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Chapman, Graham (1941-1989)  
 
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Comic actor and writer Graham Chapman, a member of Britain's madcap Monty Python troupe, was in the vanguard of actors to come out publicly as gay.

Chapman's first entrance was dramatic: an air raid was in progress when he was born on January 8, 1941 in Leicester, England.

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Because his father served in the police force, the family moved quite often as he was posted to a succession of different towns. Chapman's favorite place growing up was Melton Mowbray, a town in Leicestershire famous for its pork pies, where he participated actively in the school theater program.

After graduation from Melton Mowbray Grammar School, Chapman entered Emmanuel College, Cambridge in 1959, following his older brother into the study of medicine.

In his second year at Cambridge, Chapman auditioned successfully for the prestigious Footlights acting troupe, as did first-year student John Cleese, with whom he soon began writing sketches. Eric Idle joined the group the following year.

After graduating from Cambridge in 1962 Chapman pursued his medical studies at St. Bartholomew's Hospital, a teaching institution in London. Later that year the annual Footlights show, originally called A Clump of Plinths but subsequently retitled Cambridge Circus, came to play in London's West End. When a cast member dropped out, Chapman replaced him, and he began juggling his medical training and his acting.

The well-received show was slated for a tour in New Zealand. Chapman decided to interrupt his medical course and sign on after he had occasion, as secretary of the students' union, to lunch with Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, who told him that New Zealand was "a beautiful place" and "you must go."

After the tour Chapman resumed his medical studies and eventually qualified as a physician, but he also began performing in cabaret shows and writing sketches and dialogue for a number of television programs, including for Footlights alumnus David Frost's satirical The Frost Report. Other writers for the Frost show included Michael Palin, Terry Jones, and Eric Idle. Soon, together with John Cleese and Terry Gilliam, they formed the troupe that launched Monty Python's Flying Circus on the BBC.

The show first appeared in England in October 1969 and continued in first-runs until 1974. A few years after its British debut the program aired on American PBS stations. It quickly became a favorite, especially among college-age viewers. The zany sketches featured both amusing and irreverent--and often ludicrous--dialogue and broad physical humor. The actors appeared in a variety of costumes, frequently in drag.

Some of the Python skits, especially those written by Chapman, were gay or gay-inflected in theme. Perhaps the most famous of these is "The Mouse Problem," a sketch involving men who dress in mouse costumes and secretly engage in cheese-tasting parties. The skit is in effect a parable about the secretive lives led by British homosexuals in the years after decriminalization of homosexuality, but before social acceptance was widespread.

Some of the sketches that Chapman wrote with John Cleese, such as "The Ministry of Silly Walks" and "Dead Parrot," are now considered classics of British comedy.

Although his comic imagination was in many ways the most surreal and subversive of the Pythons, Chapman often played figures of authority and the "straight man" in situations that sometimes revealed the looniness that could lurk behind a buttoned-down upper-class British exterior.

The Python troupe wrote and appeared together in several films, beginning with Ian McNaughton's And Now for Something Completely Different (1971), the title of which is a catch-phrase from the television show. The movie, which was comprised of remade sketches from the series, did not do well in the United States, where the Pythons were as yet unknown.

Their second feature, Monty Python and the Holy Grail (directed by Jones and Gilliam, 1975), received a more enthusiastic reaction from their growing number of American fans. Chapman's portrayal of King Arthur in the medieval spoof garnered him enthusiastic notice.

He played the title role in the third Python movie, Life of Brian (directed by Jones, 1979). The film drew criticism from some conservative groups who viewed it as sacrilegious, but audiences were appreciative. Indeed, the publicity generated by the fulminations of religious groups against the film is probably what made it so successful at the box office, despite its being banned in many jurisdictions. Many consider Chapman's turn as Brian of Nazareth, a man mistaken for the Messiah, as his finest work.

Chapman also appeared in the final Python film, Jones's The Meaning of Life (1983).

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