- Category : Comedian
- Type : MGE
- Profile : 2/4 - Hermit / Opportunist
- Definition : Single
- Incarnation Cross : RAX The Sleeping Phoenix 4
William "Billy" Connolly, CBE, (born 24 November 1942) is a Scottish comedian, musician, presenter, and actor. He is sometimes known, especially in his native Scotland, by the nickname The Big Yin (The Big One). The nickname was first used during Connolly's adolescent years to differentiate between himself and his father, William Connolly, Sr.
Birth and early years
Connolly was born at 65 Dover Street ("on the linoleum, three floors up") in Anderston, Glasgow to Mary "Mamie" McLean, a hospital cafeteria worker, and William Connolly, an instrument technician and the son of an Irish immigrant. In 1946, with their son barely four years old, Connolly's mother abandoned him and his sister while his father was away for the war. He and his sister, Florence ("Flo"), were then looked after by two aunts, Margaret and Mona, his father's sisters.
Connolly was brought up in the Anderston and, later, Partick districts of Glasgow. He attended St. Peter's Primary School in Glasgow and St. Gerard's Secondary School in Govan. At the age of 12, he decided he wanted to become a comedian but felt he didn't fit the mould; he felt he needed to become more "windswept and interesting". Instead, at the age of 15, he left school and became a welder at Stephens Shipyard. Around the same time he joined the TA Reserve 4th Battalion, The Parachute Regiment.
In 1965, after he had completed a five-year apprenticeship as a welder, Connolly accepted a ten-week job building an oil rig in Nigeria. Upon his return to Scotland, he focused on being a folk singer.
On 27 June 1969, a 26-year-old Connolly married his first wife, Iris Pressagh. In December 1969 his first child, Jamie, was born. He has four more children, all girls — one (Cara, born 1973) with Iris, and three with his second wife, Pamela: Daisy (31 December 1983), Amy (7 July 1986), and Scarlett (28 July 1988).
Connolly's career as a folk singer led to him forming a folk-pop duo called The Humblebums with a fellow musician Tam Harvey. After recording one album, Harvey left the partnership and was replaced by future rock star Gerry Rafferty. Connolly’s time with Rafferty possibly influenced his future comedy as years later he would recall how Rafferty’s expert prank telephone calls, made while waiting to go on stage, used to make him “scream” with laughter. The Connolly-Rafferty version of The Humblebums recorded two more albums for independent record label Transatlantic Records. The albums were not big commercial successes but enjoyed cult status and critical acclaim. Connolly's contributions were primarily straight-forward pop-folk with quirky and whimsical lyrics — but he had not especially focused on comedy at this point.
In 1970, the Humblebums broke up with Rafferty going on to record a solo album for Transatlantic Records: Can I Have My Money Back (1971). Connolly returned to being a folk singer. His live performances featured folk songs with humorous introductions that became increasingly long in duration.
The head of Transatlantic Records, Nat Joseph, who had signed the Humblebums and had nurtured their career, was concerned that Connolly find a way to develop a distinctive solo career just as his former bandmate Gerry Rafferty was doing. Joseph saw several of Connolly's performances and noted his comedic skills. Joseph had successfully nurtured the recording career of another Scottish folk entertainer, Hamish Imlach, and Joseph saw potential in Connolly following a similar path. He suggested to Connolly that he drop the folk-singing and focus primarily on becoming a comedian. It was a life-changing suggestion.
In 1972 Joseph produced Connolly's first solo album, Billy Connolly Live!, a mixture of comedic songs and short monologues that hinted at what was to follow. In late 1973, Joseph produced the breakthrough album that propelled Connolly to British stardom. Recorded at a small venue, The Tudor Hotel in Airdrie, the record was a double album titled Solo Concert. Releasing a live double-album by a comedian who was virtually unknown (except to a cult audience in Glasgow) was an unusual gambit by Joseph but his faith in Connolly's talent was justified. Joseph and his Transatlantic Records marketing team, which included publicist Martin Lewis, successfully promoted the album to chart success on its release in 1974. It featured one of Connolly's most famous comedy routines: "The Crucifixion", in which he likens Christ's Last Supper to a drunken night out in Glasgow. The recording was banned by many radio stations at the time. Building on his cult Scottish following, Transatlantic broke Connolly throughout the UK — an unusual development for a regional comedian.
In 1975, Transatlantic used the rapidity and extent of Connolly's breakthrough to secure him a booking on Britain's premier TV talk show, the BBC's Parkinson. Connolly made the most of the opportunity and told a bawdy joke about a man who had murdered his wife and buried her bottom-up so he'd have somewhere to park his bike. This ribald humour was unusually forthright on a primetime Saturday night on British television in the mid-1970s and his appearance made a great impact. He became a good friend of the host, Michael Parkinson, and now holds the record for appearances on the programme, having been a guest on fifteen occasions. Referring to that debut appearance, he later said: "That programme changed my entire life." Parkinson, in the documentary Billy Connolly: Erect for 30 Years, stated that people still remember Connolly telling the punchline to the 'bike joke' three decades after that TV appearance. When asked about the material, Connolly stated, "Yes, it was incredibly edgy for its time. My manager, on the way over, warned me not to do it, but it was a great joke and the interview was going so well, I thought, oh fuck it! I don't know where I got the courage in those days, but Michael did put confidence in me." Connolly's UK success spread to other English-speaking countries: Australia, New Zealand and Canada. However, his broad Scottish accent and British cultural references made success in the U.S. improbable. His road manager at this time was Eddie Tobin.
His popularity in Britain endeared him to many other British entertainers including musicians such as Elton John. John at that time was trying to assist British performers whom he personally liked to achieve success in the U.S. (He had released records in the US by veteran British pop singer Cliff Richard on his own Rocket Records label.) John tried to give Connolly a boost in America by using him as the opening act on his 1976 US tour. But the well-intentioned gesture was a failure. Elton John's American fans had no interest in being warmed-up by an unknown comedic performer — especially a Scotsman whose accent was incomprehensible to most Americans. "In Washington, some guy threw a pipe and it hit me right between my eyes", he told Michael Parkinson two years later. "It wasn't my audience. They made me feel about as welcome as a fart in a spacesuit."
Connolly continued to grow in popularity in the UK. In 1975 he signed with Polydor Records and the label built on Transatlantic's groundwork. Connolly continued to release live albums and he also recorded several comedic songs that enjoyed commercial success as novelty singles including parodies of Tammy Wynette's song "D.I.V.O.R.C.E." and the Village People's "In the Navy" (titled "In the Brownies").
In 1979, Connolly was invited by producer Martin Lewis to join the cast of The Secret Policeman's Ball, the third in the series of the Secret Policeman's Ball fundraising shows for Amnesty International. Connolly was the first comedic performer in the series who was not an alumnus of the Oxbridge school of middle-class university-educated entertainers and he made the most of his appearance. His performance was considered to be one of the highlights of the show's comedy album (released by Island Records in December 1979) and feature film (released by ITC Films in 1980). Appearing in the company of long-established talents such as John Cleese and Peter Cook helped elevate the perception of Connolly as one of Britain's leading comedic talents. Lewis also teamed Connolly with Cleese and Cook to appear in the television commercial for the album.
In 1981, John Cleese and Martin Lewis invited Connolly to appear in that year's Amnesty show, The Secret Policeman's Other Ball. Connolly's performance was again reported as one of the highlights of the show and he was prominently featured in the subsequent comedy album (Springtime!/Island Records 1981) and UK film (UIP 1982). The commercial success of the special U.S. version of the The Secret Policeman's Other Ball film (Miramax Films 1982) introduced Connolly to a wider American audience, who were attracted to the film because of the presence of Monty Python members. His on-screen presence alongside these performers — who were already familiar to Anglophile comedy buffs — helped lay down a marker for Connolly's eventual return to America in his own right eight years later.
In 1985, he divorced his wife of sixteen years (they had separated four years earlier). He was awarded custody of their two children. That same year, he recorded An Audience with... which was broadcast in front of a celebrity audience on ITV. The uncut, uncensored version was subsequently released on video. In July 1985 he performed at the Wembley leg of Live Aid, immediately preceding Elton John.
In 1986 he visited Mozambique to appear in a documentary for Comic Relief. He also featured in the charity's inaugural live stage show, both as a stand-up and portraying a willing 'victim' in his partner Pamela Stephenson's act of sawing a man in half to create two dwarves.
Connolly completed his first world tour in 1987, including six nights at the Royal Albert Hall in London, which was documented in the Billy and Albert video.
When the Fox Network aired Freedomfest: Nelson Mandela's 70th Birthday Celebration in 1988, Connolly was still virtually unknown in the States, but his performance drew attention, particularly from producers, and interest in him grew.
In 1989, Connolly's father died after a stroke, the eighth of his life. (His mother died four years later of motor neurone disease.)
On December 20, 1989, in Fiji, Connolly married Pamela Stephenson, the New Zealand-born comedy actress he had met when making a cameo appearance on the BBC sketch show Not the Nine O'Clock News, in which she was one of four regular performers. He had been living with her since 1981. "Marriage to Pam didn't change me, it saved me," he later said. "I was going to die. I was on a downwards spiral and enjoying every second of it. Not only was I dying, but I was looking forward to it."
Earlier in 1989 Connolly shaved off his trademark shaggy beard for a film role and he remained clean-shaven for several years.
Although Connolly had performed in North America as early as the 1970s, and had appeared in several movies that played in American theatres, he nonetheless remained relatively unknown until 1990 when he was featured in the HBO special Whoopi Goldberg and Billy Connolly in Performance, produced by New York's Brooklyn Academy of Music. Goldberg introduced Connolly, and his performance has been cited as the moment that officially launched his career in the States. Soon after, Connolly succeeded Howard Hesseman as the star of the sitcom Head of the Class for the 1990–1991 season, but the series was cancelled during his tenure.
The following year saw Connolly and Stephenson move to Los Angeles, and the family won green cards in the Morrison Visa Lottery. In 1991, Connolly received his first (and, to date, only) leading television role as the star of Billy, another sitcom and a spin-off of Head of the Class. It lasted only a half-season.
On June 4, 1992, Connolly performed his 25th-anniversary concert in Glasgow. Parts of the show, and its build-up, were documented in The South Bank Show, which aired later in the year.
Connolly was dealt a blow in 1993 when his close friend and fishing partner, Jimmy Kent, died.
In early January 1994, Connolly began a 40-date World Tour of Scotland, which would be broadcast by the BBC later in the year as a six-part series. It was so well received that the BBC signed him up to do a similar tour two years later, this time in Australia. The eight-part series followed Connolly on his custom-made Harley Davidson trike.
Also in 1996, Connolly recorded a BBC special, entitled A Scot in the Arctic, in which he spends a week by himself in the Arctic Circle. A notable feature of these shows is that he strips naked in one scene in each of them, usually in some remote wilderness area where no one is likely to complain, although for Comic Relief he once danced naked around Piccadilly Circus.
In 1998, Connolly's best friend, Danny Kyle, died. "He was me dearest, dearest, oldest friend," Connolly explained to an Australian audience on his Greatest Hits compilation, released in 2001.
In November 1998, Connolly was the subject of a two-hour retrospective entitled Billy Connolly: Erect for 30 Years, which included tributes from Dame Judi Dench, Sean Connery, Whoopi Goldberg, Robin Williams, Dustin Hoffman, and Eddie Izzard. The special was released on DVD in North America in 2004.
The following year, Connolly undertook a four-month, 59-date sellout tour of Australia and New Zealand. Later in the year, he completed a five-week, 25-date sellout run at London's Hammersmith Apollo. In 2000 he travelled to Canada for two weeks on a 13-date tour.
In 2000 Connolly starred in Beautiful Joe alongside Sharon Stone. The following year he completed the third in his "World Tour" BBC series, this time of England, Ireland and Wales, which began in Dublin and ended in Plymouth. It was broadcast the following year.
Also in 2001, Pamela Stephenson's biography of her husband, Billy, was published. It outlines his career and life, including the sexual abuse by his father that lasted from his tenth to his fourteenth years. Much of the book is about Connolly the celebrity but the account of his early years provides a context for his humour and point of view. A follow-up, Bravemouth, was published in 2003.
Connolly has also written several books, including Billy Connolly (late 1970s) and Gullible's Travels (early 1980s), both based upon his stage act, as well as books based upon some of his "World Tour" television series. He has stated that his comedy does not work on the printed page.
A fourth BBC series, World Tour of New Zealand, was filmed in 2004 and aired that winter. Also in his 63rd year, Connolly performed two sold-out benefit concerts at the Oxford New Theatre in memory of Malcolm Kingsnorth, who for twenty-five years was Connolly's tour manager and sound engineer.
In October 2004, during an 18-night stint at London's Hammersmith Apollo, he was criticised for making jokes about the hostage Kenneth Bigley. Shortly after Connolly joked about the future killing of the hostage, Bigley was beheaded in Iraq. Connolly claims he was misquoted. He has declined to clarify what he actually said, claiming that the context was as important as the precise words used.
He has continued to be a much in demand character actor, appearing in several films such as White Oleander (2002), The Last Samurai (2003) and Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004).
In January 2005, Connolly came 8th in The Comedian's Comedian, a poll voted for by fellow comedians and comedy insider and embarked on a major UK tour with 15 sold-out nights in Glasgow.
Also in 2005, Connolly and Stephenson announced, after fourteen years of living in Hollywood, they were returning to live in the former's native land. They purchased a 120-foot yacht with the profits from their house-sale, and split the year between Malta and Candacraig House in Aberdeenshire.
Later in the year, Connolly topped an unscientific poll of "Britain's Favourite Comedian" conducted by TV network Five, placing him ahead of performers such as John Cleese, Ronnie Barker, Dawn French, and Peter Cook.
On December 30, 2007, Connolly escaped uninjured from a single-car accident on the A939 near the Scottish town of Ballater, Aberdeenshire.
In 1965, together with Tam Harvey, Connolly started a group called the Humblebums. At their first gig, Connolly reportedly introduced them both to the audience by saying, "My name's Billy Connolly, and I'm humble. This is Tam Harvey, he's a bum." The band would later include Gerry Rafferty. Connolly sang, played banjo, guitar and Autoharp, and entertained the audience with his humorous introductions to the songs.
In his World Tour of Scotland, Connolly reveals that at a trailer show during the Edinburgh Festival, the Humblebums took to the stage just before the late Yehudi Menuhin.
The trio broke up in 1971, at which point Connolly went solo. His first solo album in 1972, Billy Connolly Live! on Transatlantic Records, features Connolly as a singer, songwriter, and musician.
His early albums were a mixture of comedy performances with comedic and serious musical interludes. Among his best known musical performances were "The Welly Boot Song", a comical ode to the working class which became his theme song for several years; "In the Brownies", a parody of the Village People classics "Y.M.C.A." and "In the Navy" (for which Connolly filmed a music video); "Two Little Boys in Blue", a tongue-in-cheek indictment of police brutality done to the tune of Rolf Harris' "Two Little Boys"; and the ballad "I Wish I Was in Glasgow" which Connolly would later perform in duet with Malcolm McDowell on a guest appearance on the 1990s American sitcom Pearl (which starred Rhea Perlman). He also performed the occasional Humblebums-era song such as "Oh, No!" as well as straightforward covers such as a version of Dolly Parton's "Coat of Many Colors" which was included on his Get Right Intae Him! album.
In November 1975, his spoof of the Tammy Wynette song "D-I-V-O-R-C-E" had a one-week spell as the UK's No. 1 single. Wynette's original was about parents spelling out words of an impending marital split to avoid traumatizing their young child. Connolly's version of the song, on the other hand, played off of the fact that many dog owners use the same tactic when they do not wish their pet to become upset about an impending trip to the vet. His song is about a couple whose marriage is ruined by a bad vet visit (spelling out "W-O-R-M" or "Q-U-A-R-A-N-T-I-N-E", for example.)
His song "No Chance" was a parody of J.J. Barrie's "No Charge".
In 1985 he sang the theme song to Supergran, which was released as a single and in 1996 he performed a cover of Ralph McTell's "'In the Dreamtime" as the theme to his World Tour of Australia. By the late 1980s, Connolly had all but dropped the music from his act, though he still records the occasional musical performance. In 1998 he covered The Beatles' "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!" on the George Martin tribute, In My Life. Most recently, he sang a song during the film Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events.
Connolly is among the artists featured on Banjoman, a tribute to American folk musician Derroll Adams, released in 2002. He plays one song, "The Rock".
It is as a stand-up comedian that Connolly is best known. His observational comedy is idiosyncratic and often off-the-cuff. He talks about himself, who he is, where he's been, what he thinks and how he reacts to the world around him. He has outraged certain sectors of audiences, critics and, of course, the media with his free use of the word "fuck". He has used masturbation, blasphemy, defecation, flatulence, haemorrhoids, sex, his father's illness and his aunts' cruelty to entertain. By exploring these subjects with humour, Connolly has done much to strip away the taboos surrounding them. Yet he does not tell jokes in the conventional way. At the end of a concert the audience can be convulsed with laughter, though few can remember a specific "funny" line.
Connolly has written three plays:
An' Me Wi' A Bad Leg Tae (1975)
When Hair Was Long And Time Was Short (1977)
Red Runner (1979)
Connolly has often joked about the regularity of the deaths of the characters he portrays in movies. "If you want to see me in a movie, you have to hurry to the theatre, because I usually die in the first fifteen minutes. I'm never in the sequel." Connolly also believes himself to be the only man to ever die in a Muppet movie.