Monty Python fans know John Cleese as the tall, slightly balding fellow who bought a dead parrot, headed up the Ministry of Silly Walks and whose job it was to instigate verbal repartee at the Argument Clinic.

"Fawlty Towers" fans know Cleese as Basil Fawlty, a proud, stubborn, irascible nincompoop who hates people, complicated by his being the owner of a hotel.And if you've ever seen the Clios in the annual Hansen Planetarium show, you know that Cleese has a couple of award-winning commercials in the program nearly every year.

Cleese's most frequent character has been the pompous, self-important Englishman who deflates all around him until he is ultimately himself deflated.

And, to some degree, that describes the character he plays in his latest film, "A Fish Called Wanda."

But in "Wanda" there is a difference. Cleese co-wrote the film himself, and his own character is much more rounded than usual. And that added dimension gives him an edge he has seldom, if ever, had on the screen before. It makes him . . . dare I suggest . . . lovable.

"We stumbled towards that," Cleese explained in a telephone interview from a San Francisco hotel. "Reading through the script some months before, it became apparent my character didn't work. It was too much of a caricature.

"Everyone prevailed upon me to make him more realistic and vulnerable, because if the love story didn't work, the film wouldn't work. Once I said OK it became a most enjoyable experience."

The love story has Jamie Lee Curtis, as an American jewel thief, wooing Cleese, a British attorney, to find out where her boyfriend has stashed their stolen diamonds.

But, as Cleese points out, the audience has to believe Cleese is really falling for Curtis. And because his character is so endearing, that is precisely what happens.

Though it is replete with '80s sensibilities, hence the R rating, "A Fish Called Wanda" is in many ways a throwback to the old Ealing Studios caper comedies of the '50s that often starred Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers.

It's hard to believe that's an accident, especially since one of those great classics, "The Lavender Hill Mob," was directed by the man who also directed "Wanda" _ Charles Crichton. "It was intentional and it wasn't," Cleese said. "I knew I wanted to work with Charlie Crichton (who is now 78) and he was one of the great Ealing directors.

"But then there is this American element to the plot."

The American element is two of the film's main characters being Americans, played by American actors Curtis and Kevin Kline. This was purposeful by Cleese, a commercial gesture so that the film would play well in this country, but also because he has always wanted to show the contrasts between English and American cultures.

"This was something I had wanted to do for years, even when I was married to my first American wife (Connie Booth, who co-wrote and co-starred in "Fawlty Towers"; they are divorced and Cleese is now married to another American woman, Barbara Trentham).

"I wanted to write a play that would show two British and American intermarried couples _ the man being an American in one couple and the woman an American in the other. All these attitudes always fascinated me. After all, I've had two American wives, I've spent two-and-a-half years in America, most of my friends now are American and I have two half-breed daughters."

The ensemble cast for "A Fish Called Wanda" is rounded out by Michael Palin, also a Monty Python veteran. Palin plays a stuttering environmentalist who ultimately commits accidental mayhem to three dogs.

"I know Mickey so well _ after all, we started in English television together 22 years ago _ that we have a great rapport. He more or less just trusted me to (write his role). And his is an English character."

For the characters played by Curtis and Kline, however, Cleese sought a lot of input from the two players.

"I can hear English dialogue much better than I can American dialogue."

Though "A Fish Called Wanda" opens in most of the country, including Salt Lake City, today, it has been playing in some larger urban centers around the United States for a couple of weeks. And it's doing, as they say in show biz, "blockbuster" business.

"I'm surprised that it's taken off the way it did," Cleese said. "I always knew that the sort of Americans I knew socially would love it, but not that it would be this successful."

But then Cleese admits to still being baffled by the enormous success in this country of the Monty Python movies and TV shows.

"It is inexplicable to me how successful it is around the world. I think it must be that underlying attitude toward life. The people who thought we were just silly were not always the people who could see that behind the silliness was an abstract thought that was quite interestiing _ quite often an absurd way of putting forth a perfectly reasonable idea."

And will there ever be another Monty Python project now that Terry Gilliam, a former animator for the group, is a successful director ("Time Bandits," "Brazil"), and the others _ Palin, Terry Jones, Eric Idle and Graham Chapman _ all have their own ongoing projects?

"There's the very talk of our 20th (anniversary) celebration next year, of doing a small stage show somewhere, though I've no idea where that would be.

"But apart from that, not any prospect or our getting together to do a film again.

"I liked having 40 percent of the say in `Wanda.' Charlie always had a large part of the say, but everyone else had only a small part of the say.

"I disagreed in many of the decisions of `The Meaning of Life' (the last Python project). And what would Terry Gilliam do? He wouldn't want to go back to doing animation, but Terry Jones has always directed the movies."