The wildest, funniest, most bizarre of the Monty Python team left us on 4th October 1989 when he died of cancer at the age of 48.
The most talented actor in the group – he played the title role in Life of Brian and King Arthur in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Chapman was also a hedonist who overindulged in many things, notably alcohol (gin was his drink of choice) and, according to his tongue in cheek book, A Liar’s Autobiography, sex.
Openly gay, he was something of an activist, funding the fledgling publication Gay News. He was also sharply intelligent behind the silliness: a qualified doctor and a man who, in an appearance on the Channel 4 show Opinions, railed against gender stereotyping and dealt with the issue of death in a matter of fact way.
His contribution to Python has been downplayed over the years, with writing partner John Cleese claiming he ‘carried’ Chapman: yet many of the quirks and ideas which made Python sketches special came from the quiet and contemplative pipe smoker in the corner.
His outrageous side was legendary, whether sticking a part of his anatomy into a stranger’s drink in a pub, appearing full frontal nude as Brian, or fully embracing a spoof advice page on masturbation for the team’s second book, The Brand New Monty Python Papperbok. (This last item was said to be ‘upsetting to Gray’s fans’ when I shared on a Facebook page yesterday, which surely misses the point that this chap pushed the boundaries each and every day of his life).
An attractive man, Chapman was probably just as aware of his appeal to fans of both sexes as he was of his ability to appear outrageous (he was the Python who looked best in a dress). His enduring (but open) partnership with David Sherlock lasted more than twenty years, during which time they adopted teenage runaway John Tomiczek.
After Python his career was not that successful, although he starred in two feature films – The Odd Job, which had previously been a vehicle for Ronnie Barker; and Yellowbeard, a sort of mad pirate saga. His last professional appearance was in an Iron Maiden video called Can I Play With Madness.
Chapman died on the eve of Python’s 20th anniversary – a true case of ‘party pooping’. At the memorial service his colleagues took the opportunity to be outrageous and offensive on his behalf. Since then he has been a regular participant in their shows right up until their ‘farewell’ shows at the O2 in 2014.
He will always be my favourite of the Pythons: the one who makes me laugh, and makes me think.