John Cleese

  1. Gene Wilder, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, 1970.     Author Roald Dahl’s   original choice to play his eccentric chocolatier was BBC radio Goon Spike Milligan. Next? Spike’s co-Goon Peter Sellers was too expensive. LA’s choice, Joel Grey, was “not physically imposing enough.” Ron Moody  would have frightened the horses – and the kids. UK comic Frankie Howerd was into two film farces. Jon Pertwee was wed to Doctor Who. Carry On stars Sidney James and Kenneth Williams were as keen as (a way too old) Fred Astaire. One by one, all six Monty Pythons (Cleese, Graham Chapman, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones,  Michael Palin) were judged not international enough – and Howerd, Milligan and Pertwee were?! Cleese, Idle and Palin were offered the 2005 re-hash; Chapman had died in 1989.
  2. Jeremy Hawk, Eskimo Nell,1974.   Mr Monty Python declined an invite to be  Vernon Peabody in a typically bawdy Britcom – based on an even  bawdier poem. New Zealander Martin Campbell, a future 007 director, took charge …  while in Australia, Richard  Franklin was helming The True Story of Eskimo Nell.  Campbell’s version was swiftly  re-titled down-under as  The Sexy Saga of Naughty Nell and Big Dick . Hawk first made his name as the suave straight man for such comics as Benny Hill and Norman Wisdom.  such comics as Benny Hill and Norman Wisdom.
  3. Graham Chapman, Monty Python’s Life of Brian, 1979.       One the boil since Eric Idle suggested Jesus Christ: Lust For Glory in 1975, the Brian script was finished in Barbados over Christmas 1977, when the group managed to persuade Cleese not to play Brian Cohen, the reluctant Messiah born in the next stable to Jesus.  “And  they were absolutely right. It was just that I’d never played one character all the way through a film – I didn’t  until Giles Flack in Privates On Parade – when I was 42!”  In what he considered  the group’s masterpiece – “that’s what I’d  like to be judged by in the future” – he played a Wise Man, a Jewish Official, a Roman centurion, and Reg, leader of the People’s Front of Judea: “All right, but apart from the sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?”  And the gay alcoholic Chapman finally got off the sauce to become the perfect Brian.  Or he was with the aid of an elastic band after director Terry Jones said he did not look Jewish during his full fronal nudity.
  4. Shecky Greene, History of the World Part 1, 1980.     Sensible refusal. Absolutely no fusion possible between Cleese wit and Mel Brooks farce.
  5. David Warner, Time Bandits, 1980.     According to his 1980 diary, Michael Palin went directly from a meeting with his son’s future headmaster to another with Terry Gilliam  – to discuss if Cleese was right for the Evil Genius. No! So he became Robin Hood, instead.  Eric Idle was not pleased, feeling that exec producer Dennis O’Brien (who wanted Burt Reynolds as the Evil Genius!) was turning the Terry Gilliam-Michael Palin scenario into a new Monty Python film. 
  6. Richard Pasco, Wagner, 1983.     John rejected $500,000 to join Richard  Burton as, well…  Basil Fawlty, secret agent, in the eight-hour bio.  “All the character did was rant and rave and pull a woman’s hair. They added insult to injury by saying they thought they might ask Prunella Scales to play my wife!”  Difficult, though, to  refuse a role called Otto, “He used to call himself Otto at one time,” said his mother. “It was when he went a bit mad…” Kevin Kline was an Otto in Cleese’s A Fish Called Wanda).
  7. Leonard Rossiter, Water, 1984.     Michael Palin refused the lead and Cleese nixed  the bumbling diplomat, Sir Malcolm Leveridge  – based on Terry-Thomas and his 1958 comedy, Carlton-Browne of the FO, but disguised (badly) as a satire of more recent US./UK invasions Grenada and the Falkland Islands.
  8. Tim Curry, Clue, 1985.        Anyone for Cluedo? Because that’s what we were watching… “We’re trying to find out who killed him, and where, and with what!” When UK TV star Leonard Rossiter died during pre-production, the Briish auteur Jonathan Lynn was told that Cleese and Rowan Atkinson, the perfect replacements, were not well enough known in the US (as if Rossiter was). Lynn then chose a Brit who was… He also happened to be a Lynn pal since their tweenage years.
  9. Barrie Ingham, The Great Mouse Detective, 1985. First choice for for Basil, the mouse living in Sherlock Holmes’ 221B Baker Street and catching the great man’s deductive powers. Ingham was a former member of the UK’s Royal Shakespeare Company (in 16 plays with Judi Dench) with time off for good behaviour in Doctor Who, Star Trek: The Next Generation, etc.
  10. Peter O’Toole, Club Paradise, 1986.     The, er, comedy died once Cleese and Murray were switched to Peter O’Toole and Robin Williams. As Chicago critic Roger Ebert wrote about Williams: “When the star of a movie seems desperate enough to depend on one-liners, can the rest of the cast be blamed for losing confidence in the script?”

  11. Christopher Lloyd, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, 1987. The former Monty Python was turned down for being just that. In a rather silly decision, producer Steven Spielberg and his directr protege, Robert Zemeckis felt that no one would accept a Python as the sadistic Judge Doom. And yet, they felt Robin Williams would be fine. But not Tim Curry, Roddy McDowall or Sting. And Christpher Lee passed. Go figure… (In an early draft, the obviously toon judge (he never blinked) was the hunter who killed Bambi’s mother). Fellow Python Terry Gilliam passed on directing what he shot down as a variation on Howard the Duck, 1985. Well, no, Terry. It was, in fact, based on the never made Cloverleaf, Robert Towne’s third Jake Gittes/Chinatown script. So Bob Hoskins was really Jack Nicholson!
  12. Michael Caine, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, 1988.     Or King of the Mountain  when created for David Bowie-Mick Jagger.  Cleese  “reluctantly”  refused  the Bedtime Story re-make opposite Steve Martin as  the con-men created (badly) by Marlon Brando-David Niven  in 1963.
  13. Bruce Willis, Bonfire of the  Vanities, 1990.     He had learned one thing – never read US scripts. Playing the dissipated – English! – journo could, though, have saved this one from such swift extinction.  Paradoxically, Jack Nicholson was also offered the part.
  14. David Ogden Stiers, Beauty and the Beast, 1990. There were obviously some Monty Python/Fawlty Towers fans of among the eleven scenarists as Cogsworth was written specially for Cleese. He passed, all the same. In the French lingo dub, the rôle as called Big Ben.
  15. Johnathan Hyde, Richie Rich, 1994.      Who cared about accents.? The Australian Hyde’s height was perfect   – over 6ft, as were all the cast to disguise Macauley Culkin having reached 5ft. 6in.
  16. Patrick Bergin, Robin Hood, 1990.    As already reported here, Cleese was the Sherwood hero in Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits, 1981.   Now the #1 Python was asked to be Robin Hood – aka Sir Robert Hode (!), this time – in the (straight) Fox quickie clashing  in on the (obvious) success-to-be of Kevin Costner’s Robin of Locksey.…wherein Cleese was…. 
  17. Alan Rickman, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, 1991.  …in the mix with  John Malkovich and Richard E Grant for the evil Sheriff of Nottingham opposite Kevin Coster’s  arrow-slinging hero… and  Bryan Adams’ runaway global  hit song,  Everything I Do (I Do It For You).   Cleese had been the Sherwood hero  in Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits, 1981.
  18. Rowan Atkinson, The Lion King, 1993.      In the y mix to voice Zazu in the 32nd Disney toon – Bambi meets Hamlet in Africa! – were Chris Barrie, Simon Callow, David Jason, Spike Milligan, Vic Reeves, Patrick Stewart. Plus various UK comedy giants: Peter Cook and Dudley Moore; The Two Ronnies: Barker and Ronnie Corbett; The Goodies: Tim Brooke-Taylor, Graeme Garden, Bill Odie; and the Monty Pythons: Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, Eric Idle, Michael Palin.
  19. Michael Barrymore, Spice World, 1997.    Turned down the Spice Girls. Within a few years,  everyone turned down the scandal-ridden Barrymore. 

  20. Johnny Depp, Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, 2004.   
    A major Monty P fan, director Tim Burton also mused over John’s fellow surviving Pythons Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin for chocolatier Willy Wonka. (They were also up for the 1970 version). Burton’s 25 other fancies: his ole Betelgeuse, Michael Keaton, plus Dan Aykroyd, Rowan Atkinson, Nicolas Cage, Jim Carrey, Chevy Chase, Warwick Davis, Robert De Niro, James Gandolfini, Dwayne Johnson, Ian McKellen, Marilyn Manson, Steve Martin, Rik Mayall, Bill Murray, Mike Myers, John Neville, Leslie Nielsen, Brad Pitt, Peter Sallis, Adam Sandler, Jerry Seinfeld, Will Smith, Patrick Stewart, Ben Stiller, Christopher Walken and Robin Williams. Among the five exec producers, author Roald Dahl’s widow, Liccy, wanted her husband’s favourite Willy – Dustin Hoffman.   If not possible she voted for UK comics, Eddie Izzard or David Walliams. She was quite happy with Depp… who found Willy’s voice while riffing on a stoned George W Bush!

  21. Tim Curry,  Burke and Hare, 2009.   The titular 1828 grave-robbers (Simon Pegg, Andy Serkis)  were more diabolically funny than their main customers for corpses  (the fresher the better) – the bitchy doctors Monro and Knox, aka Tim and Tom Wilkinson instead of Cleese and Dan Aykroyd.
  22. James Corden, Into The Woods, 2013.
  23. Alan Tudyk, Big Hero 6, 2014.   Alec Baldwin, Peter Dinklage, Paul Giamatti, John Goodman, John Lithgow, Christopher Lloyd, Alfred Malina, John Malkovich, Gary Oldman, Mandy Pantinkin,  Hugo Weaving and UK comics John Cleese and Eddie Izzard were listed for voicing Alistair Krei in Disney’s first Marvel subject – winning the best animation Oscar. It unfurled in 2023 (we all know that computer battery number, right?) in San Fransokyo (‘Frisco rebuilt by the Japanese after an earthquake) and deals with a bunch of superheroes with the titular collective name… that nobody ever uses.  Krei was the arch foe of the super-nemesis played by James Cromwell.




 Birth year: Death year: Other name: Casting Calls:  23