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Eric Idle (born 29 March 1943) is an English comedian, actor, author, singer, writer and comedic composer.
Idle was a member of the British surreal comedy group Monty Python, a member of the Rutles on Saturday Night Live, and the author of the Broadway musical Spamalot.
Early life and education
Idle was born in South Shields, County Durham, in Harton village. His mother, Nora Barron (née Sanderson), was a health visitor, and his father, Ernest Idle, served in the Royal Air Force during World War II, only to be killed in a hitch-hiking accident shortly after the war. His mother had difficulty coping with a full-time job and bringing up a child, so when Idle was seven, she enrolled him into the Royal Wolverhampton School as a boarder. At this time the school was a charitable foundation dedicated to the education and maintenance of children who had lost one or both parents. Idle is quoted as saying: "It was a physically abusive, bullying, harsh environment for a kid to grow up in. I got used to dealing with groups of boys and getting on with life in unpleasant circumstances and being smart and funny and subversive at the expense of authority. Perfect training for Python."
Idle stated that the two things that made his life bearable were listening to Radio Luxembourg under the bedclothes and watching the local football team, Wolverhampton Wanderers. Despite this, he disliked other sports and would sneak out of school every Thursday afternoon to the local cinema. Idle was eventually caught watching the X-rated film BUtterfield 8 and stripped of his prefecture, even though by that time he was head boy. Idle had already refused to be senior boy in the school cadet force, as he supported the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and had participated in the yearly Aldermaston March. Idle maintains that there was little to do at the school and boredom drove him to study hard, and consequently won a place at Cambridge University.
Pre-Python career (1965–1969)
Idle attended Pembroke College at Cambridge, where he studied English. At Pembroke, he was invited to join the prestigious Cambridge University Footlights Club by the President of the Footlights Club, Tim Brooke-Taylor and Footlights Club member Bill Oddie.
“I'd never heard of the Footlights when I got there, but we had a tradition of college smoking-concerts, and I sent in some sketches parodying a play that had just been done. Tim Brooke-Taylor and Bill Oddie auditioned me for the Footlights smoker, and that led to me discovering about and getting into the Footlights, which was great.”
Idle started at Cambridge only a year after his future Pythons fellows Graham Chapman and John Cleese. He became Footlights President in 1965 and was the first to allow women to join the club. Idle starred in the children's television comedy series Do Not Adjust Your Set co-starring his future Python fellows Terry Jones and Michael Palin. Terry Gilliam provided animations for the show. Other cast members of the show includes comic actors David Jason and Denise Coffey.
Monty Python (1969–1983)
Idle wrote for Python mostly by himself, at his own pace, although he sometimes found it difficult in having to present material to the others and make it seem funny without the back-up support of a partner. Cleese admitted that this was slightly unfair – when the Pythons voted on which sketches should appear in a show, "he only got one vote", but says that Idle was an independent person and worked best on his own. Idle himself admitted this was sometimes difficult: "You had to convince five others. And they were not the most un-egotistical of writers, either."
Idle's work in Python is often characterised by an obsession with language and communication: many of his characters have verbal peculiarities, such as the man who speaks in anagrams, the man who says words in the wrong order, and the butcher who alternates between rudeness and politeness every time he speaks. A number of his sketches involve extended monologues (for example the customer in the "Travel Agency" sketch who won't stop talking about his unpleasant experiences with holidays), and he would frequently spoof the unnatural language and speech patterns of television presenters. Unlike Palin, Idle is said to be the master of insincere characters, from the David Frost-esque Timmy Williams, to small-time crook Stig O'Tracy, who tries to deny the fact that organised crime master Dinsdale Piranha nailed his head to the floor.
As the second-youngest member of the Pythons, Idle was closest in spirit to the students and teenagers who made up much of Python's fanbase. Python sketches dealing most with contemporary obsessions like pop music, sexual permissiveness and recreational drugs are usually Idle's work, often characterised by double entendre, sexual references, and other "naughty" subject matter – most famously demonstrated in "Nudge Nudge." Idle originally wrote "Nudge, Nudge" for Ronnie Barker, but it was rejected because there was 'no joke in the words'.
A competent guitarist, Idle composed many of the group's most famous musical numbers, most notably "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life", the closing number of Life of Brian, which has grown to become a Python signature tune. He was responsible for the "Galaxy Song" from The Meaning of Life and "Eric the Half-a-Bee", a whimsical tune that first appeared on the Previous Record album.
Post-Python career (1973–present)
After the success of Python in the early 1970s, all six members pursued solo projects. Idle's first solo work was his own BBC Radio One show, Radio Five (pre-dating the real Radio Five station by 18 years). This ran for two seasons from 1973 to 1974 and involved Idle performing sketches and links to records, with himself playing nearly all the multi-tracked parts.
On television, Idle created Rutland Weekend Television (RWT), a sketch show on BBC2, written by himself, with music by Neil Innes. RWT was 'Britain's smallest television network'. The name was a parody of London Weekend Television, the independent television franchise that provided Londoners with their ITV services at weekends; Rutland had been England's smallest county, but had recently been 'abolished' in an administrative shake-up. To make the joke complete, the programme went out on a weekday. Other regular performers were David Battley, Henry Woolf, Gwen Taylor and Terence Bayler and George Harrison made a guest appearance on one episode.
A legacy of RWT was the creation, with Innes, of the Rutles, an affectionate parody of the Beatles. The band became a popular phenomenon, especially in the U.S. where Idle was appearing on Saturday Night Live – fans would send in Beatles LPs with their sleeves altered to show the Rutles. In 1978, the Rutles' mockumentary film All You Need Is Cash, a collaboration between Python members and Saturday Night Live, was aired on NBC television, as written by Idle, with music by Innes. Idle appeared in the film as "Dirk McQuickly" (the Paul McCartney-styled character of the group), as well as the main commentator. Actors appearing in the film included Saturday Night Live's John Belushi, Bill Murray and Gilda Radner, as well as George Harrison and Mick Jagger. Idle wrote and directed the Rutles comeback in 2008 for a live show Rutlemania! to celebrate the 30th anniversary. The performances took place in Los Angeles and New York with a Beatles tribute band.
In the 1985 film National Lampoon's European Vacation, he played the part of the bike rider.
In 1986, Idle provided the voice of Wreck-Gar, the leader of the Junkions (a race of robots built out of junk that can only speak in film catchphrases and advertising slogans) in The Transformers: The Movie. In 1987, he took part in the English National Opera production of the Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera The Mikado, in which he appeared in the role of the Lord High Executioner. In 1989, he appeared in the U.S. comedy television series Nearly Departed, about a ghost who haunts the family inhabiting his former home. The series lasted for six episodes as a summer replacement series.
Idle received good critical notices appearing in projects written and directed by others – such as Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1989), alongside Robbie Coltrane in Nuns on the Run (1990) and in Casper (1995). He also played Ratty in Terry Jones' version of The Wind in the Willows (1996). However, his own creative projects – such as the film Splitting Heirs (1993), a comedy he wrote, starred in and executive-produced – were mostly unsuccessful with critics and audiences.
In 1994, he appeared as Dr. Nigel Channing, chairman of the Imagination Institute and host of an 'Inventor of the Year' awards show in the three-dimensional film Honey, I Shrunk the Audience!, which was an attraction at Walt Disney World's Epcot from 1994 until 2010 and at Disneyland from 1998 until 2010. The film also stars Rick Moranis and other members of the cast of the 1989 feature film Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. In 1999, he reprised the role in the second (and controversial) version of the Journey Into Imagination ride at Epcot, replacing Figment and Dreamfinder as the host. Due to an outcry from Disney fans, Figment was reinstated into the ride. Idle is also writer and star of the 3-D film film Pirates – 4D for Busch Entertainment Corporation.
In 1995, he voiced Rincewind the "Wizzard" in a computer adventure game based on Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels. In 1996, he reprised his role as Rincewind for the game's sequel, and composed and sang its theme song, "That's Death". In 1998, Idle appeared in the lead role in the poorly received film Burn Hollywood Burn (see Criticism). That same year, he also provided the voice of Devon, a dragon, in Warner Bros. Animated film Quest for Camelot and as Slyly the albino arctic fox in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Movie.
In recent years, Idle has worked with people who regard him as a huge inspiration, such as Trey Parker and Matt Stone in South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, in which he voiced Dr. Vosknocker. He has also made three appearances on The Simpsons as famous documentarian Declan Desmond, so far the only appearance on the show by a Python. From 1999 to 2000, he played Ian Maxtone-Graham on the NBC sitcom Suddenly Susan. He has also acted as Narrator to the AudioNovel version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl and Waddlesworth the parrot in 102 Dalmatians and the video game of the same name.
In late 2003, Idle began a performing tour of several American and Canadian cities entitled The Greedy Bastard Tour. The stage performances consisted largely of music from Monty Python episodes and films, along with some original post-Python material. In 2005, Idle released The Greedy Bastard Diary, a book detailing the things the cast and crew encountered during the three-month tour.
In 2004, Idle created Spamalot, a musical comedy based on the 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The medieval production tells the story of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table as they journey on their quest for the Holy Grail. Spamalot features a book and lyrics by Eric Idle, music by Idle and John Du Prez, direction by Mike Nichols, and choreography by Casey Nicholaw.
More recently, Idle provided the voice of Merlin the magician in the DreamWorks animated film Shrek the Third (2007) with his former Python co-star John Cleese, who voiced King Harold.
Idle's play What About Dick? was given a staged reading at two public performances in Hollywood on 10–11 November 2007. The cast included Idle, Billy Connolly, Tim Curry, Eddie Izzard, Jane Leeves, Emily Mortimer, Jim Piddock and Tracey Ullman. The play returned on 26–29 April 2012 in the Oprheum Theatre with most of the cast returning with the exception of Emily Mortimer who was replaced by Sophie Winkleman. Russell Brand also joined the cast. The play was made available for digital download on 13 November 2012.
Eric Idle was a popular addition to the 2012 Summer Olympics closing ceremony at the Olympic Stadium in London on 12 August. In the spirit of the Olympic Games, Idle sang his hit Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.
Idle has written several books, both fiction and non-fiction. His novels are Hello Sailor and The Road to Mars. In 1976, he produced a spin-off book to Rutland Weekend Television, entitled The Rutland Dirty Weekend Book. In 1982, he wrote a West End farce Pass the Butler, starring Willie Rushton. During his Greedy Bastard Tour of 2003, he wrote the diaries that would be made into The Greedy Bastard Diary: A Comic Tour of America, published in February 2005.
Idle also wrote the book and co-wrote the music and lyrics for the musical Monty Python's Spamalot, based on the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It premiered in Chicago before moving to Broadway, where it received the Tony Award for Best Musical of the 2004–05 season. Idle won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Lyrics.
In a 2005 poll to find "The Comedians' Comedian" (UK), he was voted 21 in the top 50 greatest comedy acts ever by fellow comedians and comedy insiders.
An example of Idle's idiosyncratic writing is "Ants In Their Pants" – a poem about the sex life of ants. It starts as follows:
'Where does an ant get its rocks off?
How does the ant get it on?
Do ants have it away, say three times a day,
Is it once a week sex, or p'raps none?'