Les Ramoneurs, by Terry Gilliam (Pilote, 1967)
Les Ramoneurs, from Pilote #426

Terry Gilliam is most famous as the only American member of the British satirical comedy troupe Monty Python. He was the mad brain behind their surrealistic photo collage animated cartoons which often appeared as intermezzos between scenes. Whenever Python had a side-project, Gilliam was the man who provided their posters, covers, sets, costumes and make-up. Besides Monty Python he also started a second career as a highly eccentric film director. Many of his pictures are based on classic fantasy stories or take place in frightening future dystopia. His characters often have to combat the system to be allowed to think and dream their own independent thoughts. Gilliam himself can relate, since many of his pictures have been victim of executive meddling, behind-the-scenes disasters and bad receptions at the box office. Nevertheless, some have become cult classics, including 'Time Bandits' (1981), 'Brazil' (1985), 'The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen' (1989), '12 Monkeys' (1996), 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas' (1998) and 'The Zero Theorem' (2013). While polarizing audiences, Gilliam is still respected as a highly imaginative and original artist. Both his cartoons as well as his live-action films have inspired generations of equally deranged directors and animators. 

Early years
Terry Gilliam was born in 1940 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. His father worked as a travelling salesman before settling down as a carpenter. He had a vivid imagination and creativity from a young age, admiring artists such as Ernie Kovacs, the Goon Show, Philip K. Dick, C.S. Lewis, Walt Disney, Tex Avery, Chuck Jones, Stan Van Der Beek, Karel Zeman, Hieronymus Bosch, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Francisco de Goya, Max Ernst, René Magritte, Gustave Doré, Lewis Carroll, John Tenniel, Robert Crumb, Hergé, Harvey Kurtzman, Jack Davis, Ray Harryhausen and Eastern European animators such as Jan Švankmajer. Later in his career he also expressed admiration for Matt Groening's 'The Simpsons', Trey Parker and Matt Stone's 'South Park' and Seth MacFarlane's 'Family Guy'.

He studied and graduated in political science at Occidental College in Los Angeles. During the 1960s he drew cartoons and comics. His first work was printed in Fang, a college humor magazine of which he later became an editor. He was also associate editor for Harvey Kurtzman's short-lived satirical magazine Help! and published several comic strips and cartoons there. In a 1964 issue he made a photo comic, 'Christopher's Punctured Romance', about a man who falls in love with a Barbie doll. The actor in question was John Cleese, with whom Gilliam would later work together in Monty Python.

Christopher's Punctured Romance

Pilote / CARtoons / SURFtoons
When he first came to Europe, Gilliam provided two short stories to the French magazine Pilote, of which one was written by Fred. Gilliam also provided some comics to Petersen Publishing's magazines CARtoons and SURFtoons, for which Alex Toth also contributed work. In CARtoons Gilliam drew the comic 'My Son Arnold, the Car', which already showed the absurdism and silliness he would later further develop in the Monty Python series.

My Son Arnold the Car, by Terry Gilliam

Animation career
In 1968 Gilliam moved away from printed cartoons to animated cartoons. To reach his weekly deadlines he combined his own drawings with photos and pictures he photocopied and cut out from books and magazines. This lead to goofy cut-and-paste animation, which livened up the children's TV series 'Do Not Adjust Your Set' (1967-1969) and the adult comedy series 'We Have Ways Of Making You Laugh' (1968) on ITV. While working for 'Do Not Adjust Your Set' Gilliam first met Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin. They all wrote and performed zany sketches for the program, which helped it become a cult TV show both among children as well as adults. In 1969 Idle, Jones and Palin joined forces with John Cleese and Graham Chapman to form the comedy team Monty Python. Gilliam was asked aboard as their animator.

Quick Henry by Terry Gilliam
Comic strip by Gilliam with a reference to an ad campaign of Quick Flit insecticide, which was created by Dr Seuss

Monty Python
Their TV sketch series 'Monty Python's Flying Circus' (1969-1974) on the BBC quickly became notorious due to its subversive, surreal and experimental nature. Sketches often ended without proper punchlines and demolished all comedy conventions. There was rarely an attempt at continuity. In every episode confusing things happened at random, often with historical and cultural references only a slightly cultivated viewer might understand without consulting an encyclopaedia. Sometimes the show appeared to have ended, yet still went on for several minutes. Other episodes came across as if a totally different show was playing. Much like 'Do Not Adjust Your Set', Gilliam's surreal animated sequences intercut the live-action content. The main difference was that he could work in color now and be more graphic in his depiction of nudity and violence. He also animated their opening titles. Gilliam came up with the idea to use John Philip Sousa's march 'Liberty Bell' as their theme music and used a huge bare all-crushing foot near the end. The foot was a small detail from Agnolo Bronzino's Renaissance painting 'Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time' (1545) and soon became Monty Python's iconic logo. Despite polarizing viewers upon its first broadcast, 'Monty Python's Flying Circus' slowly but surely gained a cult following. It spawned four seasons and unexpectedly managed to duplicate its cult success in other Western countries as well, including the United States. When Monty Python started making feature films they reached an even wider audience, most of them even unfamiliar with the original TV show. Gilliam animated the opening credits for all four Python pictures. He co-directed one of them, 'Monty Python and the Holy Grail' (1975), as well as the prologue 'The Crimson Permanent Assurance' which opens 'Monty Python's Meaning of Life' (1983). Gilliam was also responsible for puppets, set design and odd costumes and make-up. Last but not least, he illustrated their concert posters, books and record covers too.

Within Monty Python, Gilliam was the odd one out in three ways. While the others were graduates from Oxford and Cambridge university Giliam hailed from the university of Minnesota. Together with Eric Idle he was the only Python to write his material independently. Yet whereas Idle's sketches were at least discussed and judged beforehand, the others only saw Gilliam's work when it actually aired on television. This was was mostly because he couldn't exactly explain his visual jokes. To save time he just went ahead and made them without consulting the others. The most notable difference between Gilliam and the other Pythons was the fact that he only played small roles. Both in the TV show, the films as well as the stage shows he is usually just an extra or appears in only a few scenes. He is the bridge keeper and Patsy, the "horse" of King Arthur, in 'Monty Python and the Holy Grail' (1975), the demented prison guard and an equally crazy prophet in 'Monty Python's Life of Brian' (1979) and the unfortunate liver donor and American tourist in 'Monty Python's Meaning of Life' (1983). Because of this he is sometimes forgotten by the general audience or even confused with his namesake Terry Jones. Yet Gilliam's contributions to Monty Python should not be taken lightly. He was present at all their brainstorming sessions, judging and vetoeing ideas, even writing a few sketches himself. As the franchise progressed, his acting roles increased somewhat. His cartoons - as polarizing as they can be among fans - still gave Monty Python its own unique and distinctive flavour. As 'Monty Python's Flying Circus' became the most influential alternative TV comedy show of all time countless other sketch shows, sitcoms and films have tried to ape their off-the-wall brand of comedy. Michael Palin once said that Gilliam's cartoons were the only thing all their imitators could never surpass. They also had a strong impact on many equally subversive animators that followed since, including Matt Groening ('The Simpsons'), John Kricfalusi ('Ren & Stimpy'), Mike Judge ('Beavis & Butt-head'), Bill Plympton and Trey Parker and Matt Stone ('South Park'). Masamune Shirow ('Ghost in the Shell') named Terry Gilliam as one of his few Western influences. Frank Zappa once praised Gilliam as "the only comedic genius to come from America", while John Cleese credits him with Monty Python's breakthrough in the United States: "Terry introduced two things in Python that all Americans love: tits and violence!" 

Monty Python by Terry Gilliam

Film directing
Besides his Python activities Gilliam started a new career as a live-action film director. His first picture, 'Jabberwocky' (1977), was loosely based on Lewis Carroll's work and John Tenniel's illustrations, but had otherwise little to do with it. This medieval farce was a jumbled mess and failed at the box office. In some countries it was unjustly promoted as a sequel to 'Monty Python and the Holy Grail', because of its medieval setting and since Gilliam and Michael Palin appear in it. 'Time Bandits' (1981), a time travel movie from a child's perspective, had a much more professional look. Even the visual effects were more striking. It became a success at the box office and still enjoys a cult following to this day. The film was also adapted into a comic book by Steve Parkhouse. Universal offered Gilliam a million dollar contract for his next project, which became the Orwellian dystopia 'Brazil' (1985). The film was a brilliant satire on bureaucracy and our rules-obsessed society. Thanks to the higher budget Gilliam's vision was allowed to blossom like never before. Unfortunately the director spent too much money on the project. Executives were worried, especially after watching the picture and noticing it was grim and dark. They refused to bring it out, but Gilliam took revenge by showing his own cut to enthusiastic audiences. This forced Universal to release 'Brazil' anyway, but only in a severely altered version with an obligatory "happy end". They also refused to properly advertise it, which caused its failure at the box office. Nevertheless it did gain a cult following afterwards. Frank Zappa and Harlan Ellison named it their favorite movie of all time and many viewers and critics agree it's easily Gilliam's best picture. Beb-Deum's comic book 'Bürocratika' (1987) was strongly inspired by it.

Gilliam's next film, 'The Adventures of Baron Munchausen' (1989), was based on Rudolf E. Raspe's eponymous fantasy novel. It once again cost too much to make, while gaining too little at the box office, except for a cult audience. 'The Fisher King' (1991), which dealt with a jobless shock deejay and a homeless lunatic, was a more straightforward film and had a much better commercial reception. 'Twelve Monkeys' (1995) featured a man travelling back to the past to warn people for a deadly virus which will destroy mankind. Thanks to the presence of Brad Pitt and Bruce Willis in the main roles the picture was a success. 'Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas' (1998), on the other hand was a complete box office disaster and got booed at the Festival of Cannes. The picture was a frenetic adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson's eponymous cult novel and partially inspired by Ralph Steadman's illustrations. Only later did it achieve cult status. Gilliam's next film was probably the worst moment in his entire career. While trying to adapt Cervantes' novel 'Don Quichot' to the big screen Murphy's law struck hard. Apart from floods, language barriers, untrained horses and planes flying over the main actor got wounded and had to be brought to the hospital. Eventually the entire film had to be cancelled. The tragic events were recorded in the documentary 'Lost In La Mancha' (2002) by Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe. 'The Brothers Grimm' (2005), a homage to Grimm's fairy tales, did well with audiences, but only becauses executives streamlined it into a typical formulaic Hollywood project. 'Tideland' (2005) was a risky adaptation of Mitch Cullin's controversial novel of the same name. A girl who lives in dire circumstances manages to escape in her fantasies, but audience felt these visions were far too disturbing. Critics on the other hand liked it. During Gilliam's next film, 'The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus' (2009), production had to be halted after star actor Heath Ledger unexpectedly died. With some rewrites of the script and help from actors sympathetic to Gilliam's cause the project was able to be finished after all. The Faustian story about a man who has a magical mirror, but is under Satan's contract, was one of his few pictures to appeal to both audiences and critics. Gilliam went back to cyberpunk with 'The Zero Theorem' (2014), about a withdrawn computer genius looking for the origin of life. In 2018 he finally managed to release his long-delayed 'Don Quixote' movie in theaters: 'The Man Who Killed Don Quixote' (2018), which received mixed reviews.

Despite frequent executive meddling and often polarizing reviews, Gilliam's movies earned respect due to their highly eccentric and imaginative style. With Walt Disney, Stanley Kubrick, Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, Luis Buñuel, Stanley Donen, Walerian Borowczyk and Federico Fellini as main cinematic influences, Gilliam is one of the few film makers in Hollywood who manages to make highly personal works.

comic art by Terry Gilliam

Gilliam is still highly regarded in fantasy, comic book and animation circles. He has been called a forerunner of the 'steampunk' movement, by combining pre-20th century historical imagery with industrial technology. His style is so difficult to describe that it inspired its own eponym: 'Gilliamesque'. The man contributed to many documentaries, among about Spike Milligan ('The Unseen Spike Milligan', 2005), Mel Blanc ('Mel Blanc: The Man of a Thousand Voices', 2008), Bill Plympton ('Adventures in Plymptoons!', 2011), Ray Harryhausen ('Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan', 2011), Ralph Steadman ('For No Good Reason', 2012), Ken Russell ('Ken Russell: A Bit of a Devil', 2012), Karel Zeman ('Film Adventurer Karel Zeman', 2015), Nick Park ('A Grand Night In: The Story of Aardman', 2015), Laurie Lipton ('Love Bite: Laurie Lipton and Her Disturbing Black & White Drawings', 2016) and Edward Gorey ('The Last Day of Edward Gorey'). He provided the liner notes to the 1995 compilation CD 'Strictly Commercial. The Best of Frank Zappa' and in 2011 he wrote the foreword to Paul Gravett's book '1001 Comics You Should Read Before You Die'. In 1993 he and all six members of Monty Python each had an asteroid named after them. In 1997 Monty Python itself also had an asteroid named after them.

Help cover


Series and books by Terry Gilliam in stock in the Lambiek Webshop:


If you want to help us continue and improve our ever- expanding database, we would appreciate your donation through Paypal.