George Harrison built up an impressive resume as a member of The Beatles: being the first band to play a stadium rock concert, the first band to play a live global satellite television broadcast and even the first to print song lyrics on their album. But the fascination surrounding Harrison doesn't end with the band's breakup — omit The Beatles' narrative and Harrison still had an incredible career, as he is one of the only Beatle stories to have stretched beyond music. He is even almost single-handedly responsible for keeping Monty Python alive.
Harrison’s dryness surely attributed to his reputation as the Quiet Beatle, so it’s no surprise his subtle, English self was drawn to Monty Python. He was a huge fan of Monty Python’s Flying Circus and once referred to it as "the only sane thing on television," He even once appeared on the 1975 Christmas special of Eric Idle's Rutland Weekend Television series, where his cameo included appearing as a pirate with a peg leg. As the musical guest, he began to sing his hit "My Sweet Lord" before breaking out into "The Pirate Song," written by none other than Harrison and Idle. A close, personal friendship had formed between Harrison and Idle after this. Harrison even recruited Idle to direct promotional videos for his album Thirty-Three & ⅓.
A few years later, the Monty Python crew was preparing to shoot a project called Life of Brian — a satirical film about a man named Brian Cohen born on the original Christmas in the stable next to the messiah, who then spends his life being mistaken for Jesus. The film was picked up by EMI Films and set to begin production in 1978. The shooting schedules had been set and the set design was underway in Tunisia when, just days before production was to begin, EMI pulled their financing. The head of EMI, Bernard Delfont, feared the film would be "too controversial."
Knowing the impossibility of finding another studio to fund Life of Brian that late in the process, Idle reached out to Harrison for help. It has been rumored — yet unconfirmed — that Harrison took a mortgage on his 120-room Friar Park mansion to help fund the film. In the end, Harrison was able to provide the crew with £6 million to secure production.
Out of the funding of Life of Brian came the creation of Harrison's own film production and distribution company, HandMade Films — a venture that not only saved Brian, but also The Long Good Friday after they could not find a company to distribute it. HandMade did continue to fund films from Python members such as Also Time Bandits, A Private Function and Nuns on the Run. Needless to say, many films have Harrison to thank for their existence. Harrison's passion for comedy, appreciation for the arts and relationship with Eric Idle was the driving force for the conception of HandMade and the countless films it has distributed.
Monty Python members have claimed Harrison funded Life of Briansimply because he wanted to see the film — what Michael Palin called "the highest price paid for a cinema ticket ever." He was by no means a hands-on producer, he just provided funding because he wanted the film to be created. And Harrison's belief in the group paid off: the film grossed about $20 million in the U.S. box office alone, was the highest grossing British film in North America that year, and was the fourth highest-grossing film in Britain in 1979.
No strangers to criticism, Monty Python faced a lot of protest for Life of Brian. Python member Michael Palin felt Harrison enjoyed the controversy. Previously, for instance, The Beatles had been the subject of debate when John Lennon claimed they were "more popular than Jesus." Like Lennon's comments, Harrison fully understood the mocking nature of Monty Python and many think this fueled his dry, satirical personality.
Life of Brian was the predecessor to Monty Python's final film, The Meaning of Life, in 1983. The Meaning of Life was distributed by Universal, not HandMade, but it's hard to say what the fate of Monty Python would have been had it not been for Harrison's funding of Life of Brian. HandMade Films made Life of Brian a proven success after EMI bailed and feared controversy. Harrison believed in the film and deeply cared for the satirical, smart and culturally important humor of Monty Python. George Harrison had managed to establish himself in the most influential rock group of all time, to then find his place among the most influential comedy troupe in television history. And not only that, he saved them.
Brittany K. King is a Chicago-based writer and founder of Film Daddy. She spends most of her time avoiding saying the word ‘gyro’ out loud.
Follow Brittany on Twitter @brittanykking.