October 26, 2018:

On Saturday John Cleese will celebrate his 79th birthday. The ingenious comic actor was born and raised in working-class Weston-super-Mare, England. Cleese attended several elite prep schools, studied law at Cambridge and then spent two years teaching Latin. In 1963 he decided to stop teaching and pursue comic opportunities. Cleese was invited to join the Footlights Dramatic Club, a troupe that launched the careers of many British comedians. Renamed the Cambridge Circus, the revue enjoyed success in London and was even featured on the Ed Sullivan show.  

After briefly appearing on and off Broadway, Cleese returned to London to write and perform for “The Frost Report” featuring David Frost. Cleese’s fellow writers included Graham Chapman, Eric Idle, Michael Palin, and Terry Jones.

The five writers created a comedy series entitled “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” which made its BBC debut in 1969. The British public was slow to embrace the outlandish comedy series because it eschewed conventional comedy structures and avoided standard punchlines. Of course, the show eventually became a huge success and still enjoys a rabid following.
Despite Python’s success, Cleese left the show prior to its fourth season. He believed the humor was becoming stale and he hated writing with the often-inebriated Graham Chapman. Cleese surprised his Python comrades by forming Video Arts Ltd, a company that produces corporate training videos. Utilizing his formidable comedic skills, Cleese created memorable videos on customer support and sales that have been used by many companies including, IBM and General Motors. Check out https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HC0EHFYoKK8

Cleese reunited with his Python mates to co-write and act in several films including the classics, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail “and “Monty Python’s Life of Brian”. While filming the Holy Grail, Cleese began writing a comic television series with his American wife Connie Booth. “Fawlty Towers”premiered in 1975 featuring Cleese as the high-strung innkeeper Basil Fawlty while Booth played Polly the waitress. Their marriage ended in 1978, but they continued to work together on the show until 1979. The brilliance of their scripts combined with the tremendous cast of characters made Fawlty Towers an enduring classic.  In 2017 Fawlty Towers was named the greatest all-time sitcom in a survey of British comedians, comic writers and comic actors.

I am not usually a fan of British comedies but became a dedicated follower of Fawlty Towers. This highlight video doesn’t do the show justice but will bring back great memories for fans of the show. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N1qAF8VAgVA

Cleese went on to co-write and star in the box-office smash “A Fish Called Wanda”. In recent years, Cleese has been content with supporting roles including gadget expert Q in several James Bond films and as Nearly Headless Nick in the first two Harry Potter movies.

For years, I have contended that the three greatest comic actors of all-time are Groucho Marx, Jackie Gleason and John Cleese. Researching this blog, I was amazed by the wide range of opinions that exist on the subject.
Mandatory.com ranks Cleese #4 behind Will Ferrell, Eddie Murphy and #1 Bill Murray.
A more credible list (IMHO) is from tasteofcinema.com which ranks Cleese #4 behind Charlie Chaplin, The Marx Brothers (combined as 1) and Robin Williams. Rounding out the top ten are Lucille Ball, Peter Sellers, Buster Keaton, Cary Grant, Madeline Kahn and Harold Lloyd. Some great choices but how could they not include Stan Laurel and W.C. Fields in the top twenty?
IMDB has many lists of which the most credible ranks the top five as Groucho, Laurel, Keaton, Chaplin and Harpo Marx.  Fields is ranked #11 and Cleese weighs in at #17 behind ahem Dick Shawn.

For his part, Cleese credits Lloyd and Fields as major influences but recently observed “at this stage of my life I have to accept that I’m not likely to come across anything as startlingly good as Buster Keaton” Cleese is also a devoted fan of Cary Grant which is why his character in “Wanda” is named Archibald Leach (Grant’s given name).

Have a great weekend and I look forward to seeing your top comic actors’ list.
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