John Cleese had a bad head cold, but nevertheless is one of the wicked funniest people in town. He’ll be fine, a little rest is all he needs. Ask him about his wife, Alice Fay Eichelberger, and he says she is fine, too, at first. “Actually she’s heading to Los Angeles today, to have her toenails curled or something. They require regular tweaking apparently, takes approximately four hours. She’s become the typical Montecito woman. Don’t you think?”
In case you haven’t noticed, the Cleese family can no longer be considered new neighbors. “Alice and I first bought our home in 1994, but really didn’t shift our center of gravity here until 1998. So we’ve been here a while.” The biggest piece of domestic news is that Cleese is selling “The Ranch,” as he terms it, a hunk of East Valley Road property that was once Cynthia Woods riding stables. “I love it so much, but it’s become incredibly expensive. There are all the ordinary things that you can think of that you must pay for, and then there are all the things you don’t think of. The farriers for instance,” he said. “Who knew?”
And even though the ranch is “near escrow,” and a thing to be sorely missed, Cleese doesn’t want Argentina, or Santa Barbara for that matter to cry for him. “We live at the end of the lane,” he said, referring to a row of beach houses in the vicinity. “So we are completely isolated at high tide which gives the dogs a beach to themselves to run around without fear of confronting other dogs, that’s very important.”
Later, when talking about Life of Brian, a screening of which Cleese will host at UCSB next Tuesday, May 1, he spoke of the joys of filming in it Tunisia, so far from the bad weather of his London life. Was it weather that brought him to our fair shores? “Yes,” he said matter-of-factly. “Escape from English weather and escape from the English press.” By comparison, the Cleese clan gets on well with townsfolk hereabouts. “We’ve met several of them, actually,” he said, slyly. “Quite nice.”
Actually, he’s been one of the most outgoing and socially engaged of the celebrities who’ve snuck into our midst in latter years. He premiered his new play entitled Seven Ways to Skin an Ocelot here two summers ago. Brian is the second Python screening he has hosted as a benefit for UCSB’s Arts & Lectures since arriving. “I adore the things Celesta and Arts and Lectures do,” he said, referring to new mother and A&L Grande Dame Celesta Billeci. Admitting that his involvement is an easy way to help, he hastens to add what a fine value the evening will be. “I give a 10-minute introduction, then they show the film and I stay on for about an hour afterwards answering questions. Or at least until people get tired of me. So it’s a good evening, about three hours.”
It’s his favorite too. “Well, I think it’s the best of the Python films. It’s probably the favorite one in England. Over here, that would probably be The Holy Grail,” he said, speaking of their first film, which was made for peanuts and featured a clopping pair of coconuts-which Cleese once said was improvised because they couldn’t afford horses. “But I think Holy Grail is hilarious for the first 20 minutes and then it kind of sags,” he said. “But Brian is the most consistently funny of them all.”
It wasn’t that easy to get made and then, of course, it stirred up a bit of controversy. Their producer at the time went shopping in America for money, “a mere two million'” according to Cleese, but came back empty-handed. “I had given up, I was crestfallen, sure it wouldn’t get made and was about to go off and make a movie with Peter Cook called The Prisoner of Zenda when all of a sudden Eric [Idle] said he had shown it to George Harrison. He apparently read the script and said, ‘I want to see this film.'” The biblical farce, which imagines a man born about a block away from Jesus, and swept up in Galilean prophet-and-savior politics, offended many groups including an English group called The Festival of Light. “They wanted it banned without ever seeing it.”
Cleese mildly denies that the film makes any comment on the 1980s or current Middle East controversies. “When we wrote it, most of the jokes were really about the English Left,” he said. “The thrust of it being that all the factions hurt each other more than they did their political rivals. You know, my wife is from Oklahoma, and she always says that the Episcopalians hate other denominations more than they hate atheists.”
After helping A&L, Cleese hopes to settle in for a while. “I’ve been traveling for a long, long time,” he said, and doesn’t really want to write something right away. He wants to read for a while. More than once, Cleese mentioned he was of a superannuated age: he’s actually 67. But he’s not planning to be retiring or retired. “I don’t think I’m interested in writing any of a narrative nature,” he said.
Maybe, he would like to do a documentary of topics that fans who know him from Python-as opposed to those who know him for his very successful management training films-might find surprising. “I might want to do a film on people’s attitudes toward money,” he said. “Or maybe science. I’m very interested in science when it tries to explain the things it can’t.” More than once Cleese invoked the deity as a topic he might find worthy of exploring-and probably not as a lampoon topic.
But he is going to give his playwrighting a bit of a break. The experience of touring Seven Ways to Skin an Ocelot was more difficult than anticipated. “I realize now it’s a bit like hard work,” he said, citing the disconcerting experience of getting one sound check before opening his play at a different theater each night-from San Luis Obispo, say, to Pepperdine College the next night. The timing was crucially cramped in each new venue.
But he’s also skeptical of the mix of high and low in the play itself, which, as I mentioned, first opened here. “It had a mix of silly bits and autobiography. Don’t get me wrong, I like the silly parts, but the biographical bits, I would just step out there and think, ‘Well this will be over in a few minutes.'” He laughed, admitting this must’ve been even tougher on an audience, though the reviews and responses were universally positive. It was a bit much. “But we had one part where we shot a cat out of a cannon. Now I liked doing that,” he said, still funny with a bad cold. “That part was just terrific.”
John Cleese will host a screening of Life of Brian on Tuesday, May 1, 7:30 p.m., at UCSB’s Campbell Hall. Call 893-3535 or see UCSB’s Arts & Lectures website here.