In their efforts to create a lo-fi English comedy with two renowned, unnaturally attractive American actors, John Cleese, who co-wrote 1988’s A Fish Called Wanda with director Charles Crichton, concocted something infectious, wacky, and fragile in equal measure. The film also showed a different side to Cleese’s acting arsenal. The success of A Fish Called Wanda led many writers – particularly Richard Curtis in Mike Newell’s 1994 film Four Weddings and a Funeral and Roger Michell’s 1999 comedy Notting Hill – to cast bumbling, stuttering Englishmen against bodacious, quick-witted American love interests.
Best of all, A Fish Called Wanda showed that Cleese – closer to 50 than his character’s age of 40 – could tackle the intricacies of romance. His role as Archie, one of his more likable characters, had little of the anarchic trappings featured in Terry Jones’ Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979), wherein Cleese played the lampoonish Wise Man #1, and John Howard Davies’ 1975 comedy series, Fawlty Towers, wherein he played the constantly cranky Basil Fawlty.
As it happens, no one was more surprised than Kevin Kline (then best known for playing the dishy Nathan Landau in Alan J. Pakula’s Sophie’s Choice(1982) when he saw the finished script (“You’ve given me the John Cleese part,” he’s reported to have said at the time when he realised he was playing the verbose Otto). Co-star Michael Palin, who worked with Cleese for the best part of 20 years, was impressed by his pal’s desire to reinvent himself. “It was a rather different John from [Monty] Python,” Palin admitted.”I think there must have been something there that he was rather glad to do.”
As a reward to his fans, Cleese breaks character once towards the end of A Fish Called Wanda, emulating the tone and cadence of a fiery Texan. That moment proved a gift to fans of Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (Terry Jones, 1983), who were used to Cleese’s vocal dexterity and commitment. But for the most part, he’s admirably restrained in A Fish Called Wanda, posing as the Cary Grantesque lead he so clearly aspired to emulate.
Cleese’s Archie is the only one of the four leads who isn’t involved in the opening robbery scene. We see him for the first time at his house, where his wife and daughter ignore him. Archie Leach (a clever nod to Cary Grant, whose real name was Archibald Leach) is a fussy, no-nonsense lawyer who spends his free time between cases contemplating his unhappy marriage. Suddenly, Wanda (Jamie Lee Curtis) enters his life. She brings an energy and joie de vivre that is sorely missing from his barren lifestyle. She appears at his house with the intention of seducing him, and Archie – a red-blooded male who has not engaged in sexual intercourse for years – is only too happy to oblige.
Unbeknownst to Archie, Wanda is one of the criminals he is unwittingly defending, and in her efforts to gain information, she begins to fall for him. He’s certainly more charming than Otto (played marvellously by Kline), her sometime lover who has helped her pull off the jewel heist, and Archie’s mastery of Italian is significantly stronger than the criminals she stands beside.
Jamie Lee Curtis made her imprint on the world of alternative comedy in 1983 when she played a prostitute in John Landis’ 1983 comedy Trading Places. Concerned for her image, Curtis suggested a nude role reversal (she appeared naked in Trading Places), which led to one of A Fish Called Wanda’s funnier and more intimate setpieces. Having spent a great deal of time making Hollywood films, Curtis enjoyed the more carefree nature of A Fish Called Wanda. Cleese’s fastidious nature didn’t necessarily lend itself to romance, so he leant on Curtis’ judgement and let take charge during some of the bedroom scenes, “Let’s just be in the moment together,” she told him.
Director Charles Crichton is an Ealing Comedy veteran who demanded a certain level of professionalism and authenticity in his work. You can practically sense Crichton’s stare bearing down on Cleese every time the former Monty Python actor attempts anything more comedic than a bemused smirk.
Agreeing to Curtis’ suggestion about nudity, Cleese spent weeks preparing himself for the big “reveal”, although anyone desperate to see the full English was to be disappointed, as the scene ended with the character hiding his genitalia behind a framed picture. Cleese was no stranger to nudity – he stripped for the cameras as early as 1974 for Robert Young’s Romance With a Double Bass – but this scene wasn’t mindless titillation – there was a purpose to it, signalling Archie’s desire to throw himself headfirst into the moment and far away from the rigours of the establishment.
As it happens, Archie and Wanda are thwarted by a family who have entered the apartment, having leased it from the agency “last weekend”. Archie is shocked to discover that he recognises the intruders, having bought a property from them. Everywhere he goes, Archie is reminded of his life with his affluent wife, Wendy (Maria Aitken, a Dubliner with a killer English accent). This partly explains his desire to escape with Wanda to South America long after he’s discovered her criminal ways.
Archie’s disdain for his formal Englishness stemmed from Cleese’s personal life, who later claimed that A Fish Called Wanda contained some of the most autobiographical passages of his career. Wisely, Cleese lets the reticence wash over Archie, and it’s easy to believe that someone like Wanda might fall for his impish awkwardness. “I don’t think Archie is a very sexy man,” Cleese chuckled on a 2003 DVD commentary, “whereas I am enormously so.” Keen to provide a character trait that would draw Wanda to Archie, Cleese and Crichton devised Archie as a polyglot, a man capable of speaking many languages, which aids the gentle jokes Archie tells Wanda over the London harbor. But the more time he spends with Wanda, the more Archie doubts himself, both as a man and a lover. Jaded by his dispiritedness, he performs an ungentlemanly act and breaks up with Wanda over the telephone.
This scene is inherently endearing, arguably the only on-screen moment of downheartedness in Cleese’s career. Like so many of his creations, Archie Leach represented an aspect of Cleese’s real life. Where Basil Fawlty acted as a mask for his internal despair, Archie Leach mirrored Cleese’s desperation for love, aching to find a shoulder to lean on in good times and in bad. Cleese’s penchant for word salad comes to the forefront when Archie expresses his love to Wanda, culminating in a confessional of sorts as he recognises the root of his unhappiness.
Unlike his free-spirited American companion, Archie walks a line between discomfort and disharmony, demonstrating a desire to remain part of the status quo while rebelling against it. One senses that his social circle would rather read Danté than try to escape their inferno, but in Wanda, Archie sees his chance to escape and throws himself headfirst into the frisson.
Wanda leaves an imprint on Archie, who bumbles through the court proceedings, where he unwittingly admits to his liaison. Only then does he realise how much he cares for his American companion and gives up his legal career to join her on her escape from Britain. In an earlier print, A Fish Called Wanda ended on a more glib note, suggesting that Wanda would abandon Archie as soon as they landed at the nearest airport.
It was clear to Cleese and Crichton that audiences wanted the two characters to end up happily together, so they re-shot some scenes. Kline garnered many of the plaudits in his role as Otto – he won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in 1989 – and Palin enjoyed a slapstick turn as Ken, the nefarious hitman with a passion for animal rights activism, but there’s no denying that A Fish Called Wanda is ultimately Cleese’s to boast. The film netted $62.5 million between the United States and Canada, becoming one of the biggest hits in 1988.
In Archie Leach, Cleese perfected the role of the reticent Englishman, prone to nervous laughter and hapless reflection. By the time A Fish Called Wanda‘s credits roll, viewers feel happy for Archie as he casts off the shackles of his work for something much more exotic and uncertain overseas. For a generation of fans who grew up with Cleese doing silly walks and mock Hitler salutes with Monty Python, this was something completely different indeed. For the first time, Cleese was being romantic in his role in A Fish Called Wanda.
Cleese, John (2003). “A Fish Called Wanda DVD Commentary. British Movie Commentary Collection. YouTube. Accessed 21 January 2021.
King, Darryn. “Just a Concoction of Nonsense: The Oral History of A Fish Called Wanda”. Vanity Fair. 12 July 2018.
Schneider, Steven Jay, ed. 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.(5th Anniversary/3rd ed.) Sourcebooks. December 2021