Writer and actor John Cleese has been entertaining people for more than 50 years and even at the age of 77, he shows no signs of slowing down. In April this year, the veteran entertainer revealed he was to star in a new BBC sitcom, Edith, in which he would play Phil, the ex-boyfriend of widow Edith – who will be played by Alison Steadman.
Cleese has also hit the road this autumn with a tour across the USA, where he is answering audience questions live on stage after a screening of one of his most famous films, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The tour kicked off in Easton, Pennsylvania on 19th September and is due to end in Salt Lake City, Utah on 19th November.
Cleese’s earlier dealings with the BBC included the 1970s cult series Fawlty Towers, in which he played manic hotelier Basil Fawlty. Although the show ran for only 12 episodes (starting in 1975), it was voted top of the British Film Institute’s 100 greatest British TV programmes.
The actor’s massive list of radio and TV work includes Monty Python’s Flying Circus, which was broadcast on BBC television from 1969 to 1974. It was a string of sketches in which Cleese starred alongside other regulars such as Graham Chapman, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, Eric Idle and Michael Palin. Cleese portrayed a number of regular characters and he was also the regular announcer who uttered the famous line, “And now for something completely different,” throughout the series.
His hugely successful showbusiness career started in his youth. Born in Weston-Super-Mare in 1939 to insurance salesman Reginald and his wife Muriel, Cleese’s family name was originally “Cheese” but his father changed it because he found it embarrassing!
Following his early education at St Peter’s Preparatory School, when the young Cleese excelled at English, cricket and boxing, he attended public school, Clifton College, in Bristol. Already 6ft tall at the age of 13, he was a bit of a prankster. He got into trouble for allegedly defacing the school grounds by painting footprints on the floor to suggest a statue of Field Marshal Haig had climbed off his plinth to go to the toilet!
He was an academically gifted student who passed eight O-levels and three A-levels in physics, mathematics and chemistry. He had planned on going straight to Cambridge but had to delay this for two years after National Service ended – as the number of applicants for places had doubled. Instead, Cleese spent two years teaching at his old prep school, St Peter’s.
Eventually, he took his place at Downing College Cambridge, where he studied law. The start of his career in the entertainments industry began when he joined the Cambridge Footlights theatrical group. He recalled how each university had a stall trying to attract new students to join. He approached the Footlights’ stall and was asked if he could sing or dance. When he said neither but he made people laugh, he was invited to join. This was the start of his career – he met Bill Oddie, Tim Brooke-Taylor and Graham Chapman (his future writing partner) in the Footlights club.
In 1961, Cleese wrote some material for their review, I Thought I Saw It Move and became registrar of the group in 1962. He was a cast member of the 1962 review, Double Take. He was a cast member and script writer for the 1963 review, A Clump of Plinths, which was critically acclaimed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
Cleese graduated from Cambridge in 1963 with a 2:1 degree. However, his career in show businesses had already begun, with A Clump of Plinths renamed Cambridge Circus opening in London’s West End as a result of its Edinburgh Fringe success. The show went on tour round New Zealand and then to Broadway and the cast appeared on the Ed Sullivan TV show in 1964.
Cleese later recalled that even when he became a scriptwriter and performer on The Frost Report in the late 1960s, his father still sent him job cuttings from the newspapers, suggesting he applied for jobs such as a manager in Marks and Spencer! However, his career in entertainments was already well under way and now, 50 years later, he is looking forward to his latest role in Edith, where he finds the course of true love still doesn’t run smoothly, even for senior citizens.
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