Graham Chapman

Graham Chapman
Born Graham Arthur Chapman
(1941-01-08)8 January 1941
Leicester, England
Died 4 October 1989(1989-10-04) (aged 48)
Maidstone, Kent, England
Cause of death Tonsil and spinal cancer
Other names Gray Chapman
Alma mater Emmanuel College, Cambridge
St Bartholomew's Medical College
  • Comedian
  • writer
  • actor
Years active 1960–1989
Notable work Monty Python
Partner(s) David Sherlock (1966–1989)

Graham Arthur Chapman (8 January 1941 – 4 October 1989) was an English comedian, writer, actor, and one of the six members of the surreal comedy group Monty Python. He played authority figures such as the Colonel and the lead role in two Python films, Holy Grail and Life of Brian.

Chapman was born in Leicester and was raised in Melton Mowbray. He enjoyed science, acting and comedy, and after graduating from Emmanuel College, Cambridge and St Bartholomew's Medical College, he turned down a career as a doctor to be a comedian. Chapman established a writing partnership with John Cleese, which reached its critical peak with Monty Python during the 1970s. Chapman subsequently left Britain for Los Angeles, where he attempted to be a success on American television, speaking on the college circuit and producing the pirate film Yellowbeard, before returning to Britain in the early 1980s.

Chapman was openly homosexual and a strong supporter of gay rights, and was in a relationship with David Sherlock for most of his adult life. He was an alcoholic during his time at Cambridge and the early Python years, quitting shortly before working on Life of Brian. Chapman died of tonsil and spinal cancer on 4 October 1989, on the eve of Monty Python's 20th anniversary, and his life and legacy were commemorated at a private memorial service at St Bartholomew's with the other Pythons.

Early life and education

Graham Arthur Chapman was born on 8 January 1941 at the Stoneygate Nursing Home, Stoneygate, Leicester, the son of policeman Walter Chapman and Edith Towers.[1] He had an elder brother, John, who was born in 1936.[2] One of Chapman's earliest memories was seeing the remains of Polish airmen who had suffered an aeroplane accident near Leicester, later saying the horrific sights of this remained in his memory.[3]

Chapman was educated at Melton Mowbray Grammar School. He showed a strong affinity for science, sports and amateur dramatics, and was singled out for attention when a local paper reviewed his performance of Mark Antony in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar.[4] Graham and John Chapman were both avid fans of radio comedy, being especially fond of The Goon Show[5] and Robert Moreton's skill of telling jokes the wrong way round and reversing punchlines. Biographer Jim Yoakum said "the radio shows didn't necessarily make him laugh."[6]

In 1959, Chapman began to study medicine at Emmanuel College, Cambridge.[7] He joined the Cambridge Footlights, where he first began writing with John Cleese.[8] Following graduation, Chapman joined the Footlights show "Cambridge Circus" and toured New Zealand, deferring his medical studies for a year.[9] After the tour, he continued his studies at St Bartholomew's Medical College,[10] but became torn between whether to pursue a career in medicine or acting. His brother John later said, "He wasn't ever driven to go into medicine ... it wasn't his life's ambition."[11]


Pre-Python career

Following their Footlights success, Chapman and Cleese began to write professionally for the BBC, initially for David Frost but also for Marty Feldman. Frost had recruited Cleese, and in turn Cleese decided he needed Chapman as a sounding board.[12] Chapman also contributed sketches to the radio series I'm Sorry, I'll Read That Again and wrote material on his own and with Bill Oddie.[13] He wrote for The Illustrated Weekly Hudd (starring Roy Hudd), Cilla Black, This is Petula Clark, and This Is Tom Jones.[14] Chapman, Cleese, and Tim Brooke-Taylor later joined Feldman in the television comedy series At Last the 1948 Show.[15] It was Chapman's first significant role as a performer as well as a writer[15] and he displayed a gift for deadpan comedy (such as in the sketch "The Minister Who Falls to Pieces") and imitating various British dialects.[16] The series was the first to feature Chapman's sketch of wrestling with himself.[15]

Despite the show's success, Chapman was still unsure about abandoning his medical career. In between the two series of At Last the 1948 Show he completed his studies at St Bartholomew's, and became professionally registered as a doctor.[17] Chapman and Cleese also wrote for the long-running television comedy series Doctor in the House,[18] and both appeared on a one-off television special, How to Irritate People alongside Brooke-Taylor and Michael Palin.[19] One of Cleese and Chapman's sketches, featuring a used car salesman refusing to believe a customer's model had broken down, became the inspiration for the Dead Parrot sketch.[20] Chapman also co-wrote several episodes of Doctor in the House's follow up, Doctor in Charge, with Bernard McKenna.[21]

Monty Python

Main article: Monty Python
Chapman ended several Monty Python's Flying Circus sketches mid-flow dressed as The Colonel, complaining they were "too silly".[22]

In 1969, Chapman and Cleese joined the other Pythons, Palin, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam, for their sketch comedy show Flying Circus.[23] The group's writing was split into well-defined teams, with Chapman collaborating almost exclusively with Cleese.[24] Chapman was particularly keen to remove stereotypical punchlines in sketches[25] and created The Colonel, who would stop them in mid-flow by saying they were "too silly".[22]

Although the pair were officially equal partners, Cleese later thought that Chapman contributed comparatively little in the way of direct writing, saying "he would come in, say something marvellous and then drift off in his own mind."[26] The other Pythons have said that Chapman's biggest contribution in the writing room was an intuition for what was funny.[26] Gilliam later recalled that "Graham would do the nudge that would push it into something extraordinary."[27] The show was an immediate success, and Chapman was delighted to learn that medical students at St Bartholomew's crowded round the television in the bar to watch it.[28] Chapman was frequently late for rehearsing or recording,[29] leading to the other Pythons calling him "the late Graham Chapman".[30]

Chapman's main contribution to the Dead Parrot sketch, derived from the How to Irritate People piece and involving a customer returning a faulty toaster, was "How can we make this madder?"[31] He decided to replace the toaster with a dead Norwegian Blue parrot. Cleese said that he and Chapman believed that "there was something very funny there, if we could find the right context for it".[31] The group felt that Chapman had the best acting skills in the group. Cleese complimented Chapman by saying that he was "particularly a wonderful actor".[32]

Chapman played the lead role in two Python films, Holy Grail and Life of Brian. He was chosen to play the lead in Holy Grail because of the group's respect towards his straight acting skills, and because the other members wanted to play lesser, funnier, characters themselves.[33] Chapman did not mind being filmed fully nude in front of a crowd in Life of Brian, but the scene, filmed in Tunisia, caused problems with the female Muslim extras.[34]

Other work

Chapman and Douglas Adams wrote a pilot for a TV series in 1975, Out of the Trees, but it received poor ratings after being broadcast at the same time as Match of the Day and only the initial episode was produced.[35] In 1978, Chapman co-wrote the comedy film The Odd Job with McKenna, and starred as one of the main characters. Chapman wanted his friend Keith Moon to play a co-lead role alongside him, but Moon could not pass an acting test, so the part went to David Jason who had previously appeared on Do Not Adjust Your Set with Pythons Idle, Jones, and Palin. The film was moderately successful.[36]

During the 1970s, Chapman became increasingly concerned about the Python's income and finances. He moved to Los Angeles in the late 1970s to avoid British income tax.[37] He guest-starred on several television series including The Big Show.[38]

In 1976, Chapman began writing a pirate film, Yellowbeard (1983), which came out of conversations between Chapman and Moon while in Los Angeles. Moon had always wanted to play Long John Silver, so Chapman began to write a script for him.[39] Moon died in 1978 and the work stalled, eventually being rewritten by McKenna, then by Peter Cook.[40] The film, which starred Chapman as the eponymous pirate, also featured appearances from Cook, Marty Feldman, Cleese, Idle, Spike Milligan, and Cheech & Chong.[41] It marks the last appearance of Feldman, who suffered a fatal heart attack in December 1982.[42] The project was fraught with financial difficulties, and at times there was not enough money to pay the crew.[43] It was released to mixed reviews. David Robinson, reviewing the film in The Times said "the Monty Python style of comic anarchy requires more than scatology, rude words and funny faces."[44]

Chapman published his memoirs, A Liar's Autobiography, in 1980, choosing the title because he said "it's almost impossible to tell the truth".[45] He returned to Britain permanently after Yellowbeard was released. He became involved with the extreme sports club Dangerous Sports Club, which popularised bungee jumping. Chapman was scheduled to perform a bungee jump himself, but it was cancelled due to safety concerns.[46]

Final years

After reuniting with the other Pythons in the film The Meaning of Life (1983), Chapman began a lengthy series of U.S. college tours, talking about the Pythons, the Dangerous Sports Club and Moon, among other subjects.[46] Saturday Night Live creator and Python fan Lorne Michaels persuaded Chapman to star in The New Show.[47]

In 1988, Chapman appeared in the Iron Maiden video "Can I Play with Madness".[48] The same year, he starred in a pilot of a proposed television series Jake's Journey, but financial problems prevented a full series from being made.[49] Chapman was intended to be cast in the Red Dwarf episode "Timeslides", but died before shooting began.[50]

Personal life

Chapman lived in this house in Highgate with his partner David Sherlock during the late 1960s.

Chapman first met his long term partner David Sherlock in Ibiza in 1966.[51] He later described realising he was homosexual as "an important moment in my life".[52] He told close friends about his relationship, including Cleese and Feldman the following year.[53] Chapman and Sherlock moved to Belsize Park in 1968,[54] and the pair enjoyed visiting gay clubs in Central London.[55]

Chapman first disclosed his homosexuality in public on British jazz musician George Melly's television show, becoming one of the first celebrities to do so.[56] He was a vocal spokesman for gay rights, supporting the Gay Liberation Front.[57] In 1971, Chapman and Sherlock adopted John Tomiczek as their son. Chapman met Tomiczek when the adolescent was a run-away from Liverpool aged 14. After discussions with Tomiczek's father, it was agreed that Chapman would become Tomiczek's legal guardian.[58] Tomiczek later became Chapman's business manager and died of a heart attack in 1992.[59] In 1972, Chapman supported the newspaper Gay News, which listed him as one of the publication's "special friends" in recognition.[60]

Later, during his college tour, Chapman mentioned that a television audience member had written to the Pythons to complain about them having a gay member, adding that the Bible said any man who lies with a man should be taken out and stoned. With other Pythons already aware of his sexual orientation, Idle jokingly replied that they had found the perpetrator and killed him.[61] Both Sherlock and Tomiczek remained a constant in Chapman's life. In the mid-1980s, having resettled in Britain, the three moved to Maidstone, Kent.[62]

Chapman took up pipe smoking aged 15, which continued for the remainder of his life.[63] He began drinking heavily during his time at Cambridge and St Bartholomew's, favouring gin. By the time Monty Python went on tour in 1973, Chapman's drinking had begun to affect his performance, causing him to miss cues to go on stage.[64] He stopped drinking in Christmas 1977, concerned at being able to act in Life of Brian successfully, and remained sober for the rest of his life.[65]


In 1988, Chapman made a routine visit to a dentist, who found a small, but malignant tumour on one of his tonsils, leading to both being removed via a tonsillectomy.[66] The following year, the cancer had spread into Chapman's spinal cord, where another tumour was surgically removed. Chapman had several chemotherapy treatments and surgeries during the final months of his life, but ultimately the cancer was declared inoperable.[67] According to his brother, Chapman was visibly upset by the death of his mother that July, by which time he was terminally ill.[62] Shortly afterwards, Chapman filmed scenes for the 20th anniversary of the first broadcast of Flying Circus, the final time he appeared on television.[68][69]

Chapman died on 4 October 1989 in Maidstone Hospital.[70] At the time of his death, he was being visited by Sherlock, brother John and his sister-in-law, and fellow Pythons Palin and Cleese, the latter of whom had to be led out of the room to deal with his grief.[70][71] Peter Cook had intended to visit, but arrived too late and was visibly shaken by the news.[70] Chapman's death occurred on the eve of the twentieth anniversary of the first broadcast of Flying Circus, and Jones called it "the worst case of party-pooping in all history".[71]

Memorial service

"I guess we're all thinking how sad it is that a man of such talent, of such capability for kindness, of such unusual intelligence, should now so suddenly be spirited away .... Well, I feel that I should say, "Nonsense. Good riddance to him, the freeloading bastard, I hope he fries!" And the reason I feel I should say this is he would never forgive me if I didn't, if I threw away this glorious opportunity to shock you all on his behalf. Anything for him, but mindless good taste."

John Cleese at Graham Chapman's memorial service[71]

The five surviving Python members had decided to stay away from Chapman's private funeral to prevent it from becoming a media circus and to give his family some privacy. They sent a wreath in the shape of the famous Python foot with the message: "To Graham from the other Pythons with all our love. PS: Stop us if we're getting too silly".[72] The Rolling Stones also sent a floral arrangement, saying "Thanks for all the laughs".[72]

A private memorial service for Chapman was held at St Bartholomew's on 3 December, two months after his death. The service began with a chorus of the hymn "Jerusalem" sung in Engrish with a mock Chinese accent.[73] Cleese delivered a memorable eulogy to Chapman with a shock humour that he believed Chapman would have wanted,[71] and later became the first person at a televised British memorial service to say "fuck".[74] Palin delivered a eulogy to Chapman, as did Idle, quipping that Chapman had decided to die rather than listen to Palin once again. Idle also led the other surviving Pythons and Chapman's close friends and family in a rendition of the song "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" from The Life of Brian. He closed by saying, "I'd just like to be the last person at this meeting to say 'fuck'."[73]

Ten years after Chapman's death, his ashes were first rumoured to have been "blasted into the skies in a rocket" with assistance from the Dangerous Sports Club.[75] In a second rumour, Chapman's ashes had been scattered on Snowdon, North Wales.[76]


"We would only do a reunion if Chapman came back from the dead. So we're negotiating with his agent."

Eric Idle on speculation of a Monty Python reunion.[77]

Since Chapman's death, the speculation of a Python revival has been inevitably diminished. Subsequent gatherings of the Pythons have included an urn said to contain Chapman's ashes. At the 1998 Aspen Comedy Arts festival, the urn was "accidentally" knocked over by Terry Gilliam, spilling the "ashes" on-stage. The apparently cremated remains were then removed with a dust-buster.[78] Idle recalled meeting Sherlock saying "I wish he [Chapman] was here now" and Sherlock replied "Oh, but he is. He's in my pocket!"[79] Asteroid 9617 Grahamchapman, named in Chapman's honour, is one of six asteroids named after the Python members.

In 1997, Sherlock allowed Jim Yoakum to start the Graham Chapman Archives. Later that year, the novel Graham Crackers: Fuzzy Memories, Silly Bits, and Outright Lies was released. It is a semi-sequel to A Liar's Autobiography, with Chapman's works compiled by Jim Yoakum.[80] A compendium of writings, Calcium Made Interesting: Sketches, Letters, Essays & Gondolas, also compiled and edited by Yoakum was published in 2005 in association with the David Sherlock and John Tomiczeck trust.[81] In 2000, Chapman's play O Happy Day was performed by Dad's Garage Theatre Company in Atlanta, Georgia, with the assistance of Cleese and Palin.[82] In 2006, the album and DVD Looks Like Another Brown Trouser Job was released, featuring a college lecture recorded in April 1988.[83]

A blue plaque has been placed at The Angel, Highgate, North London in commemoration of Chapman.

In June 2011, it was announced that Cleese, Jones, Gilliam and Palin would perform in a 3-D animated version of Chapman's memoir A Liar’s Autobiography: Volume VI.[84] Co-director Jeff Simpson worked closely with Chapman's estate and the surviving Python members to "get this exactly right".[85] The film, titled A Liar's Autobiography: The Untrue Story of Monty Python's Graham Chapman, was shown at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2012 and premiered in the UK the following month as part of the BFI London Film Festival. The voices of Cleese, Gilliam, Jones, and Palin were spliced into commentary recorded by Chapman reading from his memoir and taped shortly before his death. The film's official trailer quotes Chapman saying, "This is the best film I've been in since I died."[86]

In September 2012, a British Comedy Society blue plaque, to commemorate Chapman, was unveiled at The Angel pub in Highgate, North London, by Jones, Palin, Barry Cryer, Ray Davies and Carol Cleveland.[87] Palin said, "This was Graham's manor .... Highgate was his patch and he should be celebrated because he was a very good, brilliant, funny, nice, wise, kind man, who occasionally drank too much."[88] In December 2014 a green plaque funded by Leicestershire County Council was placed on Chapman's former home in Burton Road, Melton Mowbray.[89]


Year Film Role Notes
1969 The Magic Christian Oxford Crew Uncredited
Also Writer
1970 Doctor in Trouble Roddy
The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer Fromage Also Writer
1971 And Now for Something Completely Different Various Roles Also Writer
The Statue News Reader
1974 Monty Python and the Holy Grail King Arthur, Various Roles Also Writer
1978 The Odd Job Arthur Harris Also Writer/Producer
1979 Monty Python's Life of Brian Brian, Various Roles Also Writer
1982 Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl Various Roles Also Writer
1983 Monty Python's The Meaning of Life Various Roles Also Writer
The Crimson Permanent Assurance Clerk Short Film
Yellowbeard Captain Yellowbeard Also Writer
1987 Still Crazy like a Fox Detective Inspector Palmer TV Film
1988 Jake's Journey Sir George/Queen TV Film
Also Writer
1989 Stage Fright Smart Alec Uncredited
2012 A Liar's Autobiography: The Untrue Story of Monty Python's Graham Chapman Himself (Archive footage) Voice
2014 Monty Python Live (Mostly) The Colonel and other characters (archive footage) Also writer


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