Terry Jones, 'Monty Python' Co-Founder and British Comedy Icon, Dies at 77

The beloved actor, screenwriter, director, author and historian was known as the famed troupe's underrated but passionate heart.

Terry Jones, a founding member of Monty Python and a beloved comedian, screenwriter, film director, poet, historian and author, has died. He was 77.

Jones had been suffering from dementia, which was revealed publicly by his son, Bill, in September 2016. It left him unable to speak.

"We are deeply saddened to have to announce the passing of beloved husband and father, Terry Jones," his family said in a statement.

"Terry passed away on the evening of 21 January 2020 at the age of 77 with his wife Anna Soderstrom by his side after a long, extremely brave but always good humoured battle with a rare form of dementia, FTD.

"Over the past few days his wife, children, extended family and many close friends have been constantly with Terry as he gently slipped away at his home in North London. We have all lost a kind, funny, warm, creative and truly loving man whose uncompromising individuality, relentless intellect and extraordinary humour has given pleasure to countless millions across six decades." 

Renowned for his depictions of middle-aged housewives, often with hysterically falsetto voices, it was Jones who would famously scream the iconic line, "He's not the Messiah, he's a very naughty boy," while playing mother to the titular not-quite-son-of-god in the 1979 comedy Monty Python's Life of Brian, which he also directed. The line twice was voted the funniest in film history in U.K. polls.

Although rarely receiving the same acclaim as Monty Python's other members, Jones was widely regarded within the group as its underrated but passionate heart, known for his good-natured enthusiasm and a deep well of intelligence across a broad range of subjects.

A biographer once commented that should you speak to Jones "on subjects as diverse as fossil fuels, or Rupert Bear, or mercenaries in the Middle Ages or Modern China … in a moment you will find yourself hopelessly out of your depth, floored by his knowledge."

Born in North Wales, Jones read English at Oxford University, where he met his long-term collaborator and friend, Michael Palin. The two would star together in the college's comedy troupe The Oxford Revue, and after graduation, they appeared in the 1967 TV sketch comedy Twice a Fortnight.

Two years later, they created The Complete and Utter History of Britain, which featured comedy sketches from history as if TV had been around at the time. It was on the show Do Not Adjust Your Set where they would be introduced to fellow comic Eric Idle, who had starred alongside John Cleese and Graham Chapman in productions mounted by the Cambridge University theatrical club the Footlights.  

The five — together with Terry Gilliam, whom Cleese had met in New York — would quickly pool their talents for a new show, which would become one of the most groundbreaking on television. Monty Python's Flying Circus was born and ran on the BBC for four seasons between 1969 and 1974, with Jones driving much of the show's early innovation.

Among his most famous performances in the series were Jones as an inept, bumbling cardinal in the Spanish Inquisition (seen wearing a leather WWI pilot's hat and goggles); a member of the Hell's Grannies, a marauding group of old women terrorizing the streets of London; an overly apologetic French waiter in a sketch involving a dirty fork; a Yorkshireman who had to "get up out of the shoebox in the middle of the night and lick the road clean with our tongues"; and a nude piano player with an erratic face in scenes often used to break up sketches.

After the TV show ended, Jones co-directed with Gilliam the troupe's first big-screen outing, Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), in which Jones also played, among other roles, Sir Bedevere the Wise, Prince Herbert ("Father, I just want to sing!") and a member of the dreaded Knights who say "Ni."

For Life of Brian (1979) and Monty Python's The Meaning of Life (1983), Jones took on sole directing duties, having amicably agreed with Gilliam that his approach was better suited to the group's performing style.

Away from the Pythons, Jones would keep directing, helming the comedy Personal Services (1987), the all-star comedy-fantasy Erik the Viking (1989) and The Wind in the Willows (1996) while turning back to TV for episodes of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles on ABC and the British comedy series Ripping Yarns, which he created with Palin.

Meanwhile, Jones was becoming a prolific children's author. Between 1981 and 2002, he published 20 fiction novels, including Fairy Tales — selected by Children's Laureate Michael Rosen as one of his five best children's stories of all time — and The Saga of Erik the Viking, from which the film Erik the Viking was loosely based. Jones also wrote the first draft of the early script for Jim Henson's David Bowie-starring cult adventure fantasy Labyrinth (1986), and despite the screenplay going through several rewrites, received the film's sole screenwriting credit.

Adding to an already hugely impressive repertoire, Jones became known as a noted scholar of medieval and ancient history, writing several nonfiction books and presenting shows on British television that often offered an alternative view of historical periods. He was Emmy-nominated in 2004 for Terry Jones' Medieval Lives, which argued that the Middle Age was a far more sophisticated period than commonly believed.

A vocal opponent of the 2003 Iraq War, Jones contributed editorials to British newspapers The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph and The Observer condemning the conflict and the U.K.'s involvement in it. Many of his articles were published in the 2004 book Terry Jones's War on the War on Terror.

Jones' most recent work included the 2012 film A Liar's Autobiography: The Untrue Story of Monty Python's Graham Chapman, which was co-directed by his son Bill and in which he, naturally, played Chapman's mother. He also returned to the director's chair for the sci-fi comedy Absolutely Anything (2014), featuring the voices of Palin, Gilliam, Cleese, Idle and, in his final movie role, Robin Williams. (It was the first film to feature all living Python members since The Meaning of Life.)

Jones also reunited with his fellow comics one final time on stage in 2014 for Monty Python Live (Mostly), held in London's O2 arena and intended as a one-off until popular demand saw nine extra dates added.

Jones is survived by Soderstrom and their daughter, Siri, who was born in 2009, alongside his two children from his first marriage.