All right, an idle mind is usually the devil’s workshop; however, when the cranium in question belongs to Eric Idle, there are so many creative furies whirling around inside that old Beelzebub himself couldn’t find elbow-room. This month Idle, 46, star of the late, lamented Monty Python’s Flying Circus, will be more on view for U.S. audiences than at any time since the mythic comedy group first flapped its loony wings 20 years ago.
For starters, there’s his current big-screen role as Berthold, the fastest man alive, in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Python pal Terry Gilliam’s epic, lunatic $40 million fantasy. Earlier this month he came back to prime-time life in Nearly Departed, his new NBC series about a couple who die in a car accident and return from the afterlife to inhabit their old haunts. And this Monday (April 17) will be a bona fide Idle doubleheader, when Departed is followed by the second installment of NBC’s three-part miniseries remake of Around the World in 80 Days, in which Idle plays Passepartout. “I’m on from 8:30 until 11,” he says, “so there’s no escaping me.”
As if anybody would want to. Sixteen years after its smashing four-season run on the BBC, Monty Python’s Flying Circus still fills a particular void in the hearts of audiences riveted to its reruns on both MTV and PBS. “It’s astounding,” says Idle, admitting that he’s a little baffled at the show’s ongoing popularity. “Here we are 20 years on, and people are still watching the same silly stuff. They’re fascinated by the program. I watched one episode the other night, and I didn’t even recognize myself. Of course I was playing a black slave at the time, which might explain it.”
In truth, Idle’s not quite the man he was those long years ago. Following the TV show’s demise in 1973, Idle, like other troupe members, soon launched an independent career. He began as writer and host of Rutland Weekend Television, a BBC series based on the tiny, former county of Rutland, “which the government had just ruled out of existence in a boundary reshuffle, even though it had existed since 900 A.D.,” says Idle. The premise carried over to a 1978 American special, The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash, which followed the rise of an awfully familiar mop-top group from their “prefab” days in crummy Liverpool clubs to a triumphant concert at New York’s Che Stadium.
But for the post-Python Idle, there was also some time spent adrift in a classic case of ’70s drug dabbling and promiscuity. “This was during the mad days when the marriage [his first, to Australian actress Lyn Ashley] was breaking up. I was 33 1/3, which is a time of change anyway. I came to America quite a bit, and that involved dealing with being famous. It’s strange, and you have to learn to deal with that. I spent some time running away from it and hiding.”
In response to his psychic chaos, says Idle, “I just went out and got quiet. I did a bit of growing up, I think. I did some gardening and studied some cosmology. I find that puts everything totally into perspective.” As did his 1977 encounter with American model Tania Kosevich, whom he met at a party she gave in New York. “It was lunch at first sight,” says Idle, who then “dragged her off to Europe” after a few weeks of dating.
Idle, who married Kosevich in 1981, confesses to some early trepidation about the match. “I think any man who doesn’t panic on the second marriage, once one’s gone wrong, isn’t quite right in the head,” he says. “But we didn’t get married immediately. We lived together for a long time before we suddenly realized that this was something that was going to last. She was as calm as I was frenetic. She’s a good, moral, solid person. And she’s not impressed by lots of rubbish.”
He should know, since he tried to feed her some hogwash right off the bat. “One of the first tours of London I had,” says Kosevich, “was kind of a midnight drive around town with Eric as my guide. He was pointing out all the wrong things and telling me they were very famous sites of London. He’d point to a corner pub and tell me it was Big Ben.”
That was an obvious ruse from a kid who’d lived in England nearly all his life. The only child of an RAF combat flyer killed in World War II, young Eric was sent to a Wolverhampton boarding school at 7 by his mother, a public-health service nurse. For the next 12 years, he lived a miserable existence. “It was a semi-orphanage for half-orphans,’ ” he recalls, “originally founded in 1850 and going out of business until the war gave it a shot in the arm. There were always beatings.”
But in retrospect, Idle sees how the grim experience helped shape the irreverence that later became the Python trademark. “Instead of having strong parental controls to rebel against, the authority figures became schools, headmasters and institutionalized things. The trick was to learn how to subvert these things and get some fun out of life.”
Which he did, shortly after winning admission to Cambridge at 19. “The boarding school had been like a big open prison in one of the ugliest towns you can imagine. And suddenly, here were these 15th-century colleges and people elegantly punting down the river.”
There was also the prestigious Footlights Revue, a theatrical group whose members then included fellow future Pythoner John Cleese. “That’s what changed my life,” says Idle. “I got into an environment of just meeting funny people.”
Five future Pythoners—Idle, Cleese, Michael Palin, Graham Chapman and Terry Jones—reached critical mass together as writers on David Frost’s satirical weekly comedy show. Idle used The Frost Report as a springboard to his own wacky project, a kiddie show called Do Not Adjust Your Set that aired at 5:20 P.M. and still managed to score the best ratings of the day.
In March 1969, with the addition of American import Terry Gilliam, Python coalesced. After four seasons, four books, four films and 11 albums, the group stopped performing together. Idle maintains that the Pythons, who are meeting this month to begin plans for a 20th-anniversary TV show in the U.S., have always remained together. “We didn’t really break up,” he insists. “There was no day when somebody said, ‘Right, we’ll never do it again.’ It was always an open possibility.”
Lately most of the group’s joint efforts have centered on a production company, Prominent Features, which was responsible for last year’s hit A Fish Called Wanda. But films in which all six members appear, like Life of Brian or Monty Python and the Holy Grail, are probably a thing of the past. According to Michael Palin, “Python collaborations on a movie take such a long time and it’s such a painful process that I don’t think we’ll make another one. My feeling is that we’ll do a Python film if everybody’s individual projects bomb disastrously.”
That seems unlikely for Idle, who hops from Nearly Departed’ to rehearsing for a new film, Nuns on the Run. His is a busy schedule, requiring him to divide his time between London and Hollywood. He isn’t crazy about the latter locale. “I worked there for about three years writing scripts,” says Idle, “but that became frustrating and depressing. Ultimately 12 people read your words. I have a script that people still pass around and laugh themselves silly with. They’ll never produce it, but they say, ‘Oh, that’s funny! God, I love that script.’ ”
He likes London, however, mostly because he can see Carey, 16, his son from his first marriage. Tania and Carey, says Idle, have adjusted relatively well to each other. “She’s known him since he was 3, and they get on pretty well. It’s a tough one, but his mother also has a guy there, so Carey’s used to it. He’s got four people instead of two. He spends most of his time at home with his mother, and he comes to me on the holidays. I’m a holiday daddy, which is kind of a nice relationship. I have the fun times, and she has all the cleaning up.”
For now, if there’s any worry on the horizon, it’s that Hollywood’s lure is attracting Carey, who has been threatening to follow his father into show business and making noises about attending UCLA’s film school to study directing. “I keep warning him that it’s the worst job in the world,” Dad says resignedly. “But it’s hard to avoid if you grow up in the circus. He’s been on film sets since he was tiny. His mother’s an actress. His grandmother was an actress. And,” admits Idle with a twinkle in his eye, “his father is an actress, too.”
—Susan Schindehette, Michael Alexander in Los Angeles