In the first two parts of this series we looked back at the early life of John Cleese and the formation of Monty Python. In this concluding part we will look at Cleese the businessman and Cleese the private man.

The one thing that we can safely say about John Cleese is that he likes life at a steady pace. A reading of his complete credits makes reasonable reading - but it has to be placed against the fact that he graduated in to showbiz in 1962 (on leaving college), and despite some small twists and turns, he has never really left the writer/performer track.

His early writing life was very busy knocking out sketches for minor British comics and sitcoms at a rate fast enough to keep him in house and home. Unlike the situation in the USA, UK TV writers are not particularly well paid (now or then) and while he was not starving in a garret, he was living the life of small flats and second hand cars.

When success came along he took it with both hands and has no embarrassment about driving big cars, living in large houses and taking long expensive holidays. Equally the public do not seem to resent his liking for all things big - a man of six foot five cannot really be expected to drive small cars anyway.

Like the other great living "comedy genius" Woody Allen he eats out a lot and enjoys a lot of winning and dining from people who want to curry his favours - mostly without overall success. When Allen and Cleese were in the same location - at a party in New YorK - Cleese's height and baring seem to scare Allen in to embarrassed near silence.

Like many comedians he likes to present a serious side to himself and has even written books (with friend and analyst Robin Skynner) on family life and some of its pitfalls. While not big sellers or money makers (compared to his other ventures) it seems to bring Cleese some equilibrium.

Naturally a man that has gone through two divorces writing a book called "Families and How To Survive Them" leads to as many obvious jokes as the much-divorced Tammy Wynette singing about "standing by her man." However Cleese doesn't take such comment lying down, claiming that marriages are "not failures because they end in divorce rather than the grave" - which come across as more legal speak (Cleese qualified as a barrister - a form of English lawyer) than common-sense.

Many say that Cleese forms temporary families for his own comfort and support, and when they have served their purpose - discards them. Film sets become one kind of temporary family and Cleese is always at pains to learn the support crew and cast names (right down the casting call list) and refer to them as equals, but as soon as the film is over they quickly become part of his past.

Andrew Sachs - who played the bow-legged Manuel, the put upon waiter, in the TV series Fawlty Towers - said that he went seven years without any contact with Cleese. And even when he was contacted it was in was in order to hire him as an actor rather than to talk about old times.

Even in his late teens Cleese there was something decidedly middle aged about him - a situation not helped by a full and bushy beard. The sixties may have swung, but his hair remained short and well kept throughout and he dressed more like his father (all tweeds and cords) than the Beatles. Looking at the early Monty Phython photos you can see the fashions of the day on the other Pythons, but never on Cleese.

The joke about Cleese's modern dress sense is that it often looks sloppy, while in fact it is casual clothing bought from London's top boutiques. He has long given up the idea of going out unrecognised (hardly possible when you are a national institution and 6 foot 5) and has to put up with cat calls and shouts from taxi/lorry drivers in the street - in the grand London tradition.

(Confused cavemen who cannot remember his last name tend to refer to him as "Monty" - even demanding to see his funny walk (part of a classic Python sketch) on the spot!)

In the making of the first series of Fawlty Towers (the 1974 classic TV sitcom that has won many awards for Cleese the writer/performer) he wore ageing makeup to cover for the fact that he was, at that time, only 34. If you look closely you can see the grey powdering under his eyes. When he made the second series he didn't bother, although even then he was hardly much older. The show makes constant references to him being "middle-aged" and even at one stage "decrepit."

The subject of Cleese and money has been the subject of many a quick article by a London journalist. The simple fact is that Cleese could have gone in to tax exile and kept a lot more of his salary - although he is very much in love with London life ("you can do absolutely anything you want here") and would hate to leave.

Certainly he has a strong dislike for Los Angeles and Hollywood, which he describes as "an absolutely horrible place." Although he doesn't rule out working there and is even making plans to play a university professor in a Hollywood film as I write this article.

It cannot be a coincidence that his three wives have all been American, in fact their physical similarities have been astounding. He met first wife Connie Booth when she was working as a waitress, by common consent she picked him up rather than the other way around, trying to join in a (theatrical) conversation the table were having. They carried out an on/off transatlantic love affair for a couple of years and ended up married without really knowing each other very well.

Cleese and Booth worked together on the scripts of Fawlty Towers while going through a divorce, which is a strange state of affairs to say the least. Connie had no writing experience to speak off and has not been noted for her written work since. Nevertheless she played a vital part in giving Cleese a woman's eye view of the world, correcting Cleese who has often admitted that he "doesn't write well for women."

For a long time Cleese had little to do with women, not even on the Cambridge stage, and remained a virgin until the age of 24. All the Python's had problems writing for women and often dressed-up to play the female parts themselves - the crude drag bringing an extra laugh to the scene. "We never needed attractive women - so we thought we might as well play them ourselves." Said co-Python and best friend Graham Chapman.

Having learnt little from his first marriage to Booth he had an equally disastrous whirlwind romance and marriage to producer and former actress Barbara Trentham who he met just before a live Monty Python show in the USA.

By then living together was not frowned upon so the mad-dash rush to the alter was even more baffling. The most common reasoning given is that Cleese was simply overwhelmed by her ready smile, blonde hair and quick wit.

However she was very different from most the other woman he had been around in the fact that she was an order giver rather than order taker. Her ability to boss men around and dominate situations (a must in order to difficult film sequences for television) fascinated him. Nevertheless the marriage never seemed to work at the domestic level - although she remains close to Cleese for the sake of their joint child, Camilla, whose upbringing they have since shared.

Thankfully he seems totally content in this third marriage to Alice Eichelberger an analyst in private practise who tends to the emotional needs of the stars, although remains very hush-hush about it. Undoubtedly she understands her husbands vanities and occasional non vanities (Cleese seems happy to talk about hair transplants and his false teeth to just about anybody) better than anyone else and has a non showbiz air about her.

Naturally the rich and the famous have one advantage over normal divorced mortals: Money. While career-wise his former wives would have been able to fed and cloth themselves come-what-may, the million dollar divorces have helped ease the pain somewhat. Connie Booth, while being both pretty and versatile as an actress had a career that smouldered rather than burned. Today she seems semi-retired - and even in her immediate post-Cleese period only averaged one project per year.

This is surprising, given that she had appeared on one the countries most successful comedies (Fawlty Towers, playing Polly the waitress) and most people knew her name in the street. Despite efforts to soften her accent she was generally cast in "American in Britain" roles.

The Booth/Cleese marriage had two children: One was Cynthia and the other was Fawlty Towers. Many have pondered how much the incompetent hotelier - Basil Fawlty - really is Cleese. Certainly the rage - which Cleese lets brew level-by-level - looks too real to be mere acting. Exaggerated it may be, but some of it is real rage against disorder, incompetence and the British acceptance of the third rate.

His "Video Arts" company (which produces training films) is one his proudest achievements, but even that was run on a day-to-day basis by his partner Peter Jay (a former diplomat - a career Cleese once had his eyes on). The company has since been sold, but Cleese agreed to continue to input material and ideas under the sale agreement.

The company has gained a shelf full of awards and hires videos all around the world, using the secret ingredient of sugaring the information pill with comedy - often using Cleese and other well known faces from British television and stage.

Nothing gets the goat of the fellow Pythons like Cleese's advertising career, which has seen him do voice overs and on-screen appearances supporting products both upmarket and downmarket all over the world. But even reputation of being able to sell anything may be on the wane - his recent efforts for the (UK) supermarket Costcutter, which he plays a loudmouth braggart who shouts through a megaphone, was recently voted the least favourite advert on TV.

So where does Cleese goes from here? Well the pattern of recent years is to do just enough work to keep his mind ticking over and there are probably one or two more serious books in the offing, but little more. Today Cleese very much prefers writing to performing, and even went as far as saying playing Basil Fawlty made him physically sick.

He keeps trying to get serious work on television and is only partly successful because the TV producers (like the public) only want to see Cleese the clown. He is not a big fan of the stage and dismisses offers in that direction with his standard, "I have better things to do with my evenings than get up on stage and say the same words over and over again!"

A life spent on holiday is most intelligent people's idea of hell on earth, so people like Cleese will never quite retire although he hints at it constantly. Certainly there seems to be nothing along the lines of Monty Python, Fawlty Towers or A Fish Called Wanda on the immediate horizon. For us, the general public, this can only be a great shame...

(C) Peter Hayes 2003

Last updated 3.4.2005