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JOHN Cleese has been pretty low-key. The former co-lunatic of the Monty Python gang, Minister of Silly Walks, complainer about dead parrots, creator of the almost miraculously disagreeable hotel proprietor, Basil Fawlty, has so far conducted himself like the mild-mannered British businessman he says he really is.
Cleese is here, after all, to develop an American market for his highly successful partnership, Video Arts, which makes business training films, a field he got into, almost by accident, with a small investment 13 years ago, and one that has proven quite profitable.
But before he gets much chance to talk about the films, the fire alarm in this hotel meeting-room starts to whoop. A deafening voice comes over the public address system, airplane-captain style, telling us that it's a mistake. Then the whoops get even louder. And, suddenly, he's off.
``Oh, shut up!,'' he screams. ``Shut UP! . . . I'd just like to say that we are at 23,000 feet, and if you look out the window on the left, you'll see my granny's house down there. The temperature in Buenos Aires is 16 degrees.''
Bang! There it is. A flash of the troubled mind and the exposed nerve. The kind of stuff millions of television and film viewers on several continents expect from the linguini-limbed, adder-tongued Cleese. The stuff that erupted in the British television series Monty Python's Flying Circus.
First aired in Britain in 1969, the series gradually gained an enormous international audience. Subsequent films (``Monty Python in Search of the Holy Grail,'' ``Monty Python's Life of Brian,'' and others) offended some moviegoers but delighted far more, grossing as much as $22 million. Monty Python became widely known for its inspired lunacy and sometimes raunchy subject-matter.
Less well-known, and usually less risqu'e, is the 1975 TV series ``Fawlty Towers,'' which Cleese did independently of the Python gang. It has gained a following here in the United States, and the scant 12 episodes play frequently on American public television.
The now-bearded Cleese complains that people still see him as Basil Fawlty; or the waiter in ``Meaning of Life'' obsequiously fawning over a revolting customer; or the Roman legionnaire in ``Life of Brian'' forcing a Hebrew rebel to rewrite revolutionary graffiti with the proper Latin noun declensions; or the British bobby castigating a candy manufacturer for producing Crunchy Frog candies.
``People never really know how much you're like [those characters],'' he muses. ``So, you have to spend a certain amount of the conversation getting them slowly to realize that you are really very ordinary, but with an odd ability to make people laugh.''
``If I'm given a piece of paper and a pencil,'' Cleese says, bunching up his lengthy six-foot-five frame in a hotel chair, ``and I sit down for a few hours, I can think of funny things . . . but I can't go into marvelous purple passages like Robin Williams can do.''
Cleese is in love with ``construction of plot . . . the way people's expectations are set up and disappointed, and they get information they need in a way that disguises that it is plot information.''
Cleese studied science and has a graduate degree in law. Today, he talks about humor in business films like an MBA discussing cash flow.
But the bottom line for Cleese is still belly laughs. And he got them last week from about 400 training and personnel managers here.
They watched Cleese portray an indecisive manager discovered on a window ledge by his secretary. Later, he was drilled in decision-making by Queen Elizabeth I, Field Marshal Viscount Montgomery, Winston Churchill, and Brutus -- all played by Cleese.
Elsewhere in these films, Cleese can be seen assaying the inadequacies of managers nicknamed Ethelred the Unready, Ivan the Terrible, and William the Silent. He also plays a surgeon selling an operation to a patient by describing the operation in ghastly detail.
None of this lunatic-fringe stuff is much in evidence earlier in the day. The young waiter who has brought him his breakfast stands staring at Cleese, quite transfixed by the presence of the Minister of Silly Walks, the fellow who gives arguments for a living, the charwoman who summers with Mr. and Mrs. Jean Paul Sartre.
Cleese looks up at him politely, as if to say, ``Well, thank you very much then, but I'm not really those people, you know,'' and goes back to his eating. But the young man stands there until someone finally comes to the door to beckon him away.
And John Cleese goes blithely on, trying to convince the world that he's just another guy.