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Illustration: Rob Kelly

The Hot Seat: John Cleese

The Monty Python vet is sweet but dim. Where's the pleasure in that?


He may be going through a notoriously acrimonious divorce, but John Cleese still retains his love of the absurd, a quality he showcased most notably on the landmark British television shows Monty Python's Flying Circus and Fawlty Towers. "I think it would be nice," says the 69-year-old, when asked to concoct a nasty rumor about himself, "to get people to believe that for the last 20 years I've been having an illicit affair with the Duke of Kent." We called Cleese at his home in Southern California to discuss his career achievements, including his latest film, The Day the Earth Stood Still.

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You play a Nobel Prize–winning particle physicist. I assume that this is a nonhumorous role?
It's entirely nonhumorous. It's a little bit like the very first time I had a straight part, which was in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, where if I got a laugh, I had failed—which is a very strange situation for me.

Mad Men's Jon Hamm costars, yet you have no scenes with him. Why have we been denied our Hamm and Cleese?
[Laughs] Very good. Croque-monsieur.

Your family name even used to be Cheese, right?
Yes, that's right. My dad changed it in 1915 when he went into the First World War. You know, I used to play a game called Edible Painters. We had Bacon and Poussin and there's a Dutch painter called Duck and an Italian called Pomodoro. Oh, and there's Boudin! So we should just have edible actors.

You provide the voice of God in Spamalot which ends its successful Broadway run on January 11. Was that the role of a lifetime?
Yes, a part that John Lahr said I was born to play. The truth is, it never occurred to me. But if it makes a better story, you can say yes. I remember when I did Silverado, everyone interviewing me would say, their heads nodding as they asked the question, "Was it always your dream to be in a Western?" I used to take great pleasure in saying no. It was so disappointing to them.

You are on the record as being anti-catchphrase. Still, what's your favorite Monty Python line?
The one I use most in my life is, "Where's the pleasure in that?" Do you know that one? It's from the "Whizzo Chocolate Company" sketch. I'm a hygiene inspector, and I ask the CEO about various chocolates, [including] one called Spring Surprise. He says that when you bite into it, steel bolts spring out and lacerate your cheeks. And I say to him, "Where's the pleasure in that?" That's a phrase that comes to my mind about three times a day, like when people are talking about mountaineering or country & western music.

Does that explain why you declined British knighthood in 1996?
Actually, I didn't decline a knighthood—I declined a peerage, which is much better. It would have been interesting, but accepting it would have meant being in England in the winter. And I'm not prepared to make a sacrifice like that.

There is, however, both an asteroid and a species of lemur named after you. Which accolade do you cherish more?
Oh, the lemur every time.

Because the lemur is funnier?
No, just cuter. They really are extremely nice animals, and the only reason that they exist is that on Madagascar there is virtually no predator. Whereas on the mainland of Africa, they last about 15 minutes. Because although they are enchanting, they are also enchantingly dim. So they walk up to leopards and say, "Good morning, Mr. Leopard—what are you going to have for breakfast?"

So you're okay with being associated with a notoriously dim-witted animal?
I think it's rather appropriate because they're rather sweet, too.

Sweet and dim?
That's the way I'd like to be remembered.

The Day the Earth Stood Still is now playing.

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