Monty Python's Graham Chapman Doesn't Walk on Water, and the Devout Call His Brian Spoof All Wet
10/29/1979 at 01:00 AM EST
An admitted gay and ex-drunk, he has the power to shock
Based on Monty Python's own credo that "the more seriously people take things, the more potential there is for comedy," the British satirical group's current movie, Life of Brian, ought to be an unmitigated howl. It is—though the shrieks it provokes are as much of outrage as glee. A merciless parody of biblical epics, it portrays the life of reluctant messiah "Brian Cohen," a neighbor of Jesus chosen to "save Israel by ridding it of the scum of non-Jewish people." Within six weeks Brian not only became the top grosser on the weekly Variety charts but also grossed out most organized religions. Already banned or picketed in some areas of the East, Brian beards new controversies this week when it premieres in America's so-called Bible Belt. Not the least of the sacrilege to some church leaders is that Graham Chapman, 38, who is cast in the title role as Brian of Nazareth, is a recovered alcoholic and avowed homosexual.
"The film is not against religion," insists Chapman, a quietly tweedy actor-writer who wonders why people "think that whatever God they believe in doesn't have a sense of humor." To him, "Brian is a go against those who use religion to be hostile and murderous." (He includes in that category the IRA.) Indeed, the six-member Monty Python group rejected initial plans to satirize Christ when they found Him in their research to be "rather a nice guy" whose ideas "weren't what we wanted to make fun of." Still, that would not conciliate clerics in the face of Brian lines garbling the Sermon on the Mount's lessons into "blessed are the Cheesemakers" and "the Greek will inherit the earth." The Roman Catholic archdiocese of New York condemned it as a blasphemous "mockery of Christ's life," the Lutheran Council agreed, and three rabbinical organizations have declared the film "a crime against religion."
Quite aside from the current controversy, Chapman admits that for him Brian's frantic eight-week filming in Tunisia "was an incredible testing time." Some months before, he had to be hospitalized when he first tried to kick his four-pint-a-day habit. "I couldn't start the day without a gin and tonic," he says. "As a medical man [he is a licensed doctor], I began to fear for my liver. The withdrawal was remarkably unpleasant," he recalls. "I found I had been calling on my crutch, my drinking, long after the original cause for it, my shyness, had passed. Dealing with homosexuality was not nearly the struggle that giving up liquor was." Indeed, confirms fellow Python, Eric Idle: "When Graham was still drinking and before he had come to grips with his homosexuality, he used to crawl around the pubs trying to kiss all the men and insult all the women. It was quite a sight to see."
The son of a police constable in Leicester, England, Chapman followed his older brother in the study of medicine. But as a Cambridge student he seemed more devoted to rugby ("difficult to play when you are drunk") and the Footlights Review Society, the undergraduate humor ensemble, where he met future Python John Cleese. After Cambridge, as an intern in London, Graham and several buddies spent so much time at the local pub they decided to buy it. "Just by taking our patronage there we could make money on the place," he says. Chapman and Cleese, who studied law, then took off for Ibiza. There they wrote a script optioned by David Frost (a Footlighter two years before their time) and contemplated their futures. "I wanted to be a doctor because I thought I could help people," says Graham. But he found writing "therapeutic," a better way to heal thyself.
Working with Frost—then producing a program of sketches and satire for the BBC—brought Chapman, Cleese and fellow Cantabrigian Idle together with Oxonians Michael Palin and Terry Jones in 1965. By 1969 animator Terry Gilliam had come over from Minneapolis, and the group concocted Monty Python's Flying Circus. The name was sheer invention, as was their TV show, which developed a devoted following during its five-year BBC run and later helped bring new audiences to PBS channels in the States.
During the last five years the troupe has reconvened for the 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Chapman played King Arthur), sold more than a million records and 1.5 million books—thus driving Chapman into L.A. tax exile. His base is a rustic Laurel Canyon chalet, which he also uses as an office. The screenplay he is now writing at the suitably murky poolside is titled Yellow Beard. "At first it was difficult to get used to the relaxed atmosphere," he says. "But now I've settled into a nice routine." Apart from occasional socializing with Ringo Starr, singer Harry Nilsson and their ladies, and appearing (with Brian film clips) on NBC's Sunday Spectacular this week, Graham maintains a more professorial than Pythonesque regimen. Take heed, though. Another Monty Python movie blunderbuss begins scripting next month (target undefined). "There was—and still is—so much energy in the group," Chapman says modestly. "The sum of the constituent parts is so much stronger than the individuals."