How John Cleese Nearly Ruined ‘The Life of Brian’

Monty Python’s Easter classic would have been way worse if Cleese had gotten his way
How John Cleese Nearly Ruined ‘The Life of Brian’

It’s that special time of year when Christians celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ by stuffing their faces with mass-produced chocolate products supposedly laid by a magical bunny rabbit. Some folks, on the other hand, have opted to embrace an allegedly-blasphemous cinematic comedy as their go-to Easter weekend tradition. We’re, of course, talking about Monty Python’s The Life of Brian.

As we’ve mentioned beforeThe Life of Brian is one of the most controversial comedies ever made. It was banned in countries like Ireland and Norway, and blasted by evangelical Christians who claimed that it had been “produced in Hell.” And yet, in the 21st century, it’s become a spring holiday staple. In addition to Easter screenings in movie theaters, at least one actual reverend quoted the film in an Easter message on YouTube.

But it’s hard to believe that the movie would have become the unimpeachable classic it is today if John Cleese had gotten his way. Before the shoot began, the future star of A Fish Called Wanda insisted that he, and not Graham Chapman, should play the lead role of Brian Cohen. Which, it should go without saying, would have been absolutely terrible and probably bankrupted George Harrison. 

Cleese desperately wanted to take on the part, not because he thought he’d be a good fit for Brian, but because he’d “never had the experience of playing a role the whole way through a film.” As he later explained, “I wanted to learn, because if I’m learning I’m happy.” Which is a good reason to take an adult education class at your local community college, but not necessarily for making creative decisions behind a $4 million feature film. 

The other Pythons were understandably against the idea of giving the part of their fictional pseudo-Messiah to Cleese just so he could master a new skill. “I couldn’t see John playing Brian,” Terry Jones recalled. “I kind of felt we needed Graham’s integrity. There wasn’t anybody else in the Python group that had that integrity that shows up on the big screen.”

The rest of the group, minus Chapman, confronted Cleese, expressing their strong preference for Chapman to play Brian. It didn’t go well. Cleese admits now that “the others very kindly, made it clear to me that they thought that it was not a good idea.” But at the time, he lashed out at his colleagues. As recounted in Michael Palin’s published diaries, Eric Idle buttered Cleese up, telling him that he would be “wasted” as Brian, while also pointing out that Chapman was “quite good” in the lead role of King Arthur in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and would be an appropriate Brian because he was “Roman-looking.” According to Palin, “John erupted at this — far more vehemently than I would have expected. He hissed agitatedly that it would be a disaster.” 

Cleese’s concerns about Chapman taking on the part weren’t solely informed by his own ego, his writing partner’s “heavy drinking” was also a major worry. As Palin noted, Cleese saw a “possible danger” that relying on Chapman could “blow the whole film.” But according to Chapman’s partner David Sherlock, the actor had “stopped drinking” specifically to take on the part of Brian. 

In the end, Cleese realized his mistake, and is thankful that the rest of the troupe wouldn’t let him be Brian. “They were right, because they said ‘No,’” he eventually admitted. Sadly, none of the Pythons were able to convince him not to do that awkward Australian roast

You (yes, you) should follow JM on Twitter (if it still exists by the time you’re reading this). 


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