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John Cleese Promises To Welcome Rudeness At 'Holy Grail' Screening

John Cleese? Do you mean Sir Lancelot? The French Taunter? Tim the Enchanter? The man who begs to differ when told that the corpse he's carrying is "not dead yet!"? The Black Knight, who when all his limbs are severed, insists "It's only a scratch"?

And that's all just in one movie: "Monty Python and the Holy Grail."

Cleese played dozens of other roles in the original "Monty Python's Flying Circus" TV series, which ran for 45 episodes from 1969-1974.

The Python troupe's first movie, "And Now for Something Completely Different," consisted of remakes of sketches from the TV show. The second film was a sustained parody of the legend of King Arthur and other storied aspects of the Middle Ages: witch-dunking, dead-body gathering, Camelot ("a silly place"), the Bridge of Death and the Trojan Rabbit.

John Cleese will be at The Bushnell in Hartford Friday, Jan. 13, where he'll screen "Holy Grail" and then answer questions from the audience. The nearly three-hour show is similar in structure to when Mel Brooks appeared in Hartford this past May, showing "Blazing Saddles."

Cleese (whose surname, as any Monty Python freak could tell you, rhymes with "cheese" rather than "lease") says he thinks of Connecticut as "one of the more couth areas of the United States."

"Monty Python" rode a new wave of irreverent humor in England that wasn't afraid to satirize the government, organized religions and a host of sacred British institutions.

Cleese is of the most revered British comedians of his generation. Just last week, "Fawlty Towers," Cleese's 1970s series about a hapless innkeeper, was named "best British sitcom of all time" in a survey of over 100 comedians. "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" regularly ranks high on lists of the funniest movies of all time, sometimes competing with the troupe's third film, "Life of Brian."

One of the Python members, Eric Idle, turned "Holy Grail" into a stage musical called "Spamalot" in 2005. The Broadway production starred Hank Azaria in Cleese's roles (alongside Tim Curry as King Arthur and David Hyde Pierce as Sir Robin), was directed by Mike Nichols, and won four Tony Awards, including Best Musical. The national tour of "Spamalot" played The Bushnell in 2007. The show is now a staple of college and community theaters: the Connecticut Repertory Theatre at UConn performed it just last year.

Cleese has recently been working on a theater project of his own: an adaptation of "Monsieur Chasse," an 1892 farce by Georges Feydeau. Cleese's version is called "Bang Bang" and will be performed at the Mercury Theater in Colchester, England, next month.

The actor/writer's autobiography "So, Anyway..." was released in 2014, and he's promoting the more recent audiobook version. The book shows how Cleese's entertainment career was something of a fluke. He'd been writing and performing comedy sketches at Cambridge University (with classmate and fellow Python co-founder Graham Chapman) and was preparing to become a lawyer when he was offered chances to perform in a West End revue, "Cambridge Circus," and write for the BBC radio series "The Dick Emery Show" and "I'm Sorry, I'll Read That Again." This led to TV comedy series such as "At Last the 1948 Show," "Doctor in the House" and ultimately Python. Cleese had been part of over half a dozen feature films prior to "Holy Grail," including the film version of Terry Southern's "The Magic Christian."

Many of his most famous projects have been collaborations or ensemble pieces. "I don't do too many things on my own," Cleese says. He likes to see how the input of others can push a good idea further.

The actor has regularly done speaking tours, including one with Eric Idle last year, and has taken part in various Python reunions over the past several decades. The "Holy Grail" screenings/Q&As are a new format for him.

"I just started doing this," Cleese says, "and I thoroughly enjoy it. The audience is bright and funny. They know who I am. It's one of the most pleasant arrangements I could imagine."

One caveat, however, from a man known for his incendiary discussions with cheese-shop proprietors ("Now, do you have any cheese at all?"), pet-shop employees ("He's not pining! He's passed on!") and British monarchs ("I fart in your general direction!"): "When people ask questions, please ask rude ones. When they say, 'Mr. Cleese, I've enjoyed your work for so many years…,' it's pure death."

JOHN CLEESE appears 7:30 p.m. Friday, alongside a screening of "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," at The Bushnell, 166 Capitol Ave., Hartford. Tickets are $49.50 to $110. 860-987-6000, bushnell.org.

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