Happy birthday, Graham Chapman! Graham would have been 73 years old this Wednesday, and the world is a far less silly place without him. He left us nearly a quarter of a century ago, and he is sorely missed.
Readers Digest used to run a feature about "The Most Unforgettable
Person I Ever Met." While I have known a few people who would qualify, I don't know if anyone fit the bill more than Graham. In addition to being a member of Monty Python, he was also a goatherder, a Petula Clark writer, an alcoholic and then a recovered alcoholic, openly gay at a time when it wasn't well-accepted, a mountaineer, and a fully qualified medical doctor who went to New Zealand as the result of an off-handed comment during a meeting with the Queen Mother. He was sometimes prolific, sometimes not, though at one point, he was simultaneously writing for three different television shows. [He would undoubtedly have been at the forefront of the gay rights/gay marriage movement over the past 25 years, as he was when he was alive--he never really got the credit, but he was, arguably, the first openly gay star of a Hollywood movie.] His greatest accomplishment may have been his triumph over alcohol. He used to party with his friends Keith Moon, Harry Nilsson, and Ringo Starr, a group not known for their temperance (they all eventually quit--or in the case of Keith, tried to quit--drinking; all but Ringo are gone now). At the beginning of the filming of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Graham self-diagnosed himself as alcoholic and made the decision to quit drinking, though it took some time. But when he finally came out of it newly sober, he proved himself to be wonderful capable in films like Life of Brian. The first couple of times I met Graham, he was still hampered by alcohol. The Chicago premiere of Holy Grail (where he was accompanied by Terry Jones) was early in the day, and he did not seem to be affected. The following year, I met him again backstage at New York's City Center, between two Saturday evening performances of the Monty Python Live! stage show. He wandered around shirtless with a large tumbler of something that looked suspiciously like Gordon's Gin. He emitted the occasional random squawks! and sang "Ya De Buckety!" for no apparent reason. But he held himself together enough during the performance that I saw, and I enjoyed it immensely.
When I flew to London two years later, I met a completely changed Graham. Quiet and soft-spoken, but still with a wickedly funny sense of humor, he had quit drinking at the beginning of the year and was a totally different person. He invited me to stay at his house on Southwood Lane, along with his partner David, foster son John, dogs Harry, Sly, and Clint, and a semi-regular assortment of drop-in guests, including a semi-scary man in black leather called Spike, and Bernard McKenna, with whom he was writing at the time. He introduced me to the Angel Pub in Highgate (where there is now a plaque in his honor), where he drank ginger ale. Having read about it in guidebooks, I ordered the shepherd's pie; when it came, Graham eyeballed it, looking a bit disturbed, and asked me "Are you sure that's what you wanted?" (Graham was right about the shepherd's pie.) And so began our long friendship, one which lasted as long as Graham himself. Happy birthday, Gray.