John Cleese Biography
John Cleese was born on October 27, 1939, in Weston-Super-Mare, England, to Reginald Francis Cleese and Muriel Evelyn Cross.
Despite being born into a family of modest means with his father working as an insurance salesman, Cleese attended private schools to receive a good education.
He was often bullied for his height, reaching six feet by the age of twelve, but found humor to be a useful tool to deflect aggression. He loved comedy, collected jokes, and was an avid fan of the radio comedy show The Goon Show.
While John Cleese excelled in both academics and sports, his true passion was comedy. He studied law at Cambridge University but spent much of his time with the legendary Footlights group, where he wrote and performed comedy reviews with future Python Graham Chapman.
One review, in particular, toured under the name Cambridge Circus and met with great success. After graduating, Cleese wrote for the BBC before rejoining Cambridge Circus in 1964 to tour New Zealand and America. It was during this time that he met Terry Gilliam, who would become another future Python.
Returning to England, John Cleese appeared in several programs, including the BBC radio series I’m Sorry, I’ll Read That Again, where he worked alongside future Goodies Tim Brooke-Taylor, Bill Oddie, and Graeme Garden.
John Cleese also appeared briefly in the television show At Last the 1948 Show and collaborated with some of the finest comedy-writing talent in England at the time, including Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, and Chapman. These collaborations eventually led to the creation of Monty Python’s Flying Circus in 1969, a bizarre and groundbreaking blend of low farce and high-concept absurdist humor that remains influential to this day.
After three seasons of Monty Python, Cleese left the show but continued to collaborate with other members of the group on various projects, including the Python movies released in the mid-70s to early 80s. He also created the legendary television series Fawlty Towers with then-wife Connie Booth, which is still closely associated with him to this day.
John Cleese has starred in many movies including hit comedy A Fish Called Wanda, the Harry Potter series, and he also starred in James Bond films The World Is Not Enough as Q’s understudy R, and then was promoted to the position of Head of the Q branch in Die Another Day (2002) after Desmond LLewelyn had retired.
John Cleese has embarked on several tours during the late 2000s and early 2010s. In 2009 and 2010, he traveled to Scandinavia and the US with his Alimony Tour Year One and Year Two, which referred to the financial consequences of his divorce.
He extended the tour to the UK in 2011, where he visited several cities and recorded the Alimony Tour DVD during the final date in Bath.
In addition to his tours, John Cleese appeared in advertising campaigns, including The Automobile Association’s launch of a new home emergency response product and a series of radio advertisements for the Canadian insurance company Pacific Blue Cross.
He was also cast in Hunting Elephants, an Israeli heist comedy, but had to quit due to heart trouble before filming. He embarked on his first-ever cross-Canada comedy tour, entitled John Cleese: Last Time to See Me Before I Die Tour, in 2013.
Cleese returned to the stage in Dubai in November 2013 and appeared as himself in filmmaker Gracie Otto’s documentary film The Last Impresario about his friend and colleague Michael White, who produced Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Cleese’s earlier comedy production Cambridge Circus.
In 2015 and 2016, he toured with Eric Idle in North America, Canada, and the ANZUS nations in a show called John Cleese & Eric Idle: Together Again At Last . . . For The Very First Time, which included sketches, reminiscences, and audience interaction.
In 2017, John Cleese wrote Bang Bang!, a new adaptation of Georges Feydeau’s French play Monsieur Chasse!, which premiered at the Mercury Theatre in Colchester before making its American debut at the Shadowland Stages in Ellenville, New York, in 2018. He toured the UK with the production in the spring of 2020.
Alongside his career in comedy, education and learning are also important elements of John Cleese’s life. He was the Rector of the University of Saint Andrews from 1973 until 1976 and is currently a professor-at-large at Cornell University in New York. He currently lives in Santa Barbara, California, and has a daughter with Connie Booth and another daughter with his second wife, Barbara Trentham.