Eric Idle is an English comedian, actor, author and writer of comedic songs. He wrote and performed as a member of the internationally renowned British comedy group, Monty Python.
Idle was born in South Shields, Tyne and Wear, England and lived at 11 North Avenue in Harton Village. His father had served in the Royal Air Force and survived the Second World War, only to be killed in a truck-crash shortly afterwards.
His mother had difficulty coping with a full-time job and raising a child, so when he was seven, she enrolled him into the Royal Wolverhampton School as a boarder.
The school had begun life as a Victorian orphanage, and during Idle's time was a charitable foundation dedicated to the welfare of children who had lost one or both parents. Its pupils, who were mainly the children of dead English soldiers, still referred to it as the 'Ophney'.
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.
He was eventually caught watching the X-rated BUtterfield 8 and was stripped of his prefectship, even though by that time he was head boy. Idle had already refused to be senior boy in the school cadet force, as he was a keen supporter for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and had participated in the yearly Aldermaston march.
Idle maintains that there was little to do at school, and boredom drove him to work hard. He consequently won a place at Cambridge.
University life and comedy
Eric Idle attended Pembroke College at the University of Cambridge, where he studied English. At Pembroke College, he was invited to join the prestigious Cambridge University Footlights Club by fellow Pembroke College students, the then 1963 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."
When Idle joined the Footlights Club, the other members included John Cleese and Graham Chapman, who were also attending the University of Cambridge.
Idle became Footlights President in 1965.
Prior to the Monty Python's Flying Circus comedy series, Idle appeared in the children's television comedy series Do Not Adjust Your Set with Terry Jones and Michael Palin (who were both former University of Oxford students).
Terry Gilliam provided animations for the show. Other members of the cast were British comedic actors David Jason and Denise Coffey.
Unlike the other Pythons, who wrote in pairs (Cleese/Chapman and Palin/Jones), Idle wrote alone. His work was often closely associated with long, complex speeches or catchy one-liners. Amongst the many Python sketches written by Idle is "Nudge nudge", the title of which has become a catchphrase.
In the seventies, he also had the role of editor of the Monty Python 'boks'. He parlayed his experience forward in January 2003 when he released his contribution as the fifth in the book series A Pocketful of Python, containing some of his favourite sketches from Monty Python's Flying Circus and some of his favourite passages from their books.
The books in this series include sketches written by all the Pythons - including Idle.
Idle wrote the book and lyrics and co-wrote the music for Spamalot which opened on Broadway in 2005.
After Monty Python ceased to be a regularly active ensemble in the mid-1970s, all six members pursued solo projects with varying degrees of critical and commercial success.
Idle's earliest solo work was his own BBC Radio One show, entitled 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 gave the world Rutland Weekend Television, a sketch show on BBC2, written by Idle, 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. George Harrison made a guest appearance on one episode, subverting an attempt to play My Sweet Lord by turning it into a comic song about pirates.
One enduring legacy of RWT was the creation, with Neil Innes, of The Rutles, an affectionate parody of The Beatles. The band became a popular phenomenon, especially in the USA where Idle was making a name for himself on Saturday Night Live - fans would send in Beatles LPs with their sleeves altered to show the Rutles.
In 1978 the Rutles' "documentary" film All You Need Is Cash was released, written by Eric Idle, with music by Neil Innes. He appeared in the film in the role of "Dirk McQuickly" (the Paul McCartney character of the group), as well as the main commentator.
Some of the actors were famous comedic performers in the early Saturday Night Live TV show (like John Belushi, Bill Murray and Gilda Radner). Also George Harrison appeared as an interviewer and Mick Jagger as himself.
In 1986 he provided the voice of Wreck-Gar in 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 US summer replacement comedy television series Nearly Departed about a ghost who haunts the family inhabiting his former home. Though lasting only six episodes it showed that Idle could adapt to American television and make his own unique humour work there.
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 a remarkable Ratty in Terry Jones' version of the The Wind in the Willows (1996).
However, his own creative projects - such as the movie 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 has been an attraction at Walt Disney World's Epcot since 1995 and at Disneyland since 1998.
The film also stars Rick Moranis and most of the other members of the original 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 massive outcry from numerous Disney fans, Figment was reinstated into the ride where his mischief and ideas of a free imagination interfere with Channing's idea of imagination being controlled and confined, until eventually Channing learns that imagination does work best when it's set free.
Idle is also writer and star of the three-dimensional 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 sung its theme song, "That's Death".
In 1997, Idle took the lead role in the film Burn Hollywood Burn (released 1998) which was almost universally savaged by critics and was nominated as 'Worst Picture of the Decade' in the Golden Raspberry Awards (known as the Razzies) - and was eventually awarded five Razzies including 'Worst Picture of the Year'.
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, owner of The Gate, on the sitcom Suddenly Susan.
Idle has recently provided his voice acting for the Shrek the Third, the second sequel to Shrek. The film reunites Idle with Python alumnus John Cleese.
Idle has also acted as Narrator to the AudioNovel "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" by Roald Dahl.
Idle has written several books, both fictional and non-fictional. 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.
He 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 on January 9, 2005 in Chicago, before moving to Broadway, where it received the Tony Award for Best Musical of the 2004-05 season.
The musical had mixed reactions from the other members of Monty Python, with both Michael Palin and Terry Jones publicly voicing their dislike of the show, which they felt did not do justice to the Python heritage and tradition.
Jones publicly described the production as being "utterly pointless and full of air".
John Cleese, on the other hand, lent his support by voicing God in a recorded performance that was integrated into the musical.
In a 2005 poll to find "The Comedian's Comedian" (UK), Idle was voted 21 in the top 50 greatest comedy acts ever by fellow comedians and comedy insiders.
Idle is an accomplished songwriter, having composed and performed many of the Pythons' most famous comic pieces, including "Eric The Half-A-Bee", "The Philosophers' Song", "Galaxy Song" (from Monty Python's The Meaning of Life) and, probably his most recognised hit, "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life", which was written for the closing scene of the film Monty Python's Life of Brian, and sung from the crosses during the mass crucifixion, as something of an antidote to death.
The song has since been covered by Bruce Cockburn and Art Garfunkel. Idle, his fellow Pythons, and assorted family and friends performed the song at the funeral of Graham Chapman.
In 1990, Idle sang and co-wrote the theme tune to the popular British sitcom One Foot In The Grave. The song was later released, but did poorly in the charts.
However, when "Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life" was adopted as a football chant in the late 1980s, Idle's then neighbour Gary Lineker suggested Idle re-record and release the popular track.
This led to a surprise hit, some 12 years after the song's original appearance in Monty Python's Life Of Brian, reaching number 3 in the UK charts and landing Idle a set on Top of the Pops in October 1991.
In 2004, Idle recorded a protest song of sorts, the "FCC Song" in which he lambasts the US Federal Communications Commission for fining him $5000 for saying the word 'fuck' on national radio. Fittingly, the short song contains 14 uses of the said expletive.
The song is freely available for download. A video accompanying the song, created by Mountain Top CCT, can be viewed at YouTube.
In 2005, he received multiple Tony award nominations for his songwriting work on the Broadway musical Spamalot.