JOHN CLEESE was actually famous before Python, as a cast member for the very well-regarded series of comedy/satire programs starring David Frost in the mid-’60s. (5/6ths of the future Pythons wrote for Frost, but Cleese was the only on-camera personality among them.) His popularity was what caused the BBC to offer him his own show, which ultimately became Monty Python’s Flying Circus (with Cleese desiring to simply be part of the ensemble, refusing star billing, to the BBC’s confusion and disappointment.)
Then he was the first person to grow tired of Python, at least in its television incarnation, and did not participate in the final season of the show in 1974. Some members of the group were a little resentful, feeling that due to his fame and recognizability, he had the best chance of a solo career. They weren’t wrong.
Even the average non-Python fan in 2013 has a pretty good idea who John Cleese is.
Perhaps it’s his height. In Python sketches, the six-foot-four Cleese often played upper-class authority figures. Unlike Graham Chapman’s authority figures, though, Cleese’s were infused with a kind of cruel, maniacal glee that made them riveting and unsettling. Sometimes he played a very odd creation the Pythons referred to as “Mr. Praline,” always wearing a green plastic raincoat and complaining to a shopkeeper or civil servant (usually played by Michael Palin) in a clipped, nasal voice about his dead parrot or inability to purchase a fish license, always with an undercurrent of menace and suppressed rage. In both actual fact and in the audience’s mind, Cleese towered over the rest of the cast.
More likely, he’s known far and wide simply for his ubiquitousness. He’s everywhere. He has appeared in more films than the rest of the team combined (and deserves a special award for most supporting roles in terrible movies), has done hundreds of commercials for every conceivable product for the past four decades, has guest-starred in dozens of shows on British and American television (and had long-running recurring roles in several more), performed tons of voice work, and in general has been one of major faces of British comedy, streets ahead of his slightly less-recognizable Python teammates.
So let’s break down the fabulously successful solo career, shall we?
BEST PROJECT: Fawlty Towers
Series 1 broadcast on the BBC, 1976.
Series 2 broadcast on the BBC, 1979.
(To American ears, a “series” is the entire show. The Brits snootily insist on calling individual seasons “series.”)
Twelve perfect comedy jewels, produced six at a time, and then no more forever. (Actually eleven perfect comedy jewels. The show in the pilot episode hadn’t quite found its footing.) The premise of the show Cleese co-wrote and starred in is ridiculously simple: a bed and breakfast-type hotel in the English resort town of Torquay is owned and operated by one of the most monstrous comedic anti-heroes of the 20th century — Basil Fawlty. As played by Cleese, Fawlty is all of the suppressed vitriol of his Python characters finally let loose. He is a vicious-tempered, conniving misanthrope with an edge of hysteria, either sniveling or raging, depending on the social status of the poor soul forced to deal with him. He views all of his guests as colossal annoyances, unless they’re of the “better sort” who can finally bring “class” to his establishment. The cast is rounded out by his wife, Sybil, much nicer than Basil (though Basil seems terrified of her), but also not very effective at hotel management, spending most of her time gossiping on the phone. The bellboy/waiter Manuel is, as Basil frequently explains apologetically, “from Barcelona” and is a bundle of childlike naivety and incomprehension. The only competent person around seems to be the maid/waitress Polly, but she has a tendency to get sucked into Basil’s schemes against her will.
At its heart the show is pure farce — misunderstandings, racing about, slamming doors — but it also has the verbal sophistication characteristic of Cleese’s writing. If we want to get pretentious, it can also be seen as an examination of the core of the character and lifestyle of the British people, mostly viewed through the lens of their negative stereotypes: obsession with class, passive-aggressive politeness, bad food, xenophobia, and stiff-upper-lip repression. It all gets picked apart gleefully. Cleese created the show with his first wife, Connie Booth, who also played Polly (and the Witch in Holy Grail). Though they separated right as the show went into production, they kept an amicable working relationship and their co-writing partnership paid off in some of the tightest, most well-honed scripts in television history. (Each episode took six weeks to write, Cleese once boasted with justifiable pride.)
Like Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Fawlty Towers picked up a supportive American audience through frequent showings on PBS, and it is currently streaming on Amazon and Netflix.
WORTH CHECKING OUT: It kind of pained me not to name 1988’s A Fish Called Wanda “Best Project,” as it is my favorite of all the solo Pythons’ feature films. A diamond heist film full of double-crossings, oddball characters, and dark comedic mayhem, Wanda was intended to be a throwback to the Ealing Studios crime comedies that were enormously popular in 1950s Britain (The Lavender Hill Mob, The Ladykillers, etc.), Cleese went so far as to bring one of the old Ealing directors, Charles Crichton, out of retirement to helm the film. In execution, it became much more than a simple genre tribute. By combining the pacing and feel of a typical ‘80s American action comedy (complete with two American stars, Jamie Lee Curtis and Kevin Kline) with the eccentricities and absurdities of a more British-style comedy (anchored by Cleese’s leading role as an uptight barrister who gets involved with the jewel theft), you get a winner.
A special shout-out to the supporting cast. Michael Palin is outstanding as Ken, an animal-loving would-be hitman with a stutter so crippling it makes communication next to impossible. And you would think no one could out-eccentric the British from a performance standpoint, but Kevin Kline as “weapons expert” Otto manages it in a performance that’s so unhinged and off-the-wall it defies description. Even if nothing else in the film worked, it would be worth watching for Kline (and it resulted in a surprise Best Supporting Actor Oscar win).
I also greatly enjoyed Wine For The Confused, a 2004 Food Network documentary designed by Cleese to de-mystify wine drinking for the novice. He walks us through the six basic types of wine, the wine-making process, and its proper care and storage, concluding with the friendly, anti-wine snob message to “not let anyone tell you what to like.” The program also features a wine-tasting party at Cleese’s home in Santa Barbara, which is interesting mostly due to the fact that fellow Santa Barbara resident Brendan Fraser, whom Cleese evidently met while making George of the Jungle, seems to be his new best pal.
WORST PROJECT: Fierce Creatures
Released by Universal Pictures, 1997.
You can’t re-heat a souffle, the saying goes, and by gathering together the principal cast members of A Fish Called Wanda to play entirely new characters and telling a different story, Cleese attempts to do just that. He punningly called this an “equal” (as opposed to “sequel”) to Wanda, but it sadly falls far short.
The story started life decades earlier as a potential Monty Python sketch thought up by Terry Jones about a zoo that saved itself from bankruptcy by only exhibiting dangerous, bloodthirsty animals. Pretty thin stuff, even for a sketch, and Jones may not even have written it down. But Cleese mentally filed it away, and resurrected it when it came time to do another movie with the Wanda cast. (In exchange for the story idea, Cleese agreed to appear in Jones’ The Wind In The Willows, which we’ll get to in a future entry.)
The flimsy premise simply cannot support the weight of everything Cleese attempts to pile on it. There’s some toothless, obvious satire about corporate greed (Curtis and Kline play the representatives of the American mega-conglomerate that bought out Cleese’s idyllic little British zoo — complications and romance ensue), some farcical physical comedy that is stiff and creaky where Fawlty Towers and Wanda are deft and fleet, and just an overall air of desperation. The characters have none of the charm of the Wanda characters, the performances are flat, the underwhelming story clunks through various uninvolving setpieces to reach an unfunny conclusion. Nothing in the film works (with the possible exception of Palin as the insect-keeper who simply cannot stop talking — a nice twist on his Wanda character.)
And it never seemed to work, even from the get-go. Robert Young, fresh off Eric Idle’s Splitting Heirs (which we’ll also get to in a future entry) is yet another TV director who works fast and cheap (see Mel Damski in the previous entry), and over thirty minutes of the film had to be re-shot by the slightly more expensive Fred Schepisi, including an entirely new ending. If this result was an improvement, I’d hate to see what was originally concocted.
SHOULD PROBABLY AVOID: His early attempts at screenwriting. David Frost often gave his staff writers story ideas to flesh out into full screenplays. It was mostly done out of generosity, to give his writers a little money on the side, and the screenplays usually never saw the light of day. Some of them did, however. Often years later and in greatly changed form. Two of the scripts churned out by the fledgling writing team of Cleese & Chapman around 1966-67 ultimately became The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer (1970) an overlong, disjointed political satire about an opinion pollster (Peter Cook) who becomes Prime Minister, and Rentadick (1972) a spy-movie parody that ended up bad enough to inspire Cleese & Chapman to sue to have their names taken off the credits.
(Frost has a complicated history with the Pythons. They have a certain amount of affection for his open-handedness and support of new talent, but are rubbed the wrong way by his superficiality and credit-hogging. All of his shows ended with the bold credit WRITTEN BY DAVID FROST followed by a huge list of other writers whizzing by faster than the human eye could read. Eric Idle remarked that credits reading “Selected By David Frost” would have been more accurate. Peter Cook was once asked what his biggest regret in life was, and he responded “saving David Frost from drowning.”)
Admittedly, those movies are incredibly easy to avoid, but I needed something to fill the category, and most things Cleese writes are of pretty decent quality.
BONUS SECTION: Cleese’s Supporting Roles In Other People’s Terrible Movies
Yellowbeard, Bullseye!, Splitting Heirs, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, George Of The Jungle (voice only, but c’mon), The Out-Of-Towners, Isn’t She Great, Rat Race, The Adventures of Pluto Nash, Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, Scorched, Around The World In 80 Days (Jackie Chan version), The Day The Earth Stood Still, The Pink Panther 2, and likely more to come, as he got taken to the cleaners in a 2009 divorce. You can throw in his role as “Q” in the last few wretched James Bond films of the Pierce Brosnan era.
BONUS BONUS SECTION: Cleese Performances In Other People’s Projects That Were Quite Good
Released by Avco Embassy Pictures, 1981.
Directed by Terry Gilliam, from a script by Gilliam and Michael Palin.
In a time-traveling adventure film that’s already plenty of fun, Cleese is the absolute highlight as Robin Hood, kitted out in a green jerkin and tights, complete with an absurdly long feather bobbing around from the top of his exaggerated Robin Hood-type cap. The great medieval folk hero is portrayed by Cleese as a supercilious, glad-handing, exquisitely polite English gentleman. Palin’s stage directions in the script simply read “to be played like the Duke of Kent.” The Duke of Kent, then as now, is Prince Edward, cousin to Elizabeth II, and his mannerisms and speech are probably more humorously familiar to British subjects than to Americans.
Broadcast on NBC, March 5, 1987
In the days before the Emmy Awards separated guest roles from regular roles, Cleese won a Best Actor Emmy for his portrayal of Dr. Simon Finch-Royce, an acquaintance of Dr. Frasier Crane from his Rhodes scholar days. (“Dr. Simon Finch-Royce the noted marriage counselor?” “No, Dr. Simon Finch-Royce the circus geek.”) Dr. Finch-Royce is endlessly badgered throughout the episode by Diane Chambers about her mismatched relationship with Sam Malone, until he frothingly explodes into Fawltyesque apoplexia. A great performance from a classic episode, well worth a trophy.