John Marwood Cleese (born October 27, 1939 in Weston-super-Mare, England) is a British actor and screenwriter. He is most famous for his work in Monty Python, where he often played authority figures and yelled a lot. His leaving the show before the fourth season is widely seen to be the moment when it Jumped the Shark. Beyond that, he, along with his then-wife Connie Booth, created and starred in Fawlty Towers, co-wrote and starred in A Fish Called Wanda, helped write the Superman Elseworld Superman: True Brit, made cameo appearances all over the place, and gave a rather famous eulogy to friend and fellow Python Graham Chapman.
He is the straightest Straight Man possible without having to resort to Asimo or attaching girders to one's back. Except when he's playing a raving lunatic. Although even then he manages to be the straightest raving lunatic you've ever encountered (see Basil Fawlty and Tim the Enchanter).
Long established career aside, younger generations likely know of him simply for portraying Nearly Headless Nick in the first two Harry Potter films.
He started his own YouTube channel in July 2016. The lemur species Avahi cleesei was named after him in 2005.
Live Action TV
- That Was the Week That Was (1962-1963)
- At Last the 1948 Show (1967-1968)
- Monty Python's Flying Circus (1969) (1970) (1971) (1972-1973) (1974): Many characters, but most memorably the "And now for something completely different..." presenter in black costume and the Minister of Silly Walks.
- The Avengers (1969): the episode "Look - (Stop Me If You've Heard This One) But There Were These Two Fellers".
- Fawlty Towers (1975) (1979): Basil Fawlty.
- Doctor Who: Appeared as an art gallery visitor in the episode City of Death.
- The Muppet Show: Appeared as himself in one episode.
- Cheers: Dr. Simon Finch-Royce in one episode
- 3rd Rock from the Sun: Appeared as Dr. Liam Neesam in one episode
- Romance with a Double Bass (1968)
- The Magic Christian (1969): Art expert
- Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975): Sir Lancelot, The Black Knight, the taunting French Knight, Tim the Enchanter and various minor roles.
- Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979): One of the three wise men, the Roman centurion and the head of the People's Front Of Judea.
- Time Bandits (1981): Robin Hood.
- The Great Muppet Caper (1981): Has a cameo as a stuffy British man.
- Monty Python's The Meaning of Life (1983): One of the doctors in the "Birth" and "Liver Transplant" segment, the Sex Education teacher, a French waiter
- Silverado (1985): Sheriff Langston.
- Clockwise (1986): Brian Stimpson.
- A Fish Called Wanda (1988): Archie Leach.
- An American Tail: Fievel Goes West (1991): Cat R. Waul (voice).
- Splitting Heirs (1993): Shadgrind
- Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1994): Professor Waldman
- The Jungle Book (1994) (1994): Doctor Plumford
- Fierce Creatures (1995): Dr. Rollo Lee
- The Swan Princess (1996): Jean-Bob (voice).
- George of the Jungle (1997): Ape (voice in the movie).
- James Bond: R (The World Is Not Enough, 1999), Q (Die Another Day, 2002) — same character, he just got promoted between films.
- Harry Potter (2001-2011): Nearly Headless Nick.
- Rat Race (2002): Donald Sinclair.
- Shrek 2 (2004): King Harold (voice).
- Shrek the Third (2007): King Harold (voice).
- Planet 51: Professor Kipple (voice).
- Winnie the Pooh (2011): The Narrator (voice).
- The Big Year (2011): Narrator.
- Planes (2014): Bulldog (voice).
- Arctic Dogs (2019): Otto Van Walrus (voice).
- Starship Titanic: The Bomb. (Credited as "Kim Bread".)
- Everything or Nothing: Q.
- Jade Empire: Sir Roderick Ponce von Fontlebottom the Magnificent Bastard.
- Shrek the Third (2007): King Harold (voice).
- Fable III: Jasper (voice).
- Payday 2: Aldstone the Butler (voice and likeness).
- RAID World War II: "Control".
- The Screwtape Letters: Undersecretary Screwtape (voice in an audiobook edition).
- Another Monty Python Record (1971)
- The Monty Python Matching Tie and Handkerchief (1973)
- Monty Python Live at Drury Lane (1974)
- Monty Python's Contractual Obligation Album (1980)
- A series of ads for Icelandic bank Kaupþing.note
- A series of adverts for Compaq computers in the 80's where he portrays himself as being completely uninformed about what he is advertising and computers in general and Only in It for the Money.
- He channels Basil Fawlty in this commercial for SpecSavers.
Tropes associated with him include:
- Absentee Actor: The fourth season of Monty Python's Flying Circus was done without his participation. Cleese had grown tired of the show and left to do other things. In his own opinion he felt they were repeating themselves and he was always pitted to write together with Graham Chapman who still suffered from alcoholism in those days. He tried to change the system of working with different people within the group, but the others weren't keen on that.
- Acronym and Abbreviation Overload: In Monty Python's Flying Circus an MPFC LP played by Cleese had this as the basis for a sketch IIRC.: Gentlemen, our MP saw the PM this AM and the PM wants more LSD from the PIB by tomorrow AM or PM at the latest. I told the PM's PPS that AM was NBG so tomorrow PM it is for the PM nem. con.
- Badass Mustache: It's something of a trademark of his in the post-Python years, with the exception of some appearances like A Fish Called Wanda.
"I read that South Koreans view moustaches as a relic of colonialism. I grew mine because the Romans did not allow moustaches. So I wear mine as a act of defiance against those Romans, whose Imperialist rule of Britain enslaved my ancestors for 400 years. 400!! Beat that!!!"
- Check his Twitter feed to see the badass side of this:
- The Big Guy: His height is often used as a source for his comedy. He plays authoritarian characters or is pitched against smaller comedians. One can simply quote from the Archaeology Sketch: "Because I am six-foot-five, and I eat little twerps like you for breakfast!"
- British Stuffiness: He has performed these kind of characters in many of his comedies, most notably Archie in A Fish Called Wanda.
- The Comically Serious: Basil Fawlty himself was designed with this trope in mind. John Cleese has mentioned in interviews that the guiding principle he had when designing Fawlty was that someone having something embarrassing happen to them isn't funny; someone having something embarrassing happen to them and trying to press on as though everything is normal is hilarious.
- Creator Backlash: Despite being the most famous member of Monty Python, he is the only one who grew dissatisfied with the format early, left the series after the third season because of Seasonal Rot, and to this day still thinks most of what they did could've been a whole lot better if they had more time and money to perfect some stuff. He is also the only Python who once complained to the BBC about one of their sketches he deemed too vulgar and managed to have it cut.
- Deadpan Snarker: Cleese is very well known for saying odd stuff while remaining straight-faced.
- Drill Sergeant Nasty: Due to his imposing height, Cleese is often cast as a military officer, a teacher, a principal, a manager or any kind of person with power. It allows him to command orders and shout at people, with hilarious results. He played these kind of characters a lot in Monty Python's Flying Circus, for instance in the "Self Defense Against Fresh Fruit" sketch.
- Embarrassing Last Name: Before he was born, his father changed his last name to Cleese from Cheese.
- The "Fun" in "Funeral": Both In-Universe as well as in reality. The "Undertaker" sketch in Monty Python's Flying Circus has Cleese going to an undertaker with his mother's corpse in a bag and being convinced to eat her. In an episode of Fawlty Towers a hotel guest dies and needs to be smuggled out of the hotel in all discretion, which naturally goes completely wrong. When Graham Chapman died in 1989 Cleese livened up the funeral by saying at the eulogy: "Good riddance, the free loading bastard. I hope he fries!", explaining that Chapman loved a little controversy and would have been saddened if it didn't happen at his funeral.
- Ham-to-Ham Combat: In his appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, he and Stephen indulged in this during a Big Furry Hat segment; both with hats and ham.
- I Am Very British: It may be difficult to find another British comedian who embodies all the stereotypical ideas about the Quintessential British Gentleman and Stiff Upper Lip more than Cleese. Maybe Peter Sellers could, but he's more famous as a French detective.
- Large and in Charge: Subverted. He tends to play imposing figures that are undermined in various ways. Death, the Black Knight and a Roman officer in the Monty Python films are all prime examples.
- Maurice Chevalier Accent: His French characters tend to be - for lack of a better word - outRAGEous! Seen in Monty Python's Life of Brian, Monty Python's The Meaning of Life and The Swan Princess.
- Meaningful Rename: His actual last name is "Cheese", but his father changed this to avoid other pupils laughing at him as he had experienced in his own youth. It didn't help anyway, because the others still laughed at him. Interestingly enough Cleese is very fond of his actual last name and has often referred to cheese in a lot of his comedy, including the "Cheese Shop" sketch.
- Cleese stated that since his friends in the US tend to call him "Jack", he regretted that he could not use the name "Jack Cheese", which he thought was a great name for a comedian.
- N-Word Privileges: Came under fire for calling the late Graham Chapman a poof on live radio in 2018. Whilst this was an undeniably poor choice of words, the two had an extremely close friendship and working relationship, so its doubtful that Cleese actually harbours any real homophobic prejudice.
- Only in It for the Money: Cleese has a reputation for being very intent on earning money. (His divorce settlement was very expensive and pretty much forced him to do a lot more work than most actors of his age and recognition.) Eric Idle complained a lot about this, especially because Cleese only wanted to do the post-Python projects (like the movies) if they brought in a lot of cash. Many of the films and TV sitcom appearances Cleese has done in the later years of his life have been criticized as this too. Ironically, Idle himself has gone the same route the last twenty years.
He once told me, and he won't deny this, "I'll do anything for money." So I offered him a pound to shut up, and he took it.
- "Begone" Bribe: Eric Idle on John Cleese in "The Pythons Autobiography":
- Playing Against Type: Gives what is probably his most quiet, dramatic performance in Branagh's Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Of course, it's all relative.
- Pop-Cultural Osmosis: In the USA he is best remembered for his roles in Monty Python, while in UK probably more people recognize him as Basil Fawlty in Fawlty Towers.
- Precision F-Strike: Believes that profanity has its place, but it must be handled carefully or it loses its effect. He abhors works that use it simply for the sake of being vulgar."I'd like to be the first person, at a British memorial service, to say 'fuck'."
- Production Posse: He enjoys working with Michael Palin and often goes out of his way to try and include Palin in his projects (which is why Monty Python was formed). He also enjoyed working with the cast of A Fish Called Wanda so much that he reunited them to work together on Fierce Creatures.
- Sad Clown: Like most comedians, he suffered from depression with his failed marriages. He also got tired of the Monty Python format quickly and left after three seasons. His conversations with psychiatrist Robin Skynner led to the popular books Families and How To Survive Them and Life And How To Survive It.
- Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness: In Monty Python's Flying Circus Cleese often portrays characters who use very out of the ordinary words in their every day speech.
- Silly Walk: Not the Ur-Example, since other comedians before him have had silly walks, but he could be the Trope Namer and Trope Codifier. A famous Monty Python sketch has him as the Minister of Silly Walks and he goosestepped another funny walk in the Fawlty Towers episode "The Germans". It's one of his trademarks, though he doesn't particularly like the fact that he is pigeonholed for "such a ordinary and simple joke."
- Stepford Smiler: Turned his eulogy of Graham Chapman into an irreverent roast (including the famous line "Good riddance to him, the freeloading bastard, I hope he fries"). However, those close to Cleese would later comment that he was deeply bereaved by Chapman's death, to the point where he needed to be escorted out of Chapman's hospital room by physicians when Chapman passed away. Cleese was also clear during the eulogy that the roast was what Graham would have wanted.
- Stiff Upper Lip: Talks a lot between his teeth while remaining straight-faced.
- Typecasting: He's pretty much the same in every movie. He often says "Jolly good", "Right!", "Marvelous", and "[sucks wind between teeth]...Still!". Since A Fish Called Wanda, he is also often cast in films and TV series as somewhat of a Chick Magnet.
- Working with the Ex: In Fawlty Towers Cleese plays Basil, while his then wife Connie Booth plays Polly the maid. In the first series they were still together. In the second they were divorced. Still, they did get along fine, seeing that she also co-wrote the scripts.
- Write What You Know:
- He based Basil Fawlty on a very rude hotel manager called Donald Sinclair. The other Pythons left the hotel, but John chose to stay and study Donald's behavior. He would then go on to play a hotel tycoon named Donald Sinclair in Rat Race.
- The Roman centurion from Life of Brian who corrects Brian's Gratuitous Latin rendition of "Romans go home" and then forces him to write it out a hundred times is based on his having been a Latin teacher (and going by Youtube comments, the only difference was that the teachers didn't carry swords).