Billy Connolly loves nothing more than being funny. As a wee boy he’d sit in puddles to make people laugh. Being a comedian is, he says, his purpose. ‘Not a big golden shiny purpose, but if you’re lucky enough to find out what you do well – what you think you’re here for – do it.’
Besides, it allows him to get away with stuff. ‘A luxury you get as a comedian is if you’re walking along the street and there are guys down a manhole digging in the sewer, you can say, “Come on, put your backs into it. No wonder the country’s in the state it’s in.” They’ll say, “Oh b****r off Connolly.” If you were a normal guy saying, “Put your back into it…”‘
The sentence ends in laughter. Then he sobers, touches the left hand that’s resting on his thigh. Billy doesn’t walk down the street the way he used to. ‘My left doesn’t behave like my right any more,’ he says. ‘If I walk along the street I find I’m holding on to the bottom of my jacket instead of swinging my arm. This one swings.’ He holds up his right hand. ‘And that one stays there.’ He nods at his left.
Billy Connolly loves nothing more than being funny and doesn’t intend to stop making people laugh
Two-and-a-half years ago Billy was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a progressive degeneration of the nervous system. On the same day he was told he had prostate cancer shortly after learning he needed hearing aids. It was, as he says, ‘a f***ing grey week’. ‘Cancer is such a creepy word, isn’t it? I remember I was on the phone. I kind of knew before the doctor said it just by the tone of his voice. He said, “I’m afraid you’ve tested positively for cancer.” I said, “Well, nobody’s ever said that to me before.” Pamela [Stephenson, his wife] moved behind me. I think she thought I was going to fall.’
After that phone call, Billy sat on the sofa and blew a raspberry. When you’re the irrepressible Big Yin, there can be hilarity in despair too. But when he was told he had Parkinson’s, there were only tears.
‘That’s one of the symptoms,’ he says. ‘You get very emotional. It was very scary at first. It isn’t any more. Looking from the outside it’s worse, in so much as it’s easier to deal with it actually happening to you rather than the thought of it. When I met people who knew me they knew about it, so it was always at the forefront of their mind. The spectre at the feast.’
Pamela and Billy met on the set of Not The Nine O’Clock News in 1979 and married ten years later. She’s now an eminent psychotherapist and bestselling author. She came third on Strictly Come Dancing in 2010 and wrote and produced her own Brazilian dance show in 2014, which toured South Africa and Australia. How on earth does she find the time to support him?
‘There’s no supporting going on. You stand on your own two feet in our house,’ he laughs.
‘She’s been all over the place working. Although she’s very supportive in so much as she’s become my mother, “Now look here. This is how you get your medicine. Pick it up on Friday, don’t leave it to Monday.” I just wander off. I like to be alone. People mistake it for loneliness but it’s not. I have friends I see from time to time.’
‘It’s a cruel thing, Parkinson’s. There were things I liked to do, like smoking cigars. I can’t do that any more,’ Billy reveals as he talks candidly about his condition
One of whom, ‘a great pal’, was the actor and comedian Robin Williams. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s shortly after Billy and ended up taking his life. ‘We used to compare notes, me and Robin,’ he says. ‘His voice was going – it’s one of the things that happens. Can you hear mine? It gets a little thin. Some days it’s worse than others but there are exercises you do to make it OK. So I was showing him on the phone how to do them. We were doing scales together.
‘I miss him terribly. He called me before he died. It was really pleasant but it was odd. He was saying, “Do you believe me that I love you?” I said, “Of course I believe you, everybody loves me,”‘ he laughs. ‘He said, “But do you believe me?” I said, “Yes, of course I do. I love you back.”‘ Billy shakes his head.
‘It’s a cruel thing, Parkinson’s. There were things I liked to do, like smoking cigars. I can’t do that any more because it makes me drunk. Smoking a cigar makes me off-balance and nauseous. I can’t play the banjo any more because of my left hand. I keep finding other things I can’t do. I was learning the tango and it’s put the kibosh on that.’
For a moment I glimpse the fury he feels at times towards this cruel disease. Billy’s a loner, a free spirit who likes the idea of slinging his banjo over his shoulder and disappearing into the sunset. Observing. Laughing at the absurdities of life.
The realities of Parkinson’s can hamper all that. ‘It comes and goes,’ he says. ‘If I put strain on my left side it can affect it for about four or five hours. I was on a tablet – I can’t remember the name of it – and I went to the specialist and she took me off it. She said the side effects were stronger than the effects of the disease. Sleepiness. Drowsiness.
‘She put me on another one and it didn’t suit me at all. It made me sleepy as well so I came off that. I’ve been going to the gym trying to battle against it. I’ve got this guy in the gym called Butch.’ He laughs. The laughter is contagious, ridiculously so. Is he butch? ‘Yeah,’ he says. ‘He’s like a cannonball. He tortures me, trying to make my left as strong as my right. At first it makes me shaky. I don’t think it’s working… But there you go.’ He pulls himself up.
‘The funniest thing was how I discovered the Parkinson’s. I was doing the Conan O’Brien chat show in LA and they put me up in a hotel. I was walking through the lobby and there was a crowd of youngsters. I’d seen them every day and I knew they knew me. I could see them looking over. They were Australian and this guy said, “Mr Connolly, I don’t want to take up your time but I’m a doctor. I specialise in Parkinson’s disease. I’ve been looking at the way you walk and it seems to me you have the gait of someone with early onset Parkinson’s. See a doctor.”
‘The first thing I thought was, “How rude! How dare you!” I was having dinner with my son that night [Billy has five children, two, Jamie and Cara, from his first marriage to Iris Pressagh, and three, Scarlett, Amy and Daisy, from his second to Pamela] and he agreed it was rude.
‘But I went to a doctor who put me onto a specialist and he said, “Yeah.” That was the week from hell. Parkinson’s and prostate cancer. Actually, it got quite funny. I was saying, “What’s going to come next?” to Pamela. I’d be pretending to limp, saying, “Now my knee’s gone.”‘
Pamela and Billy met on the set of Not The Nine O’Clock News in 1979 and married ten years later, pictured with their daughter Daisy in 1984
The couple pictured in 2014, Billy said his wife has been supportive ‘in so much as she’s become my mother’ telling him to take his medicine
Billy had his prostate removed in September 2013 and has since been given the all-clear. ‘I remember going to see the doctor before the operation and he said, “Well, first of all you’re not going to die.” I thought to myself, “Of course I’m not going to die.” It never entered my mind. I’ve always been kind of positive. I shove the cancer behind me. You can’t wear it like a medallion. I think about it because I talk about it on stage but when I’m not up there I tend not to. But the Parkinson’s – I think about it every morning. It’s forever, isn’t it?’
We’re here in his manager’s New York office a few blocks from Billy’s home – he moved to the city in 2007 – because he’s to be honoured with a Special Recognition Award at the 21st National Television Awards, being screened live from The O2 London later this month on ITV. The award will be presented by Dustin Hoffman, who’s flying in especially. Previous recipients have included Sir David Attenborough and Sir Bruce Forsyth.
‘I think it’s great,’ he says. ‘But I’m not too sure what it is.’ I tell him I understand it’s to celebrate his 50 brilliant years in comedy, film, TV and music. ‘That’s nice,’ he says and seems genuinely touched. ‘But, Jesus, 50 years is it? When I was a wee boy I thought you died when you reached 50.’ Again he collapses in laughter.
If, as some say, the sort of person you are eventually shows on your face, Billy is a thoroughly good man. There’s not so much as a frown-line – and no Botox either – only his flowing white lion’s mane of hair belies his 73 years. There’s something extraordinarily soul-stirring about the Billy Connolly sitting in front of me today. As his dear friend Eric Idle wrote to him, ‘You used to be a comedy god. Now you look like God.’
As the years have passed, this once-frenetic performer whose career went ‘whoosh’ (his word) after telling a bawdy joke on BBC’s Parkinson show in 1975 has mastered the art of nothingness. ‘Sean Connery put me onto it, when I was doing Mrs Brown [the 1997 film in which he starred with Dame Judi Dench as Queen Victoria’s Scottish servant John Brown and for which he was BAFTA nominated]. He said, “Stay still and shut up. There’s an immense power in it.”‘
Today the 1975 bawdy joke – about a man who murdered his wife and buried her bottom up so he’d have somewhere to park his bike – is still funny but the staying still is borne part from necessity. ‘I have a wee stool I take on stage for my act, and I find I’m clinging to it now, like a fisherman clinging to the wreckage,’ he says. ‘I don’t move as much as I used to because I don’t feel secure in my balance. My way of speaking has changed a bit too. There’s a stillness about it but it seems to be very powerful.’
Illness has not diminished Billy’s appetite for work. He has always been a glass-half-full sort of person
Illness has not diminished Billy’s appetite for work, and tonight his High Horse tour is on the third night of a 15-show run at London’s Hammersmith Apollo. ‘Parkinson’s is scary if you want it to be, but you mustn’t let it take control. I stay positive just by getting on and going to work. When I was first told, I didn’t know what to do about it. I had no intention of retiring. It was my agent who came to my birthday party and said, “So when am I booking you for a tour?” I said, “I don’t know if I can.” He said, “Of course you can.” He just nudged me over the cliff.’
Billy’s always been a glass-half-full sort of person. Born the youngest of two in a tenement in Glasgow, he was four years old when his mother, Mary, upped and left the family home. He and his sister Florence were bullied by the two aunts who raised them, and when his father William returned from serving in the RAF in Burma Billy was physically and sexually abused by him too. Despite this Billy loved his dad. He still does.
‘Forgiveness,’ he says. ‘It’s the answer to everything. The abuse didn’t bother me much as a child. It was after his death it got worse. I thought it would go away but it didn’t. It kept recurring in my mind. I read a book about forgiveness that Pamela gave me, about taking the load off your shoulders, putting it down and walking away. It’s like having a rucksack full of rocks. You’re carrying around this guilt. Shame. Nobody’s told you you can walk away from it, but it’s a miracle. It works. You can’t let it dominate. It’ll make you sick.’
From the time he was a wee boy Billy believed he was going to be something. ‘I didn’t know what it was,’ says Billy, who began his working life as an apprentice welder. ‘I just knew. I remember welding at the back of a ship where the propeller shaft comes out. I was sitting there looking up the Clyde designing my album sleeve. I didn’t play an instrument, but there I was designing it in my head. It was like Hank Williams – walking into the sunset with the guitar over your shoulder.’
As it was, he decided upon a banjo at the age of 23 and formed a folk group called The Humblebums. Stand-up comedy followed. ‘It was very strange. I read in a newspaper that I was a comedian. I always wanted to be one but I didn’t know how to do that. I was too hairy. Then I got a manager called Frank Lynch in Glasgow who was determined that I was bound for the concert hall and theatre.
He booked them and they filled up. After that Parkinson show it was just “whoosh”.’ Billy made many appearances with Michael Parkinson and the chat show colossus remains a dear friend. When Michael too was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2013, Billy phoned him to commiserate. ‘I couldn’t bring myself to tell him I had Parkinson’s as well,’ he says. ‘I just couldn’t.’
Billy with Robin Williams at the finish of the hill race at Lornach Highland, Scotland, in August 2000, he said he misses his friend terribly
Talking to Billy, you can’t help but feel his astonishingly varied career is something that just happened to him, rather than something he fought for. Take his decision to move to LA in 1991. ‘I was at a party in London with Fergie,’ he says, meaning Sarah, the Duchess of York. ‘I was talking with one of the producers of the American sitcom Head Of The Class and he said, “God you’re funny. Would you like to be in the show?” I said, “I’ll come if you give me the gig. I’m not coming to audition.” He said, “OK.”‘
Then there’s his marriage to Pamela. ‘She fancied me. I found her attractive but I thought she was career-minded, and I was married anyway. It was extraordinary. I was playing at the Dome in Brighton in 1980 and she came to my dressing room. She said, “I thought I’d come and see you.” I said, “Oh yeah.” Bing bong. That was it.’
The anecdotes from his life are many and rich. So much so, the 90 minutes set aside for our chat passes in a flash, but he’s enjoying himself so we push on. ‘I was at Prince Charles’s birthday party once at Buckingham Palace with Elton John. There were people everywhere. Elton says, “Billy, Billy. I can’t see properly. There’s somebody gesturing to me over there, who is it? He’s trying to attract my attention.” ‘I said, “It’s the King of Greece.”‘
Again he’s laughing. We both are. The number of people he knows is quite extraordinary. Does he ever have pinch-me moments? ‘I remember being in LA and I’d just done a concert and John Mayall [the blues singer, guitarist and songwriter] came backstage with all these CDs to have them signed like a fan. That takes my breath away. Eric Idle’s my pal, but he’s also my hero. He’s probably the closest friend I’ve got. We go on holidays and talk and laugh. Have dinner. Shout and bawl. But mostly I’m Luke the drifter. He was the character Hank Williams pictures walking into the sunset with the guitar on his back. I always liked that: the cowboy loner.’
Is there anything he’d still like to do before he walks into the metaphorical sunset? ‘I might give writing a movie a bash,’ he says. ‘It would be about fairness – somebody being cheated and being defended by the most unlikely person, who doesn’t look as if he could save anybody from anything.’ Does he believe good guys always win? ‘They do,’ he says emphatically. ‘There’s a lot of unexplained, coincidental happenings in life. I don’t believe in religion and I don’t like to use words like energy, but… Death quite excites me really. I think of it as a start.’
He pauses. Again, that baby-smooth face creases with humour. ‘I was watching TV the other night and Jennifer Lawrence was asked what she thought happens after you die. She said, “The hospital gives the bed to someone else.” I fell in love with her.’
Just as so many of us have with this hugely funny genius of a man.