My worst moment: John Cleese and the unfortunate phone call

Nina Metz
Chicago Tribune

John Cleese had originally planned to take his one-man show “Why There is No Hope” on tour this fall. Those plans were canceled due to the pandemic and instead he will live stream the performance this Sunday.

“I talked to Howard Szigeti, who is the promoter, I’ve done several tours with him, and while we were chatting this idea evolved: Well, why not try streaming it?” Cleese said. “So we’re going to do it in a small theater in the UK and we’re going to have maybe 40 people there, carefully socially distanced, so that I can do the speech to them so that they might giggle now and then to encourage me. And then they will be able to ask questions, which will be much more spontaneous than if we had people write questions and send them in.”

John Cleese attends the 23rd annual German Comedy Awards at Studio in Köln Mühlheim on October 02, 2019 in Cologne, Germany.

The topic at hand is timely enough amid the uncertainty brought about by COVID-19.

“It was an idea I had – and God knows, I always have ideas and don’t act on them – but it was years ago I thought, there’s a speech to be made here about how there is no hope. Not that there is no hope for us individually but that there is no hope that we will ever live in a intelligent, fair, kind, well-organized society.”

Cleese will find the dark humor in this observation as he has done with the legendary Monty Python comedy troupe, as the star of the sitcom “Fawlty Towers” and in the film “A Fish Called Wanda,” which he also wrote.

When asked to share an embarrassing anecdote from his career, he recalled a cringe-y moment that happened just prior to Monty Python taking off.

My worst moment …

“This is set back in 1969. Graham Chapman and I had written a film script and we were looking for a director. My agent rang me up and said, ‘Do you know a director called Jay Lewis?’ And I said, ‘Oh yes, I met him last year on holiday in Ibiza and I like him very much.’ (Lewis directed such films as 1961 British WWII comedy “Invasion Quartet.”)

“And my agent said, ‘He’s read the script and he would like to do it.’ In those days, the film was originally called ‘Piglust and Company’ and it was eventually called ‘Rentadick’ – you see why I wasn’t enamored with it anymore.

(There’s very little online about the now-obscure film, which came out in 1972. The synopsis on Amazon reads as follows: “A group of incompetent private detectives try to find a stolen nerve gas that paralyzes from the waist down in this satirical comedy.”)

“So anyway, we had written this and Jay was keen to do it. And my agent said, ‘Will you call him?’ And I said, ‘Well look, I’m going to Spain literally this afternoon, but I will try to call him when I get to Spain.’ Now in 1969, making phone calls from Spain to the UK was a nightmare. So I wasn’t able to reach him, you know? So I thought, well never mind, I’ll be back in England in 10 days.

“Ten days later I’m back in England and I called him and his longtime girlfriend who was called Ruby answered the phone. And I said, ‘Oh hello, Ruby, it’s John Cleese. I just called to say how delighted I was to hear about Jay.’

“And she said, ‘We buried him this afternoon.’”

What did Cleese say in response?

“I don’t think I said anything for some time. And then I started to try to explain that I had been away and I didn’t know what she was referring to (laughs). And Ruby was an actress so I think she was keen to not underplay it, you see what I mean?

“It was an honest error, but it was the single most embarrassing moment. Someone’s lover has just died and you ring them up and say, ‘What wonderful news!’

“Mind you, with my dark sense of humor, within about 20 minutes I decided it was quite funny! (Laughs) Not his death! But the whole thing. Because it wasn’t a morally wrong thing I had done, it was just incredibly embarrassing. I was so horrified I wanted to pretend it hadn’t happened – that’s a very good defense: Pretend it didn’t happen. I did have to tell Graham and he laughed until he was sick, because he had as black a sense of humor as I do.

“I liked the guy very much, he would have made a marvelous director of the movie and we were very disappointed. Then what happened was, we discovered a lovely director called Charlie Crichton, who many years later directed ‘A Fish Called Wanda.’”

But the director of “Rentadick” is listed as Jim Clark.

“Well that is because we started working on it with Charlie as director and the producer wouldn’t work with him and I don’t know why, because when Charlie made ‘A Fish Called Wanda’ he got an Oscar nomination.

“We were so curious about this man, the producer, who was called Ned Sherrin. I really disliked him. He tried to swindle us, too. So I walked away from it (the movie) and he appointed Jim Clark, who wasn’t a director, he was an editor. (Clark’s later credits as an editor include “The Killing Fields,” “The World is Not Enough” and “Vera Drake.”)

“But Jim had no idea what he was doing (as a director) so the film is awful. There’s two minutes in the middle where it suddenly works for a bit. It’s actually got some very good stuff in it and I’ve always wondered about getting a hold of the script and remaking it because there was some really funny stuff in it.

“But no, Ned Sherrin wouldn’t work with Charlie and he wouldn’t pay us what we were allowed per the contract, so Graham and I just walked away; I had nothing to do with the film at all. And we said, ‘We don’t want a writing credit’ – I’m settling scores; it was a very messy process. He was an awful creature. Really the only awful creature I’ve ever worked with (laughs). But they did want to use our names for publicity purposes and we said no.

“It’s very simple: If people try to bully me, I don’t react well – once someone has bullied me or cheated me I simply cut them out of my life.”

The takeaway …

“I think, don’t call someone whose lover has just died and say how pleased you are to hear it (laughs).

“That’s such a British thing. When I was first married to Connie (his first wife) she used to go to dinner parties and afterwards she would say to me, ‘I would ask people about what they’re doing and they never ask about what I’m doing.’ And I thought about that and I said, ‘It’s because they don’t want to drop the brick – they don’t want to say, “Do you have children?” in case they burned to death last week.’”