CYNTHIA CLEESE, FOUR MONTHS pregnant, sits in a sunny room in her Santa Monica home, surrounded by photos of her famous father, British actor John Cleese, and mother, actress Connie Booth. In the afternoon light, Cleese, 25, holds up an ultrasound image of her unborn son, tracing his tiny form with her finger. Explaining that neither work nor fame will come between her and the baby, she says, “I will never be, or have any desire to be, a big star.”
She certainly has the genes for showbiz success. Her proudly eccentric father won fame in the hugely popular British TV series Monty Python’s Flying Circus and in all four Python films. His humor also played well at home. “I used to do a silly Spanish accent that always made Cynthia laugh,” says Cleese. When he scored a hit as the bumbling Basil Fawlty in Fawlty Towers, a show he cowrote with Booth (who also played the dizzy waitress Polly), he counted Cynthia among his loyal fans: “She used to watch TV with an intense concentration that suggested she was trying to learn what was being done.”
She apparently was. By 16, Cynthia had appeared in school plays and British commercials, and in 1988 she made her film debut as her father’s spoiled daughter in A Fish Called Wanda, which he wrote. In the newly released Fierce Creatures, which reunites the cast of Wanda, Cleese delivers her second big-screen performance, this time as a zookeeper.
Still, though costar Kevin Kline says “she’s oozing with talent,” Cleese says she doesn’t want her son to have the life she knew as the only child of work-obsessed parents. Because both parents spent endless hours in studios, says Cynthia, “I don’t have memories that ramble on about when we would go to the country and fish or something. We just didn’t do that.” When her parents divorced in 1978, she was sent to boarding schools and saw them even less. It was a time, she remembers, of extreme confusion. “It’s really hard to find out if people like you or if they think maybe they’ll meet your father,” she recalls. As a teenager, she says, “I was not a Miss Goody Two Shoes girl. We drank, and I used to chain-smoke.”
Cleese left the U.K. behind in 1991 to study at Sarah Lawrence College in Yonkers, N.Y. The summer after freshman year she met screenwriter Ed Solomon at a luncheon in L.A. Solomon, 36, whose credits include It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, was a bit surprised (given their age difference) when Cleese called a few days later. “I was up all night thinking of her,” he says. A year later they were living together.
A few months before her wedding, Cynthia’s dad suggested that she fly to England to shoot Creatures. On paper the part seemed harmless enough: She would play a caring soul protesting management’s decision to turn a zoo into a cheesy theme park. In practice, however, Cleese learned the downside of working with animals. She found herself nursing a monkey bite and washing lemur droppings from her hair. “I smelled like a monkey’s bum every day when I went home,” she says, laughing. A year later the cast was asked to reshoot scenes that hadn’t worked. By then she was two months pregnant, and costar Jamie Lee Curtis remembers her fighting morning sickness. “She was nauseous,” says Curtis, “but she didn’t want it to get in the way.”
By the time the project ended, Cleese’s acting interest had waned. “I felt kind of burned out,” she says. “I thought, ‘Maybe I want to try something else.’ ” Although she hasn’t ruled out acting again, she has resumed writing a series of children’s stories she’d begun in college and turned her attention to the important things in life. “There’s his leg, there’s the umbilical cord,” she says proudly, pointing to the ultrasound image. “I feel like I have a real family now.”
MICHELE KELLER in Santa Monica