John Cleese was born in Weston-super-Mare, Somerset, England to Reginald Francis Cleese and Muriel Cross. His family’s surname was previously “Cheese”, but his father, an insurance salesman, changed his surname to “Cleese” upon joining the army in 1915. 
As a boy, Cleese was educated at Clifton College in Bristol, from which he was expelled for a humourous defacing of school grounds: he used painted footsteps to suggest that the school’s statue of Field Marshal Earl Haig had got down from his plinth and gone to the toilet . His talent for comedy progressed with his membership of the Cambridge Footlights Revue while he was studying for a law degree at Downing College at Cambridge University. Here he met his future writing partner Graham Chapman. As Cleese’s comic reputation grew, he was soon offered a position as a writer with BBC Radio, where he worked on several programs, most notably as a sketch writer for The Dick Emery Show. The success of the Footlights Revue led to the recording of a short series of half-hour radio programmes, called I’m Sorry, I’ll Read That Again, which was so popular that the BBC commissioned a regular series with the same title. He then joined the Cambridge Revue, Cambridge Circus, for a tour of New Zealand and Broadway in September 1964, and decided to stay on in America performing on and off-Broadway, including in the musical Half a Sixpence. It was during this time he met future Python Terry Gilliam and his future wife, American actress Connie Booth, whom he married on February 20, 1968.
After his return to England, Cleese started performing as a cast member of the highly successful BBC Radio show I’m Sorry, I’ll Read That Again, which ran from 1965 to 1974. Cleese (even though he is credited as “John Cleese”) is referred to at the close of every episode as “John Otto Cleese”. His real middle name is “Marwood”, not “Otto”. (It appears that John Cleese just liked the name. There were various characters named “Otto” in episodes of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus”, and there is also an “Otto”, played by Kevin Kline in the film “A Fish Called Wanda”, which was written by John Cleese. John Cleese’s mother once stated that her son called himself “Otto”, rather than his second name of “Marwood”, but she did not know why he called himself “Otto”, or where the name “Otto” came from .)
On his return to London in 1965, Cleese and Chapman began writing on The Frost Report, an important landmark in satire and British Comedy in the 1960s. The writing staff chosen for The Frost Report was, in many ways, made up of some of the finest comedy minds of the 1960s in the United Kingdom. It consisted of a number of writers and performers who would go on to make names for themselves in comedy. They included future Goodies Bill Oddie and Tim Brooke-Taylor, and also Frank Muir, Barry Cryer, Marty Feldman, Ronnie Barker, Ronnie Corbett, Dick Vosburgh and future Python members Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin. It was while working on The Frost Report, in fact, that the future Pythons developed the writing styles that would make their collaboration significant . Cleese and Chapman’s sketches often involved authority figures, some of which were performed by Cleese, while Terry Jones and Michael Palin were both infatuated with filmed scenes that open with idyllic countryside panoramas. Eric Idle was one of those charged with writing David Frost‘s monologue. It was during this period that Cleese met and befriended influential British comedian Peter Cook.
Such was the popularity of the series that, in 1966, John Cleese and Graham Chapman were invited to work as writers and performers with Tim Brooke-Taylor and Marty Feldman on At Last the 1948 Show, during which time the Four Yorkshiremen sketch was written by all four writers/performers (the Four Yorkshiremen sketch is now better known as a Monty Python sketch). John Cleese and Graham Chapman also wrote episodes of Doctor in the House. These series were successful and, in 1969, Cleese and Chapman were offered their very own series. However, due to Chapman’s alcoholism, Cleese found himself bearing an increasing workload in the partnership and was therefore unenthusiastic about doing a series with just the two of them. He had found working with Michael Palin on The Frost Report an enjoyable experience, and invited him to join the series. Palin had previously been working on Do Not Adjust Your Set, with Eric Idle and Terry Jones, and Terry Gilliam doing animations. The four of them had, on the back of the success of Do Not Adjust Your Set, been offered a series for ITV, which they were waiting to begin when Cleese’s offer arrived. Palin agreed to work with Cleese and Chapman in the meantime, bringing with him Gilliam, Jones and Idle. This union led to the creation of Monty Python. Many have suggested that this important landmark in comedy was brought about by Cleese’s desire to work with Palin, who Cleese has maintained is his favourite Python to work with. Monty Python’s Flying Circus ran for four series from October 1969 to December 1974 on BBC. Cleese is particularly remembered for the “Cheese Shop“, “The Ministry of Silly Walks“, and “Dead Parrot” sketches. Though the programme lasted four series, by the start of series 3, Cleese, who was probably the best known and most experienced member of the group, was growing tired of coping with Chapman’s alcoholism. According to Terry Gilliam, Cleese was the “most Cambridge” of the Cambridge-educated members of the group (Cleese, Chapman, and Idle), by which Gilliam meant that Cleese was the tallest and most aggressive of them and the whole group. He felt, too, that the show’s scripts had declined in quality. For these reasons, he became restless and decided to move on. Though he stayed for the third series, he did not appear in the fourth, and received only a minor writing credit. Cleese returned to the troupe to co-write and co-star in the Monty Python films Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Life of Brian and The Meaning of Life.
In 1971, Connie Booth gave birth to Cynthia Cleese, their only child.
From 1970 to 1973 Cleese served as rector of the University of St Andrews. While his election by the students might have seemed a prank, it proved a milestone for the University, revolutionising and modernising the post. For instance, the Rector was traditionally entitled to appoint an “Assessor”, in short a deputy to sit in his place at important meetings in his absence. Cleese changed this into a position for a student, elected across campus by the student body, resulting in direct access and representation for the student body for the first time in over 500 years. This was but one of a whole host of improvements that Cleese swept in as a true wind of change.
Having left Monty Python, Cleese went on to achieve possibly greater success in the United Kingdom as the neurotic hotel manager Basil Fawlty in Fawlty Towers, which he co-wrote with Connie Booth. The series won widespread critical acclaim and is still considered one of the finest examples of British comedy, having won three BAFTA awards when produced and recently topping the British Film Institute list of the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes. The series also featured Andrew Sachs as the much abused Spanish waiter Manuel (“…he’s from Barcelona“), Prunella Scales as Basil’s fire-breathing dragon of a wife Sybil, and Booth as waitress Polly. Cleese based Basil Fawlty on a real person, Donald Sinclair, whom he encountered in 1971, when he and the rest of the Monty Python team were staying at the Gleneagles Hotel in Torquay while filming Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Cleese was reportedly inspired by Sinclair’s mantra of “I could run this hotel just fine, if it weren’t for the guests.” He later described Sinclair as “the most wonderfully rude man I have ever met”, although Mr Sinclair’s widow has since said her husband was totally misrepresented in the comedy.
During the Pythons’ stay, Sinclair threw Eric Idle‘s briefcase out of the hotel “in case it contained a bomb”, complained about Terry Gilliam’s “American” table manners, and threw a bus timetable at another guest after they dared to ask the time of the next bus to town. The series portrayed stereotypical British attitudes towards sex, death, complaining, violence towards employees and unhappy marriages, often simultaneously embodied in Cleese’s madcap physical performances.
The first series began on 19 September 1975, and whilst not an instant hit, soon gained momentum. However, the second series did not appear until 1979, by which time Cleese’s marriage to Booth had broken down. Despite this the two reprised their writing and performing roles in the second series. Fawlty Towers consisted of only twelve episodes. Cleese and Booth both maintain that this was to avoid compromising the quality of the series.
In 1978 Cleese appeared as guest star on The Muppet Show. Instead of singing along, he showed up a pretend album, his own new vocal record “John Cleese: A Man & His Music”, and finally strangled Kermit the Frog.
He won the TV Times award for Funniest Man On TV – 1978 / 1979.
During the 1980s and 1990s, Cleese focused on film, though he did work with Peter Cook in his one-off TV special Peter Cook and Co. in 1980. In the same year a theatrical piece for TV was released, with Cleese playing Petruchio, in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. He also rejoined the Pythons for Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl (1982), and starred in The Secret Policeman’s Ball for Amnesty International. He married Barbara Trentham on 15 February 1981. Their daughter Camilla Cleese was born in 1984.
In 1988 he wrote and starred in A Fish Called Wanda, as the lead, Archie Leach, along with Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Kline and fellow Python Michael Palin. Wanda became the most successful British film ever, and Cleese was nominated for an Academy Award for his script. Cynthia Cleese starred as Leach’s daughter.
John Cleese also made a non-singing guest appearance on The Muppet Show
Cleese’s Monty Python writing partner and friend, Graham Chapman, was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1989, and during his final hours, Cleese, along with Michael Palin, Peter Cook and David Sherlock, witnessed Chapman’s passing. Cleese, who had never before seen anyone die, was overcome with grief and was escorted into another room. Chapman’s death occurred one day before the 20th anniversary of the first broadcast of Flying Circus with Jones commenting, “the worst case of party-pooping in all history.” Cleese gave a stirring eulogy at Graham Chapman’s memorial service, in which he “became the first person ever at a British memorial service to say ‘fuck’”. Many considered this to be the perfect tribute to his friend and comedic partner. 
Cleese also produced and acted in a number of successful business training films, including Meetings, Bloody Meetings and More Bloody Meetings about how to set up and run successful meetings. These were produced by his company Video Arts.
In 1999, Cleese appeared in the James Bond movie, The World Is Not Enough as Q’s assistant, referred to by Bond as R. In 2002, when Cleese reprised his role in Die Another Day, the character was promoted, making Cleese the new quartermaster (Q) of MI6. Cleese did not reprise his role in the latest James Bond film, Casino Royale, where Daniel Craig replaces Pierce Brosnan in the leading role.
He is currently an Andrew D. White Professor-at-Large at Cornell University, his term having been extended until 2006. Although he makes occasional, well-received appearances on the Cornell campus, he lives in the town of Montecito, California. He has also been appointed a Provost’s Visiting Professor through 2009.
In a 2005 poll of comedians and comedy insiders The Comedian’s Comedian, Cleese’s peers showed their appreciation of his talent when he was voted second only to Peter Cook. Also in 2005, a long-standing piece of internet humour, “The Revocation of Independence“, was wrongly attributed to Cleese.
John Cleese recently lent his voice to the BioWare video game Jade Empire. His role was that of an “outlander” named Sir Roderick Ponce von Fontlebottom the Magnificent Bastard, stranded in the Imperial City of the Jade Empire. His character is essentially a British colonialist stereotype who refers to the people of the Jade Empire (effectively like the ancient Chinese) as a lot of savages in need of enlightenment. While perhaps a small role in John Cleese’s respect, such lines as “half of you can’t even grow a decent moustache” and “your idea of honour is outdated, too. (shoots player). PERCIVAL! My towel” were a welcome touch of humour.
He also had a cameo appearance in the computer game Starship Titanic as “The Bomb” (credited as “Kim Bread”), written by Douglas Adams. When the bomb is activated it tells you that “The ship is now armed and preparing to explode. This will be a fairly large explosion, so you’d best keep back about 22 miles”, and, in attempting to disarm it, “Well, you can try that, but it won’t work because nobody likes a smartarse!”
In 2003, John also appeared as Lyle Finster in long-running US sitcom Will & Grace. His character eventually ended up having a short-lived marriage to Karen (Megan Mullally) and was Lorraine’s (Karen’s arch-nemesis, following her affair with Karen’s then husband) father.
In 2004, Cleese was credited as co-writer of a DC Comics graphic novel entitled Superman: True Brit. Part of DC’s “Elseworlds” line of imaginary stories, True Brit, mostly written by Kim Howard Johnson, suggests what might have happened had Superman‘s rocket ship landed in Britain, not America.
From 10 November to 9 December 2005, Cleese toured New Zealand with his stage show ‘John Cleese — His Life, Times and Current Medical Problems’. Cleese described it as “a one man show with several people in it, which pushes the envelope of acceptable behaviour in new and disgusting ways.” The show was developed in New York with William Goldman and includes Cleese’s daughter Camilla Cleese as a writer and actor (the shows were directed by Australian Bille Brown.) John’s assistant of many years, Garry Scott-Irvine, also appeared, and was listed as a co-producer. It then played in universities in California and Arizona from 10 January to 25 March 2006 under the title “Seven Ways to Skin an Ocelot” . His voice can be downloaded for directional guidance purposes as a downloadable option on some personal GPS-navigation device models by company TomTom.
In June 2006, whilst promoting a football (soccer) song in which he was featured, entitled Don’t Mention the World Cup, Cleese appears to have claimed that he decided to retire from performing in sitcoms, instead opting to writing a book on the history of comedy and tutoring young comedians. This was an erroneous story, the result of an interview with The Times of London (the piece was not fact checked before printing).
Just For Laughs 2006
John Cleese’s most recent live comedic performance was at the 2006 Just For Laughs festival in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. The Just for Laughs comedy festival is a yearly event that gathers some of the world’s best comics. John Cleese was host for one of the galas and performed sketches very reminiscent to his Monty Python days. His first sketch was him performing his own eulogy as he promised to kill himself as the grand finale, remarking “Top that Jason Alexander…you bastard.” The second sketch was him as the judge of ‘Cleese Idol’, where contestants from Montreal would be performing his skits, so he could find his successor. He shot the last contestant as well as the special guest host, Ben Mulroney (the host of Canadian Idol). The gala ended with his ‘execution‘, where he asked people to choose the method of execution by text messaging a number (which was fake). The choices were stoning, electric chair, firing squad, hanging and guillotine. The guillotine won, and John Cleese was beheaded just as he was about to say something to the crowd.