It’s becoming obvious that John Cleese feels annoyed. For one thing, he can’t wrap his tongue around the cybervocabulary he needs to speak in the commercial he’s shooting for a California Web site design company. For another, his attempts to focus his thoughts keep getting stymied by the technicians parading through the hallway where the gangly actor currently hunches, muttering. When a woman with a clipboard walks up and catches his attention, Cleese seems to snap.
“This always happens!” he says, his voice rising into the sort of sharp yet perfectly enunciated rant Cleese perfected as one or another of the hot-tempered loons he portrayed with Monty Python’s Flying Circus. “I’m running my lines and some idiot comes up and interrupts me! What do you think? That I’m old and stupid? That you’re going to bring me to my senses?”
At 6’5″, Cleese would look imposing even if he weren’t standing with shoulders thrown back and nose aloft. But there’s a twinkle in his eye, and just before the woman’s expression fades to horror, he clicks right back to British charm. “Hello,” he smiles. “What can I do for you?”
What Cleese does when the camera rolls again–capturing his buffoonish reporter character’s ill-advised confrontation with the heavy-metal group Metallica–shows his unique ability, first seen widely 30 years ago on the Monty Python TV series, to portray characters torn between social haughtiness and emotional anarchy. Cleese went on to a career whose highlights–Python films Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Life of Brian; Cleese’s own sitcom Fawlty Towers; his Emmy-winning guest shot on Cheers; and the smash movie A Fish Called Wanda, which he wrote and starred in with Jamie Lee Curtis and Kevin Kline–made him one of the most recognized comic actors in the world. “John’s performances were the linchpin of Python,” says fellow Python Michael Palin. “He’s the headmaster turned naughty boy. And he can get away with anything.”
Just past his 60th birthday, Cleese has lately enlivened the Steve Martin-Goldie Hawn remake of The Out-of-Towners and now appears in the new James Bond film The World Is Not Enough. But Cleese, famously, has a serious side too: An advocate of psychotherapy, which he credits with healing his own wounded soul, he has cowritten two books on psychology. Once the co-owner of a company that made management training videos, he now makes videos for medical patients, in which sufferers from everything from acne to cancer can learn what symptoms and treatment they should expect. Cleese also has an appointment through 2004 to give occasional lectures as a professor-at-large at Cornell University. Such habits–and the failure of his 1997 film Fierce Creatures–have led some British critics to complain that Cleese has forsaken his place as the U.K.’s funniest man to become, as one put it, “a fussy, tetchy old academic.”
Eating lunch in Vancouver, B.C.–where he’s filming introductions for TNT’s Bond festival–Cleese doesn’t hide his irritation at that notion. “In Britain the media wants to define me,” he grumbles of the Brits who have ripped him for everything from his intellectual pursuits to his two hair transplants. “But if it comes down to the question ‘Is this man funny?’ my answer is ‘I don’t care!'”
Though he’s currently developing a sitcom for American TV, most of Cleese’s favorite projects are a long way from thigh-slappers: a BBC series on the human face he’ll host next year, a lecture he’ll give at Cornell next October on W.C. Fields. “I would have been very happy as a zoologist,” he muses. Of course, few zoologists would compare the leaping gait of sifaka lemurs, as Cleese once did in a PBS documentary, to “Edwardian butlers on Benzedrine.”
Yes, Cleese can still be howlingly funny. “Right before his 60th birthday, he was just as outrageous, loud and brainless as ever,” says Palin of the sketches he, Cleese and their surviving Python compatriots Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones (Graham Chapman died of cancer in 1989, and Eric Idle stayed in Los Angeles) recently wrote and filmed for a 30th-anniversary program that will be seen on the A&E Network early next year. The reunion was strained by the long-distance contributions of Idle (who had been irked by Palin’s decision to scotch a Python reunion tour), and now Cleese is eager to twit their erstwhile partner. “Idle called me a ‘typical alpha male,'” he reports with a wicked gleam. “But he’s such a wuss an omega male could push him around.”
Cleese has long tried to laugh at tension. The only child born to Reg Cleese, an insurance salesman who died in 1972, and Muriel, a homemaker who just celebrated her 100th birthday, he grew up in tiny coastal Weston-super-Mare. “My mother always had her fair share of anxieties,” he says delicately, and though he would eventually spend years untangling himself from her angst, Cleese credits both parents for their sharp senses of humor. “Comedy,” he notes, “tends to be about things going wrong.”
When he arrived at Cambridge University in 1960, his fellow students saw something very right in Cleese’s comic performances for the school’s Footlights revue. Cleese left Cambridge with a law degree in 1963 but happily exchanged a career as a barrister for a joke-writing job at BBC Radio. He flirted with other careers during the mid-’60s (while living in New York City he briefly worked at Newsweek), but when he appeared on BBC-TV’s The Frost Report in 1966, his career took wing. Three years later he allied with Palin, Idle and company to form Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
The Pythons’ timely collision of sophistication (some skits involved obscure philosophers, artists and historical figures) and silliness (others revolved around dead parrots, exploding penguins and tennis-playing puddings from outer space) eventually earned a worldwide following that often centered on Cleese. “John was a dominant figure, no way around it,” says Palin. “He was very good at expressing his ideas and had this withering invective he could direct at anyone with a loosely expressed idea. But he was never comfortable hanging out: He wanted to do the work and then get on.”
Cleese, in fact, left the show before its fourth, and final, season aired in 1974 and went on to even greater acclaim with Fawlty Towers, a sitcom about a stunningly incompetent hotelier he wrote and performed with first wife Connie Booth. Still, he was eager to make Python movies and stayed through their last film, 1983’s The Meaning of Life.
His post-Python career includes several hit movies, among them Time Bandits and Wanda, which at the time was the highest-grossing movie ever made in Britain. But Cleese seems most proud of the work he has done to come to terms with his emotions. “I’ve never handled pressure very gracefully,” he admits.
During the mid-’70s height of Python, the pressure of Cleese’s career–and his dissolving marriage to Booth–nearly capsized him altogether. “I was very depressed,” he recalls. “The two things I was most frightened of were anger and noncommunication.” Therapy helped him express his feelings and come to terms with them. “I’m much more aware of my surroundings and myself,” he says. “That makes me feel much more alive.”
Married since 1992 to Alyce Faye Eichelberger, a psychotherapist he met on a blind date in 1988, Cleese divides his time between a London townhouse and a three-story oceanside stucco home in Santa Barbara, Calif., which he and Eichelberger share with his 15-year-old daughter Camilla (from his second marriage, to artist Barbara Trentham). With older daughter Cynthia, 28, down the coast in Santa Monica, they profess to have found a sort of domestic bliss. “We never bicker,” Eichelberger says. “Yes we do!” Cleese retorts. “Bickering is a form of entertainment sometimes, when there isn’t anything on the telly.”
Eichelberger (whose own book on psychology, How to Manage Your Mother, already a bestseller in the U.K., will be published in the U.S. next spring) and Cleese say he prefers life in America. “I don’t miss London,” he says simply. “I’ve had enough.” Down on the terrace, close to where the Pacific laps against the foot of his house, the frustrated zoologist ponders the pelicans winging by. “They remind me of pterodactyls,” he says. “Or is it the Cornish game hen?” Cleese looks away from his binoculars. “Or maybe Cornish gay men–I’ve known a few.”
additional reporting by John Hannah