By Michael Alexander
Updated August 15, 1988 12:00 PM

It has been a tough grind for John Cleese, this nonstop publicity tour for A Fish Called Wanda, and it’s only getting tougher. He’s on the set of NBC’s new Funny People, being asked a series of unrelated questions by two of the hosts, Leeza Gibbons and Rita Rudner. The whole thing isn’t going over very well—someone apparently shuffled the cue cards—and it’s mildly pathetic to see Cleese out there suffering amid all the confusion. Then, out of nowhere, the harried hosts ask Cleese to do his Silly Walk. “I shrank inside when they asked me to do that,” Cleese says later. “I did it and, of course, it wasn’t very funny. It’s only funny in context. But I did it, and I shrank inside. You know, 17 years later, it’s pretty boring.”

Yes, it’s been 17 years since Cleese and five fellow Brits pushed the envelope of comic lunacy with the Ministry of Silly Walks and other skits from Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Cleese has rarely slacked off since then. Besides co-writing and co-starring in such films as Life of Brian and Monty Python’s the Meaning of Life, he created the Fawlty Towers series, which, in reruns, is still a staple on public television. He also formed Video Arts Ltd., which, using wacky comedy to teach management techniques, has become one of the world’s largest producers of executive training films.

Now, at 48, Cleese has reached a new watermark: romantic, albeit oddball, film lead. In A Fish Called Wanda, he’s a British barrister who finds himself embroiled with a temptress (Jamie Lee Curtis), a trigger-happy dolt (Kevin Kline) and a stuttering ichthyophile (former Python Michael Palin). Cleese’s affair with Curtis transforms him from a bewigged drone into a daredevil. If their love scenes work well, says Curtis, it’s because “we’re such an odd combination. If I’m going to do any sort of movie where I’m in a clinch with people, I prefer them to be rather offbeat. I find the result can be really terrific if you use a man who’s not used to being a sex symbol.”

Cleese agrees. He called his character Archie Leach, Cary Grant’s real name, explaining, “I feel this film is as near as I’ll ever get to being Cary Grant.”

Wanda promises to be the most successful film of the 20 Cleese has had a hand in. Yet, while his career is going swimmingly, his personal life is on ice. His first marriage, to American actress Connie Booth, the bosomy blond who co-created and co-starred in Fawlty Towers, ended in 1978. Now he is separated from his second wife, American TV director and painter Barbara Trentham. Sitting by the pool of a Los Angeles hotel, accompanied by his elder daughter, Cynthia, 17, Cleese is in a reflective, world-weary mood.

In his case, life has not always imitated art. The product, as he puts it, of a lower-middle-class upbringing, Cleese earned a law degree at Cambridge but was making comedy his practice. He met Booth in New York in 1964 when he and other alumni were performing the Cambridge Revue on Broadway. The couple married in 1968, Monty Python was formed in 1969, and Cynthia was born in 1971.

Until then, life for Cleese was heady, but his world began to splinter in 1973, when depression started manifesting itself as flu symptoms. “I had full medical checkups, and they could never find anything wrong with me,” says Cleese. “My doctors thought it was psychosomatic, and to a man like myself who thought he was so preeminently normal, this was a very severe blow.” Entering therapy, Cleese was able to realize that “I’ve always had a thing which I can’t entirely explain about the necessity to be as free as possible. Why that should happen, unless it’s a simple reaction to the slightly repressed atmosphere I grew up in, I don’t know. But I’ve always felt very strongly that people should be as free as possible from other people’s ways of controlling them.”

Cleese initially acted on his need for independence by leaving the Monty Python TV series in 1971, then, following years of marital difficulty, by splitting with Booth in 1976. The couple divorced two years later, but with little animosity. In fact they collaborated on Fawlty Towers during and after the separation. “We’ve never had any problem liking each other,” says Cleese. “We simply reached a point where we felt it didn’t work as a marriage. We’d been living apart, and she would come to my house and we’d work an ordinary 10-to-5 day, then she would go home again.”

The breakup went less smoothly for Cynthia, whose custody is shared by her mother and father. “It gave me a lot of insecurities,” she says. “You feel like you’ve lost your parents in a way. You have relationships with both of them, but you don’t have the family anymore.” Still, there were advantages. “Because there was a lot of turmoil at home, I had to grow up quickly,” says Cynthia, who plays Cleese’s daughter in Wanda. “Dad saw that I was responsible and he always treated me, as long as I can remember, as a friend. I really enjoy talking to him about boyfriends and stuff, because we can discuss them on an honest level.”

“We discuss our romances with each other,” laughs Cleese.

His next big romance, after Booth, began in 1980. Cleese met Babs Trentham, now 43, when he and the reunited Pythons were performing live at the Hollywood Bowl. The two had been introduced at a party before she attended the show. “There I was, parading around in drag with this terrible blond wig, false boobs and carpet slippers,” says Cleese. “And she thought, ‘This man has to be interesting.’ She was directing film segments for [ABC’s] Those Amazing Animals at the time, and the first few months of our romance were filled with waterskiing rabbits and basketball-playing raccoons.”

The couple married after a five-month courtship and were happy during the first years together. Their daughter, Camilla, was born in 1984. Gradually, however, the marriage began to unravel in much the same way that Cleese’s first marriage had. His need for freedom was reasserting itself. The couple have been living apart since last November, when Cleese moved into an apartment five-minutes’ walking distance from their house in London’s Holland Park. Again, as with his previous split, little rancor is involved.

“We’re on trial separation, although I go and read to Camilla with her every day,” says Cleese. “It’s very friendly at the moment. We don’t know what’s going to happen, but we’re operating on what I think is the best possible principle, which is getting our own lives right, then seeing if we want to be together. It may sound an odd way of doing it, but that’s the way I think things have to be.”

For the past two years of the marriage, Cleese has buried himself in writing and producing Wanda. “It’s an obsessive pastime,” he says of making movies. “The rest of your life goes into deep freeze.” He draws admiration from Jamie Lee Curtis. “It takes a lot of guts for somebody to trust their talents enough and to believe in something over a long period of time,” she says. “And for a very old man with bad teeth and little of his own hair, that’s a real accomplishment.”

Cleese, unabashed, calls the film “the most satisfying project I’ve done,” and some critics concur. Joseph Gelmis of Newsday called it the “zaniest, sexiest adult movie entertainment of the summer,” while Roger Ebert dubbed it “the funniest movie of the year” in the Chicago Sun-Times. Moviegoers tend to agree. Wanda made an average of $10,438 per theater last week and opens in approximately 1,000 theaters this weekend.

Not that Cleese is too concerned about reaping coin. With his Video Arts company grossing $14.5 million a year, his finances are pretty well set. “I’m very lucky, because I’ve always been overpaid,” he says. “That enables me to do these strange films, these extra things I wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford.” It also gives him time to sit by a pool and contemplate the meaning of life. “The nice thing about getting old,” he says, “is that you realize what a madhouse it all is. Instead of a young person’s view, which is that the world must be sane, with occasional pockets of insanity, you come around to my position, in which the world seems to be a complete madhouse—with occasional pockets of sanity.”