For over 30 years John Cleese has left an indelible impression as one of the most ingenious British comics since Chaplin. From Monty Python to Fawlty Towers and beyond, Cleese’s timing and developed sense of satire, remain as fresh today as they ever were. Whether he is promoting the re-release of Monty Python and the Holy Grail or his upcoming, scene-stealing performance in the farcical Rat Race, Cleese remains a unique presence – both on and off the screen – as Paul Fischer discovered when he recently met the esteemed actor.
John Cleese enters a room, slowly, deliberately, yet forcefully. Tall and equally gregarious, his sharp wit has lost none of its edge. On the eve of the re-release of Python’s Holy Grail, when asked to explain the longevity of the Python team, he rapidly responds with “avoidance of death”. But seriously, folks, Monty Python, which began it all for maestro Cleese, DID survive the sixties to transcend a generation, because “I think that sometimes you do something that makes a small group of people laugh, which is all we were trying to do; we were just trying to make each other laugh,” Cleese explains. “We thought after the [Holy Grail], it would just fade away and no one would hear a bit of it again. It is extraordinary how this somehow caught on. I can’t explain it because we never thought it would happen; it never even occurred to us”. Even following the untimely death of Graham Chapman, Cleese does recall the remaining group was “offered about $40” to do a reunion. “Actually it was Palin the bastard who pulled the plug; I can’t imagine we’d do one”.
But for Cleese in particular, there was very much life after Python. Fawlty Towers remains as popular today as it was in its heyday “for some inexplicable reason. I guess it struck a nerve”. On the big screen, Cleese has had a successful post-Python career, and prior to his role in Rat Race, joined the Bond team, confirming his participation in at least three more 007 sagas. Following the death of Desmond Llewellyn, Cleese will play Q. “Desmond was really rather wonderful. Not only nice but he’d been in a prison war camp in Germany for five years during the war and it was always rather interesting how well the Germans treated him. He was extraordinary. He wanted to have an assistant because, I suppose because, he felt that at some point he was going to have to move on. I always assumed that he would do the next two or three because he was totally confident, having no trouble with his lines. And then there was this terrible car accident. I had just talked to Desmond two weeks before the accident. He was in high spirits and determined to make as many more Bond films as he was able to. I was not brought on to the Bond films to replace Desmond but to support him, to be his assistant. I have no idea what my involvement will be in the next Bond film only that I will be involved. I don’t expect to know anything until a few weeks before they intend to film. That’s how it was with The World Is Not Enough”.
Besides Bond, Cleese manages to steal Jerry Zucker’s outrageous Rat Race. In the film, Cleese plays Las Vegas casino tycoon Donald Sinclair, who dreams up an improbable race so his biggest clients can wager on the success and failure of six different individuals. “I got to wear hideous false teeth, but I wish I could have thought of something even more outrageous to bring to the character”.
Commenting the slapstick ensemble comedy, Cleese remarks that “Rat Race reminds of me Chaplin and Keaton. They did such big comedy without actually resorting to pure shtick. They never sacrificed plot for laughs which is what Jerry Zucker impressed upon us”.
While Cleese admits he doesn’t like movies all that much, he works an awfully lot in them these days. His rationale? “It’s because of this stuff called money that you have to have … to get things with; you exchange it. It’s very hard to get on without it,” he dryly retorts. Now living with his third wife outside Los Angeles, he adds that he “enjoys being a man of leisure and an actor for hire. At my age, I want to wake up and see sunshine pouring in the windows every day. “
Later this year, Cleese will turn up in the anticipated Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, as Nearly-Headless Nick, a ghost and friend of young Harry who lives in Gryffindor Tower. “That was an awful lot of fun to do”. At a very youthful 65, the master of silly walks hasn’t lost his touch.