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Eric Idle

Eric Idle

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Also Known As: Died:
Born: March 29, 1943 Cause of Death:
Birth Place: Durham, England, GB Profession: Cast ... screenwriter actor songwriter print editor playwright director author
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BIOGRAPHY

As one-sixth of the famed British comedy troupe, Monty Python, actor-writer-musician Eric Idle specialized in playing cheeky or insincere characters, while immortalizing the catchphrase, "Nudge-nudge, wink-wink, say no more," on "Monty Python's Flying Circus" (BBC1/BBC2, 1969-1974). When the troupe began making films in the 1970s, Idle was given opportunity to flourish, playing the cowardly Sir Robin, among many other memorable characters, in their first bona fide hit, "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" (1975). With "Monty Python's The Life of Brian" (1979), Idle made perhaps his most lasting contribution to the troupe, writing the ending credits song "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life," which was sung by Roman prisoners awaiting death by crucifixion. In between Python films, he branched off on his own to create "The Rutles," a Beatles-like rock-n-roll band that first premiered on the British comedy series "Rutland Weekend Television" (BBC2, 1975-76). Back with Python, Idle appeared in "Monty Python's The Meaning of Life" (1983), playing an array of bizarre characters while writing a number of songs, including "Penis Song (Not the Noel Coward Song)." The beloved troupe eventually parted ways to focus on their own respective solo careers, though members occasionally came together on various projects, including Idle, who appeared in Terry in Gilliam's "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen" (1988). Meanwhile, a true reunion became impossible following Graham Chapman's untimely death in 1989, leaving the surviving members to truly embark on their own. Idle appeared in several hit-or-miss comedies like "Nuns on the Run" (1990) and "Splitting Heirs" (1993), before voicing a variety of characters in a number of animated projects. With the blessing of the surviving members, Idle unflinchingly "ripped off" "The Holy Grail" to write both the book and music for "Monty Python's Spamalot" (2005), a musical version of the film that became a huge Broadway hit and Tony winner, while spawning numerous revivals and tours the world over. Not only did he and his fellow Pythoners become incredibly wealthy, Idle confirmed that their influence on comedy was considerable and worthy of being compared to the Beatles' effect upon music.

Born on March 29, 1943 in South Shields, Durham, England, Idle was raised by his mother, Norah, a nurse and health visitor. His father, Ernest, flew combat missions for the Royal Air Force during World War II, only to be killed in a car crash while hitchhiking on Christmas Eve 1945. Because his mother had difficulty earning a living while raising a child, Idle was enrolled at the Royal Wolverhampton School, a former orphanage-turned-boarding school, when he was seven years old. But the environment proved to be harsh and abusive, leading the young Idle to use his wits and biting humor to survive, while developing a strong distaste for authority - a trait he later claimed was a perfect training ground for being in Monty Python. In order to stave off boredom, Idle plunged himself into his studies, which later allowed him to attend Pembroke College at the University of Cambridge. It was at Cambridge that he met future Pythoners Graham Chapman and John Cleese while a member of the school's comedy troupe, The Footlights, for which he eventually served as president.

Idle went on to make his professional stage debut in "One for the Pot" (1965) and his television acting debut in Ken Russell's "Isadora" (1966). The paths of Cleese, Chapman and Idle crossed those of Oxford University grads Terry Jones and Michael Palin when all were contributing writers to the British TV series "The Frost Report" (BBC, 1966-67). Idle subsequently collaborated with Chapman on scripts for the comedy series "No - That's Me Over Here!" (Rediffusion, 1967-68), and with Palin and Jones for "Do Not Adjust Your Set" (Rediffusion/Thames Television 1967-69). He also worked with Cleese on "I'm Sorry, I'll Read That Again" (BBC, 1963-1974) and "At Last the 1948 Show" (ITV, 1967-68), which also featured Chapman. Given a chance to do their own thing, Idle, Cleese, Chapman, Palin, Jones and American animation specialist Terry Gilliam, formed Monty Python and created "Monty Python's Flying Circus" (BBC1/BBC2, 1969-1974), which, over the course of its four series, became the most famous skit comedy to emerge from Britain, with some comparing their influence upon comedy to that of the Beatles upon music.

"Monty Python" put on display a number of skits, sketches and gags that were both absurdly slapstick and pointedly satirical, often skewering British culture and politics with biting intellectual vigor, hilarious over-the-top characters, and wild animation drawn by Gilliam. Though Cleese emerged as the show's star, Idle - who often wrote his skits alone, as opposed to the others writing in teams - became noted for his ability to play cheeky or insincere characters, while also using his musical talents to contribute numerous memorable songs. As the youngest member of the troupe, he also had a penchant for writing more adolescent-minded skits that were tinged by pop references and sexual innuendo. Some of Idle's better-known skits were "The Door-to-Door Joke Salesman," "Prawn Salad," "Self-Defense Against Fresh Fruit" and "Candid Photography" - a.k.a. "Nudge Nudge" - in which he played an enthusiastic man making sexual innuendoes that ended with "Nudge, nudge, wink, wink, say no more," one of the more famous lines from the series. During the show's run, the Pythons made their first of four features, "And Now for Something Completely Different" (1971), an ironically titled string of re-shot skits that had already aired on the show, including Idle's "Nudge Nudge" and "Marriage Guidance Counselor," in which he played the titular role who flirts with the wife (Carol Cleveland) of a put-upon stuffed-shirt (Palin).

Lauded by critics and embraced by the public, the irreverent and often surreal humor of "Monty Python's Flying Circus" was a hit in its native Britain, as well as in the United States, where it generated a large cult following over several generations. In fact, rebroadcasts on PBS, two ABC late-night specials in 1975, and five feature films created and nurtured a large and appreciative American audience for their inspired lunacy. While "And Now for Something Completely Different" (1971) paved the way, it was their next two big screen ventures that cemented their place in comedy history. The first was "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" (1975), an absurdist send-up of the Arthurian legend that followed King Arthur (Chapman) on his quest to find the Holy Grail with his famed Knights of the Round Table. Made on a shoestring budget - they resorted to banging two empty coconuts halves together when unable to pay for a horse - "The Holy Grail" was the first to feature entirely new material. Idle was featured in some of the movie's most famous moments, playing a village employee who monotonously intones "Bring out your dead;" a confused Swamp Castle guard; Concorde, the squire of Sir Lancelot (John Cleese); and of course, the cowardly Sir Robin, who soils his armor at witnessing the Killer Rabbit in action.

While on break between Monty Python movies, Idle starred in "Rutland Weekend Television" (ITV, 1975-76), which featured some of the surreal humor that made "Flying Circus" so popular. It also introduced "The Rutles" - aka The Prefab Four - which of course parodied The Beatles. On the "Rutland Weekend Television" version, Idle was Dirk McQuickly, the George Harrison of the band. The skit proved popular, leading to an appearance on "Saturday Night Live" (NBC, 1975- ) and a mockumentary called "All You Need Is Cash" (1978). While Idle continued to play Dirk, the character was refocused to become the Paul McCartney of the group. Idle next reunited with his old mates for "Monty Python's Life of Brian" (1979), a rather irreverent examination of faith and religion that followed Brian Cohen (Graham Chapman), who becomes mistaken for the messiah in ancient Jerusalem. Once again, Idle appeared in several memorable key roles, playing the gender-conflicted Stan, who wants to be called Loretta; Mr. Cheeky, who eagerly awaits crucifixion; and Harry the Haggler. Perhaps his greatest contribution to the film - and all of Monty Python - was the ending song, "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life," happily sung by Roman prisoners while nailed to the cross. Thanks to its popularity, the song became the unofficial theme of Monty Python. Widely considered to be their best film, "Life of Brian" sparked outrage across Europe, particularly in the United Kingdom, where several counties and municipalities banned theaters from showing it.

Continuing along, Idle and his Python mates appeared in "Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl" (1982), a concert film shot at the famed Los Angeles venue that featured live performances of famed sketches and several musical numbers, including their opening song, "Sit on my Face." Also included was the "Four Yorkshiremen" sketch, which was originally written for "At Last the 1948 Show." Additionally that year, Idle produced his first stage play, "Pass the Butler" (1982), and later wrote and directed "The Frog Prince," the award-winning debut episode of Showtime's "Faerie Tale Theatre," starring Robin Williams and Terri Garr. Idle next joined his Monty Python mates for what would be their last film together, "Monty Python's The Meaning of Life" (1983), a sort of return to their "Flying Circus" days that featured numerous loosely connected sketches all ruminating on the various stages of life: "The Miracle of Birth," "Growth and Learning," "Middle Age" and of course "Live Organ Transplants." After the film was released and generated a good share of controversy, Monty Python parted ways, though on occasional some members worked together on various projects over the years.

Branching out on his own, Idle appeared as the accident-prone bike rider in "National Lampoon's European Vacation" (1985) and played the fastest man on Earth in Gilliam's lavish commercial flop, "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen" (1988). He next starred in the short-lived fantasy sitcom "Nearly Departed" (NBC, 1989), before joining Robbie Coltrane to portray two thieves hiding out as nuns in "Nuns on the Run" (1990). After two little-known British comedies, "Too Much Sun" (1990) and "Missing Pieces" (1991), Idle wrote, executive produced and starred in "Splitting Heirs" (1993), a mistaken identity comedy reuniting him with Cleese, which unfortunately failed to live up to the genius of Python. He followed with a supporting turn as Dibbs in "Casper" (1995), before joining Terry Jones for his live-action "The Wind in the Willows" (1996), a delightful rendition of the Kenneth Grahame classic that captured its satire of British class pretensions alarmed at the Industrial Age's assault on the pastoral life, which reteamed Jones, Idle, Palin and Cleese on screen for the first time since Graham Chapman's untimely death from cancer in 1989. Despite the reunion, Columbia refused to promote its acquisition and relegated the gem to a very limited U.S. release.

Meanwhile, Idle contributed his voice to three 1998 animated features, "The Quest for Camelot," "The Secret of NIHM II: Timmy to the Rescue" and "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Movie," as well as voicing Parenthesis for "Disney's Hercules" (ABC, 1998-2000) series and Dr. Vosknocker in "South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut" (1999). Though he starred as fictional director Alan Smithee in the showbiz satire "Burn, Hollywood, Burn" (1998), it was director Arthur Hiller - who ironically requested to have his name removed from the credits upon completion - and writer Joe Eszterhaus who shouldered the blame for creating what many considered to be one of the worst films ever made. Resurfacing as a series regular for the 1999-2000 season of NBC's "Suddenly Susan," he played Ian Maxtone-Graham, an eccentric Englishman" who becomes star Brooke Shield's new boss. His feature appearances continued unabated, playing Prospector Kim Jay Darling in "Dudley Do-Right" (1999), having a cameo in the Harrison Ford thriller "Hollywood Homicide" (2003) and revisiting the Griswald family in the direct-to-video "Christmas Vacation 2: Cousin Eddie's Island Adventure" (2003). Idle also continued to build a busy side career as a voice actor, serving as the narrator of the surprise hit fairy tale "Ella Enchanted" (2004).

After launching his show "The Greedy Bastard Tour" (2003), which featured numerous sketches from Monty Python without contributions from the others, Idle secured the blessings of the surviving members to move forward with the musical production "Monty Python's Spamalot" (2005) inspired by - or in Idle's words "ripped off" from - their classic film "Monty Python & the Holy Grail." With book and lyrics by Idle, music by Idle and John Du Prez, and directed by Mike Nichols, "Spamalot" featured much of the satirical absurdity from the 1975 film, along with the show's best and more original bits built around potshots at Andrew Lloyd Webber and Stephen Sondheim, "Dreamgirls" and "The Boy From Oz," and the show-stopping song "You Won't Succeed on Broadway." Starring David Hyde Pierce as Sir Robin, Hank Azaria as Sir Lancelot and Tim Curry as King Arthur, the production opened at Broadway's Shubert Theatre in March 2005 to rave reviews and record advance ticket sales that surpassed even Mel Brooks' "The Producers." Perhaps most importantly, the musical instigated a teary reunion of the remaining original knights-errants Palin, Jones, Gilliam and Cleese, for the first time in seven years to cheer on their fellow Python. Shortly after its debut, the show scored three Tony awards, including Best Musical, Best Director and a Best Supporting Actress trophy for the show's scene-stealing breakout star Sara Ramirez, while also raking in 12 Drama Desk Awards nominations.

While "Spamalot" went on tour to London, North America and even Poland, Idle and the other surviving members of Monty Python began appearing together again in various incarnations, mostly to celebrate anniversaries of the show, doing interviews and appearing on stage, including Idle and Cleese singing "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" for the Prince Charles 60th birthday show. Meanwhile, Idle continued making his own appearances, providing the voice of Merlin for "Shrek the Third" (2007) and the voice of Spig in "Delgo" (2008). The focus again shifted back to Monty Python when a six-part television documentary, "Monty Python: Almost the Truth (The Lawyers Cut)" (BBC, 2009), aired first in the United Kingdom, then throughout the world, including on the IFC channel in the United States. The film traced each troupe member's existence from birth to the time of the film's release, while including some rare archival footage of the late Graham Chapman. It marked the first time in 20 years that all five surviving members came together for a single project.

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