Birth Name: John Marwood Cleese
Born: October 27, 1939
Birth Place: Weston-Super-Mare, Somerset, England
John Marwood Cleese was born in Weston-Super-Mare on 27 October 1939 (his father had changed their surname to Cleese from Cheese before signing up for the army in World War 1). By all accounts, Cleese’s childhood wasn’t a perfect one. Being 6 foot tall at the age of twelve made him an easy target for bullies, and Cleese recalls that he started using humour as a way of avoiding fights.
Cleese’s father, despite a modest income as an insurance salesman, sent John to private school, first at St. Peter’s Prep School, then later to Clifton college, where Cleese was academically successful, gaining A-levels in maths, physics and chemistry, as well as being in both the football team and the cricket first XI. Like almost all of the other Pythons, Cleese discovered the humour of The Goons, and it may have been this that led him to his interest in writing sketches - indeed this interest was shown when he performed a Flanders and Swann routine in a school revue. At the same time, Cleese was aquiring another label, with a history report reporting him as engaging in "Subversive behavour at the back of the class".
In 1958, Cleese was offered a place at Downing College, Cambridge to read law (his first choice was Pembroke, and Eric Idle would recall later that he spent so much time in and around Pembroke that most of the masters thought that he was a student there). Then National Service ended and universities were flooded by students who had postponed their degree courses. This meant that Cleese could not take up his position for another two years. In the mean time Cleese returned to his old prep. school as a teacher.
When Cleese finally made it to Cambridge he immediately tried to join the Footlights, and was rebuffed. Cleese teamed up with fellow student Alan Hutchison, with whom he wrote material to the 1961 revue show I Thought I Saw It Move (headlined by David Frost). On the strength of this, both Cleese and Hutchison were admitted. It was at this audition that Cleese met Graham Chapman, and the two immediately formed (as it turned out) a very successful writing partnership. The first thing the two performed in was the revue show Double Take (after this Chapman went to St. Barts in London to continue his medical training). Cleese carried on writing and performing, and was instrumental in the phenomenally successful A Clump of Plinths ( later taken to the West End, and on tour as Cambridge Circus).
After graduating (gaining a 2:1), Cleese accepted a job at the BBC, writing for a number of pilots, as well as established shows such as the Dick Emery Show. In 1964, he rejoined Cambridge Circus, on its tour, first in New Zealand, then on Broadway. When the tour ended, Cleese stayed in New York, appearing in the play Half a Sixpence, then moving on to some serious journalism for Newsweek, playing in the American Establishment Review, and appearing in a humorous photostory for the magazine Help! (for which he was recruited by a Mr. T. Gilliam).
Returning to England, Cleese was recruited into the writing team on The Frost Report (along with 4 of the 5 other Pythons), and immediately joined up with his old Footlights writing partner Graham Chapman. Cleese also appeared in a number of sketches, including the famous “upper-middle-lower class sketch” alongside Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett. At the same time, Cleese was writing for the radio show I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again. From there he moved on to At Last the 1948 Show, Doctor in the House and Marty Feldman’s Marty. Then Barry Took assembled the Python team for their own series. Although it was an open secret that it was a vehicle for Cleese, it became obvious very quickly that the Flying Circus was an ensemble show. By 1973, Cleese had become disenchanted with Monty Python and left. The rest of Pythons carried on with their fourth and last series, but it was clear that without one, the whole suffered.
After Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Cleese’s next project secured his place in the hall of comedy greats, when in 1975, the first episode of Cleese’s (and wife Connie Booth’s) sitcom Fawlty Towers was broadcast. Although only 12 were ever made, inspired scenes such as the unforgettable “Don’t mention the war” scene, from the episode “The Germans”, means that Fawlty Towers remains as hilarious today as it did was first seen. However, Fawlty Towers also proved to be something of a problem for Cleese, as he spent many years trying to live down the Basil Fawlty image.
Cleese then went on to work on a wide range of projects, such as the western Silverado (for which he had to take riding lessons), Privates on Parade and Clockwise, along with Terry Gilliam's Time Bandits (playing a foppish Robin Hood) and Yellowbeard (starring Graham Chapman) before finally managing to shake off his Basil Fawlty image with the 1988 hit film A Fish Called Wanda. He has since gone on to other things, from the Muppet Show and Doctor Who, to a talking gorilla in George of the Jungle, Splitting Heirs (with Eric Idle), and Kenneth Brannagh’s Frankenstein, even taking part in a party political broadcast for the Liberal Democrat party. The follow up film to A Fish Called Wanda - named Fierce Creatures, came in 1997, although it did not do so well at the box office. Cleese has also written two very successful self-help books - Families and How to Survive Them, and its follow-up Life and How to Survive It.
More recently, Cleese can be seen as Nearly Headless Nick in the Harry Potter movies. And of course Cleese also appears in a white coat in the James Bond film Die another Day, a role he started in The World Is Not Enough where he took over the mantle of Q from legendary Bond actor Desmond Llewellyn. Cleese can also be heard lending his voice to King Harold in Shrek 2 and 3, a pigeon in Disney's Valiant, and Samuel in Charlottes Webb as well as God in the Python musical Spamalot.