Unusually he doesn't hide his lack of a Judo-Christian work ethic behind any facade of "working on a script" or other "busy behind the scenes" nonsense so beloved by the moneyed classes. He perhaps got this from his father, "who never worked after 3.30 PM in his whole life."
Testimonials to Cleese's ability to make people laugh make impressive reading: He was reputed to be Elvis's favourite comedian (after Peter Sellers), watching favourite Monty Python tapes over-and-over again right up until his premature death. Jay Leno (the American chat show giant) recently told a reporter that his Fawlty Towers (in which he played the mad hotelier Basil Fawlty) was the best situation comedy ever. Even ex-president George Bush used to relax from the day-to-day worries of running the Western World by watching his videos.
Cleese gets his dark hair, square jaw and enormous height from his father, Reginald Francis Cheese (he changed his name to avoid teasing in the army), whose provincial life (in the seaside resort of Weston-super-Mare) and good insurance job brought in enough money for Cleese Jnr to attend private schools.
An only child born late in his parents life he was a little bookish, but enjoyed sport and even played soccer and cricket to a modest level. Most people that knew him in his early life describe him as a loner and someone that - despite his large frame - was capable of being bullied.
Generally well liked and well behaved he graduated with high marks and later went on to Cambridge (a byword for academic excellence in the UK) where he studied law. For a would-be comic this was to prove his lucky break.
Generally leaning towards the left of the political scale (if only mildly), he was sceptical of Cambridge life ("they are trying to get you addicted to luxury and privilege" said writer Clive James) with its passed-down-the-generations traditions (some of which were like Monty Python sketches in themselves) and only joined the footlights theatre group with reluctance.
Lacking in musical or dancing skills, the best he could offer was his writer/performer humour, that often involved mocking the very pillars of the establishment that he, as a student at one of the countries leading institutions, would soon be expected to join.
Cleese had secretly been writing barbed sketches and reviews (for his own pleasure) since he was a child. One of his first know efforts was a rambling attack on Churchill. He has a childlike love of silly names and to this day he books tables at restaurants under stupid and unlikely names. Even today his humour can turn puerile, although he likes to deny it.
At Cambridge he would link up with his closest friend (and future writing partner) Graham Chapman (then studying medicine - he later qualified as a doctor), the only person outside of his own immediate family that he ever felt especially close to. Chapman's death in 1985 (of spinal cancer) hit Cleese hard (he was at his bedside when he died) and his reading at his memorial was both touching, and through clever role reversal (putting Chapman down in large doses and dwelling on supposed negatives), funny.
Chapman is an example of how seductive and dangerous show biz success and the resulting privileges can be. A clever and thoughtful man, who could have become anything he wanted in medicine, who got caught up in a show biz whirlwind of tinsel and facade. An out-of-the-closet homosexual and natural party animal, his life (when left unaided by fellow Pythons) became one long round of drinking, silly friends and hangovers.
Outside the Pythons he found little success and without them he would have almost certainly have been broke. Such was his reputation with the bottle that he could only get small film roles, such as a nancy boy photographer, in second rate British film comedies. Thankfully he "dried out" in the later life.
Cleese performed for a several years with the Cambridge Footlights, whose sketches, songs and monologues were of a high enough standard to play outside of the university and go on tour. Even getting as far as the USA. Many of those involved later became well known performers in the UK, but non to the level of Cleese.
With a job at the BBC - as a writer/producer - in the bag (he was originally going to work in a merchant bank) he started to doing jobbing work in both radio and television - with a stronger emphasis on radio where average material could be made funny by the use of silly voices and an easily-pleased audience. Cleese later boasted he wrote the material in one or two days - and then took the rest of the week off.
Despite the job title he did no actual producing at the BBC and Cleese explains his appointment as "the BBC suddenly realising they had no producers under 45 and deciding to do something about it."
While writing and performing sketches for David Frost's "The Frost Report" (that was a hard-to-describe mix of debate, satire and sketches which is noted for being "ground breaking TV") he started to be noticed as a rising star. He often played the authority or government figure rather than the clown.
The birth of Monty Python is disputed between the various members, but the most credible explanation was that, in late 1969, Cleese put out feelers to Michael Palin and Terry Jones who had just worked together on a TV show called "The Complete And Utter History of Britain." He more-or-less invited them to join the Cleese/Chapman writing axis in a new (and then unnamed) sketch based show. The American Terry Gilliam (who Cleese had met in the USA when Gilliam worked for Help! magazine) and Eric Idle were later brought in by producer Barry Took (a languid man with a decidedly non Python outlook on life), with the agreement of the other four.
Other variations of the story have been put forward (sometimes for comic effect), but it is pretty clear that the main appeal to the BBC was the participation of "rising star" Cleese.
Certainly he became a kind of chairman figure, holding the group together and dealing with BBC producers (who were often baffled by the groups ideas) in his "authority voice." As Palin once admitted, the Pythons may have been too anarchist to accept someone as their leader, but Cleese became the closet thing they had to a chairman.
This is the secret of Cleese success both infront of and behind the scenes: to be both the craziest of crazies at one moment and the most sane and down to earth person the next. He credits Palin as being the only really spontaneously funny member of the group, "I am no good without a script," he will often tell TV interviewers.
Palin himself thinks that Cleese was a huge loss to the legal profession: "I'm sure that quick tongue and that manic stare would have won many a case for him." Says Palin today. Certainly the only benefit the tax payer saw for his expensive legal training was a couple of ten minute court scenes in Monty Python.
(C) Peter Hayes 2003