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Considered by fans as the "nice" member of England's legendary comedy group Monty Python, Michael Palin was an actor, writer and documentarian whose genial nature provided a cover for a hidden reserve of absurd brilliance. With fellow Oxford alum Terry Jones, he was a regular contributor to some of the best British TV comedies of the late '60s before joining forces with John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Eric Idle and Terry Gilliam for "Monty Python's Flying Circus" (BBC, 1969-1974). His boundless energy and versatility made him one of the group's most popular members; after Python, he was able to explore a wide variety of projects, ranging from films like "The Missionary" (1982) and "A Fish Called Wanda" (1988), to several highly praised travel books and documentaries for the BBC. His contributions to entertainment - always graced by a gentle off-kilter wit - made him a favorite among moviegoers and television audiences around the world.Born Michael Edward Palin in the Broomhill ward of Sheffield, England, he was one of two children born to Edward Moreton Palin, a steel engineer, and Mary Lockhart Ovey. Edward Palin suffered from a pronounced stammer, which his son would later adopt to great effect in "A...
Considered by fans as the "nice" member of England's legendary comedy group Monty Python, Michael Palin was an actor, writer and documentarian whose genial nature provided a cover for a hidden reserve of absurd brilliance. With fellow Oxford alum Terry Jones, he was a regular contributor to some of the best British TV comedies of the late '60s before joining forces with John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Eric Idle and Terry Gilliam for "Monty Python's Flying Circus" (BBC, 1969-1974). His boundless energy and versatility made him one of the group's most popular members; after Python, he was able to explore a wide variety of projects, ranging from films like "The Missionary" (1982) and "A Fish Called Wanda" (1988), to several highly praised travel books and documentaries for the BBC. His contributions to entertainment - always graced by a gentle off-kilter wit - made him a favorite among moviegoers and television audiences around the world.
Born Michael Edward Palin in the Broomhill ward of Sheffield, England, he was one of two children born to Edward Moreton Palin, a steel engineer, and Mary Lockhart Ovey. Edward Palin suffered from a pronounced stammer, which his son would later adopt to great effect in "A Fish Called Wanda" and other projects. A shy boy, he nevertheless developed an interest in acting after appearing as Martha Cratchit in a production of "A Christmas Carol" at Birkdale Preparatory School. His fascination for performing continued into his college days at Oxford, where he earned his first laughs from original material he co-wrote and performed with friend Robert Hewison at a Christmas party. Among the attendees at the soiree was fellow Oxford student Terry Jones, who would become one of his most loyal friends and longest-running collaborators.
After graduating from Oxford in 1965, Palin found work as a television presenter on a comedy and music series for the independent television contraction, Television Wales and the West. His stint on the show was short-lived, as he was soon teaming with Jones to work on a feature documentary about sex throughout history. The film never came to fruition, but it cemented their working relationship, and the pair soon found steady work on a variety of television comedies. The most notable of these was "The Frost Report" (BBC, 1966-67), which introduced Palin and Jones to John Cleese, his partner Graham Chapman and Eric Idle; each established television comedy writers in their own right. Cleese and Palin would later strike up a working friendship that saw frequent collaborations before Python, including the 1968 comic documentary, "How to Irritate People," which eventually led to the formation of the legendary troupe.
Palin's road to Python came via the children's series "Do Not Adjust Your Set" (ITV, 1967-69). The show was the latest in a string of successful creative efforts with Jones, including the sketch series "Twice a Fortnight" (BBC, 1967) and "The Complete and Utter History of England" (London Weekend Television, 1969). "Do Not Adjust Your Set" was the most successful of these, at least from a creative standpoint; the show utilized the same stream of consciousness structure as Python, and featured not only Idle among its cast and writing staff, but American Terry Gilliam, who provided offbeat interstitial animation, and occasional musical interludes by the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, who counted among them frequent Python and Rutles cohort, Neil Innes. The show's popularity with both young audiences and savvy adults lead to a deal with ITV for a follow-up from Palin and Jones. However, as pre-production began on the proposed series, Palin was contacted by Cleese about an impending series on the BBC. Cleese had been offered a two-man show with Chapman, but was reluctant to invest in the show due to his partner's decidedly erratic working habits. Palin agreed to join the fledgling series, and suggested bringing Jones, Idle and Gilliam along to fill out its cast. In doing so, Palin was instrumental in launching what would eventually become Monty Python.
As viewers of "Monty Python's Flying Circus" soon discovered, each of the members brought particular strengths and talents to the series. As a performer, Palin could be counted upon as a sort of utility player; equally talented as a straight man or the center of a comic hurricane, he tackled unctuous game show hosts, put-upon husbands, stubborn middle-class fathers and gibberish-spouting foreigners with effortless skill. He was front and center in some of the show's most legendary sketches, including "The Cheese Shop" and "The Dead Parrot," in which he blithely attempts to respectively convince Cleese that his cheese shop possesses not a shred of actual cheese and that a very dead bird is in fact alive and healthy. Palin also sang one of the show's most memorable musical numbers, "The Lumberjack Song," where his hearty woodsman reveals a hidden taste for ladies' undergarments.
As a writer with Jones, Palin's sketches tended to begin from a very ordinary standpoint - a simple parlor conversation; an innocuous dinner - before taking a sudden and dramatic turn into the bizarre. An idle mention of the Spanish Inquisition brought forth its bloodthirsty (if inept) members, while in "Spam," a diner menu is revealed to offer nothing but the tinned meat, which is praised by a chorus of singing Vikings. Occasionally, these deviations into the strange became decidedly outré, as evidenced by the memorable final sketch from "Monty Python's The Meaning of Life" (1983), in which the obese Mr. Creosote (Jones) is fed until literally exploding.
Palin's gift for the absurd was equally well used in Python's feature films, which began in earnest after the series came to a close in 1974. In "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" (1975), he essayed the gallant if somewhat obtuse Sir Galahad, who nearly escapes the clutches of a nunnery full of wantons, as well as an angry villager mistaken for a woman by King Arthur, and the leader of the Knights who say "Ni." He brought the house down with one of his most infamous speech-impaired characters, the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, in "Life of Brian" (1977), and showed the full range of his abilities in "The Meaning of Life" (1983), which showcased him in numerous roles - the most memorable of which is the Roman Catholic father who announces to his massive brood that he must sell them for medical experiments. The sketch eventually blossomed into a full-blown musical number titled "Every Sperm is Sacred," which earned Palin and Jones a BAFTA nomination for Best Song in 1984. Palin also recreated many of his best-known sketches in the concert film, "Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl" (1982). His final appearance with all six members of Python came in 1988's "Parrot Sketch Not Included: 20 Years of Monty Python," which aired shortly before the two-decade anniversary of the first BBC broadcast of the series, as well as the death of Graham Chapman from cancer.
Palin was also exceptionally busy outside of Python with a variety of film and television projects. He and Jones created and starred in the comedy series "Ripping Yarns" (BBC One, 1976-79), which poked fun at outlandish boys' adventure stories published prior to World War II, and starred in Terry Gilliam's first solo outing as director, "Jabberwocky" (1977). Palin later collaborated on two of Gilliam's most well-regarded features, "Time Bandits" (1982), which he co-wrote and appeared in as a stuttering medieval romantic who falls victim to Cleese's Robin Hood, and the dystopian fantasy "Brazil" (1985). Palin showed an unexpected dramatic side in the latter feature, which cast him as a harmless bureaucrat who is revealed to be a sadistic state-sponsored torturer. Palin also penned and starred in "The Missionary" (1982), a British comedy about a virtuous minister whose new flock is comprised of London prostitutes. His co-stars in that film, Maggie Smith and Denholm Elliott, rejoined him for "A Private Function" (1984), a comedy about war rationing during World War II, and he was a frequent presence on American television during the 1980s, including repeated guest stints on "Saturday Night Live" (NBC, 1975- ).
His best screen role, however, came with "A Fish Called Wanda." Written by and starring Cleese as a lovelorn barrister who falls for a conman's moll (Jamie Lee Curtis), Palin was alternately hilarious and heartrending as a dimwitted, stammer-plagued thief who suffers untold humiliation at the hands of a sociopathic partner (Kevin Kline), including the live consumption of his beloved tropical fish. Palin's performance earned him a Best Supporting Actor BAFTA, and the biggest hit of his film career. The exposure afforded to him by the film's success allowed him the clout to launch a second career as a world traveler, which he documented in several books and popular television documentaries.
His first effort was part of the BBC Two series "Great Railway Journeys" (1980-89), for which he discussed his childhood hobby of train spotting and traveled the length of the United Kingdom from London to Scotland. After veteran British traveler Alan Whicker - amusingly, once the target of a parody by Monty Python - turned down an offer to follow the global trek set forth in Jules Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days, Palin accepted the challenge, circling the globe in "Michael Palin: Around the World in 80 Days" (BBC, 1989). The series followed Palin's successful attempt to travel the world in the manner of Verne's hero, Phineas Fogg - which prevented him from using any aircraft - as well his many adventures along the way, including trips on a Yugoslavian freighter, a Japanese train, and a hot-air balloon in Aspen, CO.
The success of the series and subsequent travel book led to a string of critically acclaimed travel specials which took Palin to nearly every point on the map. He followed the 30 degree east line of longitude from the North to the South Pole in "Pole to Pole" (BBC, 1992), followed in the footsteps of author and adventurer Ernest Hemingway in "Michael Palin's Hemingway" (BBC, 1999), and ventured across two of the Earth's most challenging landscapes in "Sahara" (BBC, 2001) and "Himalaya" (BBC, 2003). In addition to sharing his experiences with audiences through accompanying books, his documentaries had the additional effect of making each location a popular tourist attraction for visitors from around the globe.
Though Palin's travels consumed the majority of his time, he still maintained an interest in entertaining. However, his later film and television roles were decidedly more straight-faced than the work that had established him in the 1960s and 1970s. "American Friend" (1991), which he co-wrote and produced, was a period drama about a staid Oxford professor (Palin) who falls for a young American girl while on holiday in Switzerland. The feature, which was inspired in part by events in the life of Palin's own great-grandfather, earned him an award from the Writers Guild of Britain. The Channel 4 series "G.B.H." (1991) also cast him in a sober role as the headmaster of a boy's school under protest by militants, and brought him another BAFTA nomination. Palin never strayed far from his comedy roots, including a brief turn in Jones' adaptation of "The Wind in the Willows" (1996) and a reunion with Cleese, Curtis and Kline in the ill-fated "Fierce Creatures" (1997), but for the most part, he seemed to relish the new challenges of his travel work and dramatic turns.
The close of the 1990s and the launch of the new millennium saw Palin turning his documentary eye towards painters; among the artists covered were Scotland's Anne Redpath and Villhelm Hammershoi of Denmark. In 2008, he produced "The Last Day of World War One," a documentary about Armistice Day in 1918, for the BBC. The new decade was also a period of tribute for Palin's career. He was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2000, and was placed 30th in a poll of favorite comedians by a voting panel of fellow comics. BAFTA gave him a British Comedy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2002, and a Special Award just three years later. In honor of his travel projects, Virgin Trains and National Express East Anglia named two trains after him - a worthy match to the asteroid named for him, along with all five other Pythons, in 1993. And in 2008, he was the recipient of the James Joyce Award from the Literary and Historical Society in Dublin, Ireland.
That same year brought word that Palin might be returning to the screen in 2010 to play Don Quixote opposite Johnny Depp in "The Man Who Killed Don Quixote." The Terry Gilliam project, which was initially launched in 2000, earned notoriety for a streak of freak production accidents, including the loss of sets to a flash flood and a serious injury to its star, Jean Rochefort, which eventually caused filming to halt.
Filmographyclose complete filmography
CAST: (feature film)
Milestones close milestones
See also separate entry for Monty Python as well as indiviual bios of other group members.
Made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in December 1999
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