The full Monty: Eric Idle talks 'Masked Singer,' secret cancer battle, the Rutles, George Harrison, his lost David Bowie-Kate Bush movie, and making Queen Elizabeth II laugh

Eric Idle in 2017. (Photo: Ole Jensen - Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images)
Eric Idle in 2017. (Photo: Ole Jensen - Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images) (Ole Jensen via Getty Images)

The Hedgehog is among the many absurdist roles that Monty Python’s Eric Idle, who was unmasked this week on The Masked Singer Season 8’s premiere, was perhaps born to play. “The Hedgehog was perfect for me, because I'm prickly, and when I'm attacked, I curl up into a ball,” he jokes to Yahoo Entertainment the day after his big reveal. On the show, Idle actually pointed out that going on The Masked Singer was one of the more normal things he’d ever done in his career, and he tells Yahoo, “Yes, being silly and dressing up in silly animal costumes is not strange to me. When they asked me, and it was out of the blue, I thought, ‘Well, this is in my wheelhouse.’”

But there was a serious reason why the 79-year-old British comedy legend accepted Fox’s invitation: to make a comeback and test himself after his secret, against-all-odds pancreatic cancer battle, and to spread awareness for his new Bright Side Fund partnership with Stand Up to Cancer. Idle revealed the news about his 2019 diagnosis shortly after his Masked Singer episode aired.

Below, Idle discusses his cancer recovery; how he convinced Paul McCartney to let him cover “Love Me Do” on The Masked Singer despite the Beatle's previous grudge over Idle’s Fab Four parody band the Rutles; his deep friendships with George Harrison and David Bowie; his unrealized dream of making a movie musical with Bowie and Kate Bush; performing in drag for Queen Elizabeth II; and so much more.

Yahoo Entertainment: I really enjoyed your all-too-brief run on The Masked Singer. I've obviously since found out that you had an interesting, harrowing journey leading up to the show. I'm so happy to hear that you’re in good health now. How did your pancreatic cancer diagnosis lead to you going on a show like this?

I wanted to see if I could do it, because, as you say, I had survived pancreatic cancer. And I hadn't [performed in public] since. I thought, “This is a very good opportunity to see if I can still do that.” I didn't tell the producers, obviously. I mean, I hadn't told anybody. When I finished the show, I thought, “I'll call my doctor and see how long I've got,” because I've been going six months to six months. And he said, “Oh, you’ve got 10 years. Your cancer's gone. You're healthy. You swim, you eat well, and all that. So, you should have 10 years.” And I thought, “Well, I better take this thing seriously now!” Often after these shows you do all these interviews, and instead of pitching a book or a film or something like that, I thought I’d say, “I survived pancreatic cancer. And this is good news for all of us.” And then I thought beyond that, I should start my own fund, the Bright Side Fund, with Stand Up to Cancer, and raise money so we can put it on research and figure out how more people can survive this thing. … So, immediately after the show I outed myself, and people began to donate at once. It was an extraordinary reaction on Twitter. … You don't often get a chance to be useful in show business, so I feel very happy. I felt the show had changed my life, oddly.

That's amazing, because this form of cancer is often the deadliest. Usually, once you’re diagnosed, you don't have much time left.

Yes, you may have only three weeks. In fact, my doctor told me, “Had we left it two weeks [longer], you wouldn't have been in to see that surgeon. You'd have just gone into chemo.” Because it spreads very quickly from the pancreas. But when he found it… he whipped me into Cedars-Sinai, and this great doctor did a partially robotic five-hour operation. So, I wanted to thank them, and I wanted to just come out publicly and see if we can raise some money to help.

Knowing your sense of humor, I'm surprised your Masked Singer character wasn't the Pancreas!

Ha! Well, the Hedgehog was perfect for me, because I'm prickly, and when I'm attacked, I curl up into a ball. So, I thought, “Yeah, this is a good character to play.”

I must ask about your Masked Singer song choice, “Love Me Do.” It was the first time a Beatles song had been performed on the show. Tell me about this letter you wrote to Paul McCartney asking for permission to do that.

Well, I have a friend who worked at Apple in London, and he said, “I think Paul will have forgiven you by now.” Because, you know, I played [Paul] in the Rutles. … So, I worked up the courage and I wrote to Paul — I sent him an email. And he probably almost immediately said, “Yes, absolutely, of course you can.” The producers were very happy, but he said, “There's only one condition: You have to tell me when it's on, so I can be sure to miss it.”

I'm a huge fan of the Rutles mockumentary All You Need Is Cash. I understand Paul originally wasn't on board with the Rutles. He wasn't thrilled with the movie or with your McCartney-inspired Dirk McQuickly character…

No. The person who was on board was George Harrison; we were good pals, and he's in the film, actually. As for Paul, my wife and I bumped into him in Regents Park shortly after with Linda [McCartney], and he said, “Oh, I'm not sure we’re talking to you!” And then just Linda loved [All You Need Is Cash]. She just loved it. And she loved me playing him. Obviously he wasn't quite so comfortable in those days, but I was very pleased that when they did the 50th anniversary of the Ed Sullivan performance, he asked me to come on the show with him and Ringo and do a Rutles joke. So, it's OK now.

I think I've read before that George said the Rutles liberated him from the Beatles’ legacy. Can you tell me a bit more about that?

I think it did. He would always refer to the Beatles as "The Rutles" ever since. When I’d talk to him, he’d say, “When I was in the Rutles…”

What did John Lennon and Ringo Starr think of All You Need Is Cash?

Well, Ringo said something very obtuse. He said he “liked it after 1968.” I don't know what that means. I never met John and Yoko [then], but apparently they loved it. But she's portrayed as some Hitler's daughter! She'd been attacked so much that it was a joke for the rest of the people mistaking her for this sort of person. … And I got to meet Yoko eventually. ... I once gave a speech, I think it was at Bowie’s wedding, a funny speech, and as I finished, I looked up and Yoko was standing on the table going like this [gives two thumbs up]. Of course, you can't live with John Lennon without having an amazing sense of humor yourself.

Did you say Bowie's wedding? As in, David Bowie's wedding?

No, Arthur Bowie, he’s from the Valley. Yes, of course, David Bowie! [laughs]

Yeah, I suppose there's only one Bowie. Wow, I didn't know that you spoke at his wedding.

We were pals for a while. He was a lovely, wonderful man, bright and really extraordinary. We became pals and we'd go on holidays together and always have fun. He loved to laugh. He loved comedians. I think I met him through Bobcat Goldthwait originally, actually.

Going back to your friendship with George Harrison, I'm wondering, when you were going through your own cancer battle, obviously George did not have the same kind of cancer, but did you think about him at all? Like, did you think back to any conversations you’d had when he was ill?

Well, sure. I was with him on his deathbed. I would rather be with somebody when they're dying than not be with somebody when they're dying — especially a friend like him, who always talked about death. When we first met a long time ago, in 1975, he said, “You can have all the money in the world and all the fame in the world, but you're still going to have to die.” He would always take that position, and it sort of resonated with me, because a lot of my songs are about death, even “Keep on the Bright Side.” So, when he came to pass away, unlike most people, he'd been preparing for this moment for the previous 25 years. And he was prepared to go. He died in the Hindu faith, and he was very happy he wouldn't have to be reborn! [laughs] Actually, I wouldn't mind being reborn, but I'm just a silly old English atheist. It was the only thing we ever didn't see eye-to-eye on, but we'd have long conversations about it. He was a remarkable man. He really changed my life.

How so?

Because we just talked. I'd never had a friend like that. When I first met him, after a screening of Holy Grail at the Director's Guild, we went and had dinner and then went to the studio where he was recording. And he said, “Do you want to meet Joni?” I said, “What? Absolutely, I want to meet Joni!” So, I met Joni Mitchell that night. And then we went back to the hotel and we talked all night. It was like, “What was your John like?” — we were kind of both similar roles in our groups, maybe not the most biggest or most important members, but we weren't terrible either! So, we bonded like that. And then I wrote a joke for him on [the BBC2 sketch comedy show] Rutland Weekend Television, which [George’s wife] Olivia said was the bravest thing she thought he'd ever done. He comes on singing “My Sweet Lord,” and then he slips into “The Pirate Song: “I want to be a pirate…” Liv thought that was the bravest thing he ever did, because he trusted me. It is really funny. It makes me laugh to this day.

Tell me about the iconic Monty Python performance at the “Concert for George” all-star tribute at Royal Albert Hall in 2002.

Olivia asked me if Python would come on. … She said, “Everybody's doing a George song. Would you do ‘Piggies’?” And I said, “We don't really do songs. We're not a singing group. You know, we do idiotic and rude things! So, why don't we sing ‘Sit on My Face and Tell Me That You Love Me’?” And she let us do it, so we did it! And I thought, “He would've been so happy that we did this. This would've made him so proud.” We insisted on doing something rude, and it lightened the mood. Laughter is close to tears, and if you can laugh at those times, it's really helpful. Because the rest of it was kind of very sad — like that the end with Joe Brown singing “I'll See You in My Dreams” with the petals falling, which is the most moving thing I think I've ever been part of. I'd have to go and cry a bit. And then Paul was great; he said, “Come here, you need a hug.” Every time he'd find me crying somewhere at the back, it was: “You need a hug. And it was very lovely, very nice.

The Rutles were introduced to most American viewers through Saturday Night Live, which you hosted several times. So, I also want to ask you about the episode you hosted when Kate Bush gave her first and only U.S. television performance, in 1979. Obviously a lot of people are discovering Kate Bush right now, and probably finding that clip of you very sincerely introducing her.

Well, I'd been trying to make a movie of The Pirates of Penzance, and I thought she would be brilliant in it. I'd written to her about it, and her management was very encouraging. I think I wanted Bowie as the lead, as Frederic. I thought they’d be terrific. I was very happy that she was doing SNL. … I was very touched that she came on. It was obviously important; everybody didn't just do SNL in those days, and it was new to have a pop groups on.

I need to know more about this Pirates of Penzance movie that never got made! You said Kate’s management was interested, but how far did you get in your negotiations with Bowie?

I think that's the first time I'd reached out to David. I came across the letter the other day, and I'd forgotten about it. I'd asked him about that before we met. I'd written to him and said, “This may seem most silly to you, but I think you'd be rather wonderful in this." I don't even remember whether he replied; we became friends at the end of the ‘90s, so this was quite a bit before. It would've been wonderful, but hey, you try persuading studios that they should have two English people doing a film based on a Gilbert and Sullivan musical! [laughs]

Well, one movie of yours did get made, despite various studios saying no, was Life of Brian which kind of brings this full-circle to The Masked Singer, because that film had “Keep on the Bright Side” in it, and you got to perform that signature song as your encore on the show. And Life of Brian would not have gotten made without George Harrison’s help, right?

Yeah. We'd been picked up by EMI, who then dropped it because they read the script, so we were looking for the funds. I was friendly with George and I said, “I'm going to America; we're going to try and find the money for this movie.” He said, “Oh, I'll give you the money.” I thought, “Yeah, yeah, right,” because it was four and a half million pounds at the time, which was a lot of money. Eventually we went everywhere we could pitch it, and everyone said, “No way. Forget it. Are you kidding?” And so, then the phone rings and it's George saying, “I've got the money. I'm going to mortgage the house and I'm going to pay for it, because I want to see it.” And he paid for the entire budget of the movie. Recently I've been wondering what it must have been like for Olivia when George came home and said, “Hey honey, I've just mortgaged our house for a bloody Monty Python movie!” [laughs] But I'm glad to say it made a lot of money. I mean, he was right.

One last question I have for you is your Masked Singer episode was interestingly timed, given the recent death of Queen Elizabeth II, because it was a “British Royalty”-themed night. I know you had opportunities to meet the queen and perform for her, so I wonder if you have any memories to share about that.

Oh, I sang for her at the Royal Variety show, and I was dressed as a Japanese maid. We did a complete fakeout. It was like the Madame Butterfly set, and this Madame Butterfly came out and she's about to come commit suicide, and the little Japanese maid stands up and it's me. We really faked out the audience, and [Queen Elizabeth II] laughed and laughed and laughed. And when I met her, she was still laughing. It was really sweet.

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This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.