In 1981 John married again, to the American actress Barbara Trentham ("Rollerball," and "The Possession of Joel Delaney") who gave him another child, Camilla. They would divorce in 1990. He would marry once more to an American psychotherapist (he likes those American women it seems) who he divorced three years ago, and which is costing him a whole bunch of money. He should have taken heed from that song by "The Guess Who."
In 1988 John wrote and starred in "A Fish Called Wanda," with Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Kline and Michael Palin. Wanda was a commercial and critical success, and he was nominated for an Academy Award for the script. Here he introduces the film:
The next year, 1989, his long time writing partner and friend, Graham Chapman, was diagnosed with throat cancer, to which he succumbed in October, with John and Michael Palin in attendance. John made some remarks at Graham's funeral service recorded here:
Some of my other favorite appearances with Mr Cleese in film or television include: "The Avengers," the original show in 1968, "How to Irritate People," with Michael Palin, Graham Chapman, Connie Booth and Tim Brooke-Taylor, a 1987 appearance on the sit-com "Cheers," after which he won an Emmy Award for best actor in a guest starring role, "The Magic Christian," in 1969 in which he got to work with Peter Sellers, "Yellowbeard," of course, "Silverado," "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein," with Kenneth Branagh and Robert De Niro, "The Day the Earth Stood Still," a film I am somewhat intimately familiar with, his work in the James Bond and Harry Potter franchises, all of the Monty Python films, "Fierce Creatures" (although John didn't like it) and of course, "Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle."
And many, many more.
John loves lemurs. Romantically. "I adore lemurs. They're extremely gentle, well-mannered, pretty and yet great fun... I should have married one."
John's political bent is some what progressive I believe. Here he is with another of my favorite people, Keith Olbermann, on "Countdown," making fun of poor presidential candidate, John McCain on Halloween of 2008:
Here's a link to his website:
And I can't end this brief account without stating unequivocally that all of us here at Joyce's Take wish John continued good health for himself and his family, the ability to keep making money to pay his alimony, and a very happy birthday!
Happy Birthday John!

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this!
    Love that "tall fellow (6' 4 3/4" by the age of 13)" and his wit and humor