Graham Chapman

Biography: Python biographer Kim "Howard" Johnson described Graham Chapman as the most "Pythonesque" member of the group that revolutionized TV comedy. The son of a policeman, Chapman was born and raised during World War II. He felt his childhood was "normal" despite the ongoing battles between England and Nazi Germany. The shy Chapman studied medicine at Emmanuel College, Cambridge – and might not have pursued comedy except for the request from a member of the Windsor family. The Queen Mother told Chapman to travel with the Cambridge Footlights revue to New Zealand. Chapman had joined the Footlights society at Cambridge around 1962, and there he met his most celebrated writing partner: John Cleese. The two men wrote and performed in the celebrated Cambridge Circus, which would visit America for an off-Broadway run in 1965. All that put a stress on Chapman, which caused him to rely increasingly on alcohol. By the end of 1966, Chapman was among the top young writers in Britain's entertainment community. It seemed he wrote for anyone who needed comedy material. With Cleese, Chapman wrote sketches for The Frost Report on BBC1. He also started Doctor in the House and provided small bits for Petula Clark's variety show.

Chapman and Cleese would make strides to change the structure of TV comedy. They (along with Marty Feldman and Tim Brooke-Taylor) wrote and starred in At Last, The 1948 Show for the defunct Rediffusion network. One year later, Chapman and Cleese did a special called How to Irritate People, giving them the chance to perform with fellow Frost Report writer Michael Palin. Chapman and Cleese also drafted movie scripts for David Frost.

But it was Monty Python's Flying Circus, first airing October 5, 1969 on BBC-1, that stamped Chapman's name forever in the annals of television history. Python turned television conventions inside out, influencing generations of comedians. The notion that Python would be "something completely different," was visible from the opening minutes of the first show. Graham went to a desk, ostensibly to introduce the program – and sat on a pig.

As Python fought not to bend to tradition, Chapman established his persona. His best-known Python character was the Colonel. On two separate shows, the Colonel stopped four sketches – including "Dead Parrot" (which he co-wrote with Cleese). The Colonel's presence, according to Chapman, was to try and "disarm" the censors by complaining about the show's material himself.

Off-screen, Chapman had a life full of contradictions. In the years before gay rights, he talked openly about his homosexuality (he would help establish Gay News magazine). Befriending him at home was David Sherlock, who put up with a lot from Graham's drinking.

After a teenage boy named John Tomiczek ran away from his parents, Chapman became his guardian. The pair even appeared in a film sequence for one episode of Monty Python's Flying Circus in 1972.

With the production of the TV series winding down, and already with three record albums to their name, the Pythons expanded into film. They scripted the brilliant Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but when it came to shooting the film in Scotland, disaster nearly struck – more than once.

On the first day of filming, Chapman was pressed to report to the shoot at 7:00 A.M. without any drink on hand. Chapman, as King Arthur, was supposed to appear in the "Bridge of Death" scene. With no alcohol in sight, Chapman broke into DTs. It was on that day in April 1974 that Chapman realized he had to quit drinking. It was the start of a 3½-year battle with the bottle. During that battle, Chapman began writing A Liar's Autobiography, Vol. VI, feeling that should he lose the struggle with alcohol, his memoirs would live on.

Chapman had to restore order to everyone involved in Holy Grail, not just himself. When it appeared the crew was going to revolt, he led everyone into a bar and got everyone drunk. The next day, they had a substantial understanding that Holy Grail would be a successful movie. And it was. Graham and fellow Python Terry Jones attended the Chicago premiere, handing out free coconuts to the first 500 people at the ticket window as a gag.

Less than one year after he stopped drinking, Graham Chapman saw his first independent movie, The Odd Job, get released and quickly laid to rest. (It was never shown in American theaters.) The film was besieged with problems. In particular, Graham wanted close friend Keith Moon (of The Who) to co-star in it, but Moon's substance-abuse problems were getting the better of him.

Within two weeks of Moon's death, Chapman and the other Pythons flew to Tunisia to begin filming Monty Python's Life of Brian. Chapman played Brian, an ordinary man in Biblical Judea, who finds people are convinced he is the Messiah.

In 1981, one month before appearing in an Amnesty International benefit concert, Graham Chapman made the first of his college-speaking engagements. For the next seven years, Chapman did lectures across America, giving college-aged fans insight into his Python days and his dealings with The Dangerous Sports Club.

Graham's last film efforts came in 1983. Most people are familiar with his work in Monty Python's The Meaning of Life, promoting Protestantism's favor of birth control and removing a liver from a live man. Less known is the pirate epic Yellowbeard, which Chapman co-wrote with Bernard McKenna and Peter Cook. Shot in Mexico with a star-studded cast, Yellowbeard grew so big that Chapman was forced to surrender control over its editing.

Chapman spent many years cultivating story ideas for TV and film, occasionally guest-starring on TV shows. In 1987 he was executive producer of the British film Love Potion.

In November 1988, Chapman was diagnosed with throat cancer, the result of many years' pipe-smoking. For the next several months, Graham underwent treatment. He was released from the hospital in September 1989 and was beginning to resume his career, but soon the cancer claimed him.

Chapman died on October 4, 1989 - one day shy of Monty Python's twentieth birthday. It was, according to Terry Jones, "the worst case of party-pooping" imaginable. Subsequent Python ventures – books, CDs, and CD-ROMs among them – have usually been dedicated to his memory.

Above all, Graham Chapman liked to shock, and his fellow Pythons fed off it occasionally. When London held a memorial service to Graham in December 1989, John Cleese delighted the gallery by saying the F-word – "the first person ever at a British memorial service" to do so.

Even in death, Graham Chapman continues his shock shtick to perfection. On separate occasions in 1994 and 1999, David Sherlock (who calls himself "The Widow Chapman") has toyed with Graham's ashes.

PARENTS: Father: Walter (a policeman in Leicester); Mother: Edith SIBLINGS: Brother: John Chapman (b. 1937, a doctor) SCHOOL: Melton Mowbray Grammar School UNIVERSITY: Emmanuel College, Cambridge University (Medicine) MARRIED: Unmarried but, Lived with his lover, David Sherlock, for twenty years CHILDREN: Graham and David adopted a son, John Tomiczek, in 1971; John was a teenage runaway from Liverpool whom Graham met on a London Street; John died in 1992

Graham Chapman's Scores

  • Movies
Score distribution:
  1. Positive: 2 out of 3
  2. Negative: 0 out of 3
3 movie reviews
Title: Year: Credit: User score:
45 A Liar's Autobiography - The Untrue Story of Monty Python's Graham Chapman Nov 2, 2012 Book "A Liar's Autobiography: Volume VI" / Himself 7.5
75 Life of Brian (re-release) Apr 30, 2004 Written By / Wise Man #2/Brian Cohen/Biggus Dickus 8.4
90 Monty Python and the Holy Grail (re-release) Jun 15, 2001 Written By / King Arthur/God/Middle Head/Hiccoughing Guard 9.0