Denis O’Brien, best known for producing the comedy Monty Python’s Life of Brian with former Beatle George Harrison, died Dec. 3 in a Swindon, UK hospital. He was 80 and passed from intra-abdominal sepsis, his daughter said.
O’Brien and Harrison’s Handmade Films had a hit right out of the box with the 1979 comedy Monty Python’s Life of Brian, a semi-blasphemous story of a young Jewish-Roman man who is born on the same day and next door to Jesus, and is subsequently mistaken for the Messiah. It was banned in several locations or slapped with an X for its outrageous stunts, including a closing sing-a-long on the cross.
With Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and MIchael Palin in the cast, the producers thought the film would at best lose money and be a tax right-off. Instead, it was a smash, leading them to explore other films.
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Handmade Films other productions included The Long Good Friday, a 1980 crime drama with Bob Hoskins and Helen Mirren; Time Bandits, directed by Terry Gilliam of Monty Python and featuring other member of that troupe; the noir drama Mona Lisa, and the comedy Withnail & I, which became a cult classic.
The O’Brien/Harrison relationship started in 1973, when O’Brien became Harrison’s business manager. When another client, Eric Idle, approached O’Brien on an issue, he turned to Harrison for the financial backing for what became Life of Brian. Harrison, four years removed from the Beatles and in the prime of his solo career, put up his estate on Henley-on-Thames in England to provide $4 million in collateral.
Filmmaking success started to wane with 1986’s Shanghai Surprise, which starred Madonna and Sean Penn. By the early 1990s, the company was in financial difficulty, and Harrison wound up suing O’Brien, accusing him of mishandling his money. Harrison won more than $11 million from the lawsuit, and attempted to block O’Brien from declaring bankruptcy to avoid the judgment. The attempt was dismissed by the judge in 2001, and Harrison died later that year at age 58.
O’Brien moved back to England in 2008 after living near St. Louis for a time. He was married four times, most recently to Phyllida Riddell O’Brien, who died in 2019. In addition to his daughters — who are from his first marriage, to Karen Lazarus — he is survived by a brother, Douglas.
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