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Nobody Expects Michael Palin: A Comic Actor in a Dramatic Role

Through the characters he has played in nearly 50 years’ worth of Monty Python television shows and films — devious shopkeepers; an aspiring lumberjack; an adventurous knight who just wants a bit of peril — Mr. Palin, 74, has cultivated a reputation for being a sympathetic, likable guy.

“Remember Me” not only allowed Mr. Palin to undermine that reputation but also to demonstrate that there is still a lot of vitality in people — fictional characters, as well as the actors playing them — long after they’ve crossed some of life’s major thresholds.

“I used to be offered people’s father’s — now it’s grandfathers, if you’re not careful,” Mr. Palin said, more amused than annoyed. “I still think of myself as being about 14.”


Michael Palin, far left, with Jodie Comer, in “Remember Me.”

“Remember Me,” which was first shown on the BBC in 2014, was written by the filmmaker and screenwriter Gwyneth Hughes (whose previous credits include HBO’s “The Girl,” about Tippi Hedren and Alfred Hitchcock).

Ms. Hughes said she drew upon a variety of sources and inspirations, including the real-life history of the British coastal town of Scarborough, where the story is set, and the haunting ballad “Scarborough Fair,” which commemorates it.

Offering Mr. Palin the principal role in the series, she acknowledged, was “a complete long shot,” but not unthinkable. “Tom, in the show, is an old man who’s never really grown up — that’s the nature of the story,” Ms. Hughes explained. “Michael Palin looks like an old man who’s still a little boy, in the most charming way.”

Mr. Palin had just one question during this recruitment process: “He asked, ‘How supernatural is it? Is it going to be ‘Scooby-Doo?’” Ms. Hughes said. “We thought, ‘oh, no — this means he hates ghost stories.’”

On the contrary, Mr. Palin said he has been a fan since childhood of the ethereal tales of authors like M. R. James. “There were always clergymen involved, for some reason,” he said. “And he opens a door in the middle of the night, and the world of the suppressed and mysterious invades.”

Mr. Palin, who grew up in England’s Yorkshire county, said he always showed an aptitude for acting and imitation, but had to keep such aspirations secret from his father, an industrial engineer, who did not want him pursuing a theater career. (His older sister, Angela, had already tried her hand at acting but landed in stage management, and his father “could already see himself supporting me for the rest of my life,” Mr. Palin said.)

When Mr. Palin went onto Oxford in the early 1960s, he said, “I was off the leash, as it were — my father wasn’t able to monitor all my movements.”

It was there that he befriended Terry Jones, his frequent collaborator on “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” where Mr. Palin estimated he played about 400 characters over its five-year run from 1969 to 1974.

Even so, Mr. Palin said he came to think of himself more as a writer than as a performer, which helps explain his being exceptionally choosy about taking on acting assignments. “Writing was expressing myself, and gave me the freedom to think about what I really wanted to do, rather than work to someone else’s schedule,” he said. “I felt that freedom was quite important.”

Outside of Python-specific projects, Mr. Palin is most usually seen in films associated with his fellow troupe members (like “A Fish Called Wanda,” written by John Cleese, who was one of its stars), or in the odd documentary about fine art or travel (like his BBC series “Around the World in 80 Days”).

A rare exception was the 1991 television drama “G.B.H.”, which cast Mr. Palin as the headmaster of a school for students with special needs in a British town teeming with political disarray and violence.

More recently, Mr. Palin played the politician Vyacheslav Molotov in “The Death of Stalin,” a coming film directed by Armando Iannucci, in which an ensemble cast (also featuring Steve Buscemi, Jeffrey Tambor and Simon Russell Beale) offers a farcical look at a chaotic moment in Soviet history.

Mr. Iannucci, a writer of the film and the creator of the political satires “Veep” and “The Thick of It,” grew up a fan of Monty Python and Mr. Palin in particular.


Michael Palin

Tom Jamieson for The New York Times

“As himself, he has this genial demeanor,” Mr. Iannucci said of Mr. Palin. “And yet, in ‘Python,’ he could be really savage. He played his characters with such energy and often a kind of sinister smile.”

The character of Molotov, Mr. Iannucci said, has an inherently “Pythonesque element” in his “complete, unemotional, fanatical attachment to the party and to its logic.”

But Mr. Palin, he said, is sparing in taking on roles that might be compared to his pored-over Monty Python work.

“He’s conscious that he has this status with Python, and he obviously doesn’t want to boast or brag about it,” Mr. Iannucci said. “But he’s aware that it does mean a lot to people. He’s worked out how to manage that, so that it gives people pleasure.”

Mr. Palin nearly starred in “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote,” a film by his Python colleague Terry Gilliam that reimagines the story of Cervantes’s Man of La Mancha.

Last year, Mr. Palin was still attached to this long-delayed film when it ran into a financing problem (again). “I had hung in there for quite a while,” Mr. Palin said, “and turned down one or two other quite interesting things. I said to Terry, ‘I don’t think I can go through another year of uncertainty.’”

(Mr. Gilliam, who did not respond to a request for comment, finished principal photography on the film in June, with Jonathan Pryce in the Don Quixote role.)

Relations remain good among the surviving Pythons, who got back together in the summer of 2014 for a set of live performances at London’s O2 Arena that were essentially the group’s last hurrah.

As Mr. Palin recalled the reunion: “There was lots of coughing and wincing and rubbing of potions into arthritic backs before the show. And then suddenly you get on stage: Wow! Dr. Theater works his magic.”

In particular, Mr. Palin has stayed close to Mr. Jones, whose family disclosed last year that he has primary progressive aphasia, a form of dementia that impairs language and communication.

“It’s hard to exchange thoughts and ideas and know exactly how he’s feeling,” said Mr. Palin, who still visits Mr. Jones and has the occasional drink with him. “He always seems pleased to see me, and he’s physically in very good shape. But something’s gone, which is really, really sad.”

As ever, Mr. Palin could not predict his future acting plans; he said his next creative endeavor is a nonfiction book he is writing about the H.M.S. Erebus, a British Naval ship that was used in the Ross expedition to Antarctica and lost in the Franklin expedition of the Northwest Passage.

Still, it seemed hard for him to imagine he wouldn’t eventually return to comedy, which has always been his way of making sense of the world — or, perhaps, his way of making peace with a world that can’t be made sensible.

“As soon as I’m told not to laugh at something, then it immediately becomes hysterically funny,” Mr. Palin said. “Disorder is very, very close to order. It’s a bus ticket away from total chaos. And that’s what I like, really.”

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