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"). His first trade, in the early 1960s, was as a welder (specifically a boilermaker) in the Glasgow shipyards, but he gave it up towards the end of the decade to pursue a career as a folk singer, firstly in the Humblebums alongside friend Gerry Rafferty until 1971, and subsequently as a solo artist. In the early 1970s, he made the transition from folk- singer with a comedic persona to fully fledged comedian. Best known to many as a stand-up comedian, he appears in several lists of the greatest comedians ever, where he is often placed at the top.
Connolly is also an actor and has appeared in such films as Water (1985), Indecent Proposal (1993), Pocahontas (1995), Muppet Treasure Island (1996), Mrs. Brown (1997), The Boondock Saints (1999), The Man Who Sued God (2001), The Last Samurai (2003), Timeline (2003), Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004), Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties (2006), Open Season (2006), The X-Files: I Want to Believe (2008), Open Season 2 (2008), Brave (2012), Quartet (2012), and The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014). Connolly reprised his role as Noah "Il Duce" MacManus in The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day (2009).
Connolly's paternal grandfather, whom, like his paternal grandmother, he never met, was an Irish immigrant who left Ireland when he was ten years old. His great-great-great (Charles Mills, a coast guard, 1796–1870) and great-great (Bartholomew Valentine) grandfathers were from Connemara.
Connolly's mother's family came from the west coast of Scotland. His maternal grandparents moved inland to Finnieston Street, Glasgow, in the early 1900s. His maternal great-great-great-grandfather, John O'Brien, fought at the Siege of Lucknow during the Indian Rebellion of 1857. He was wounded during the long siege by a severe gunshot to the left shoulder. He married a local 13-year-old Indian girl called Matilda. They had four children and settled in Bangalore after his military service.
Connolly was born at 69 Dover Street, "on the linoleum, three floors up" "at six o'clock in the evening", in Anderston, Glasgow, to William and Mary Connolly (née McLean). This section of Dover Street, between Breadalbane and Claremont Streets, was demolished in the 1970s. Connolly refers to this in his 1983 song "I Wish I Was in Glasgow" with the lines "I would take you there and show you but they've pulled the building down" and "They bulldozed it all to make a road".
The flat had only two rooms: a kitchen-living room, with a recess where the children slept, and another room for their parents. The family bathed in the kitchen sink, and there was no hot water.
In 1946, when he was barely four years old, Connolly's mother abandoned her children while their father was serving as an engineer in the Royal Air Force in Burma. "I've never felt abandoned by her," Connolly explained in 2009. "My mother was a teenager. My father was in Burma, fighting a bloody war. The Germans were dropping all kinds of crap on the town. We lived at the docks, so that's where all the bombs were happening. She was a teenager, with two kids, in a slum. A guy comes along and says, 'I love you. Come with me.' Given the choice, I think I'd have gone with him. It looks as though it might all end next Wednesday, from where you're standing. I don't have an ounce of feelings that she abandoned me. She tried to survive."
Connolly and his older sister, Florence (named after their maternal grandmother, and eighteen months his senior), were cared for by two aunts, Margaret and Mona Connolly, his father's sisters, in their cramped tenement in Stewartville Street, Partick. "My aunts constantly told me I was stupid, which still affects me today pretty badly. It’s just a belief that I’m not quite as good as anyone else. It gets worse as you get older. I’m a happy man now but I still have the scars of that."
Regarding his sister, Connolly has called her his "great defender". "To this day," he explained in 2009, "Guys say, 'God, your sister... We didn't dare beat you up - your sister was a nightmare.' She used to get after them." In the mid-1960s, Flo was on holiday in Dunoon with her husband and two children. "My mother said, 'I saw Florence walking along, and I followed her.'" "I said, 'Did you speak to her?' 'Oh, no, I didn't,' she said. I thought, 'Oh, my god. It's like being a ghost while you're still alive.' Walking behind your own child. Having a look. I couldn't bear that."
The aunts resented the children for the fact that they had to sacrifice their young lives to look after them. It was Mona who was troubled the most by having to care for her niece and nephew. "It was very big of her to take on the responsibility but, having said that, I wish people wouldn't do that. I wish people wouldn't be very big for five minutes and rotten for twenty years. Just keep your 'big' and keep your 'rotten' and get out of my life, because, quite frankly, I would rather have gone to a children's home and be with a lot of other kids being treated the same. To this day, I'm still working on the things she did to me."
Connolly credits one of John Bradshaw's publications with helping him deal with his past demons. "He reckons that if this trauma happened to you when you were five or six, then, emotionally, that part of you remains five or six. And what you have to do is carry that five- or six-year-old around with you and try and emotionally help that other part of you. It sounds a bit airy-fairy, but I think he's something of a genius, Mr. Bradshaw."
Connolly Sr returned from the war, a stranger to his children, shortly after the move to Partick. He never spoke to them about their mother's departure.
Connolly's biography, Billy, written by wife Pamela Stephenson, documented years of physical and sexual abuse by his father, which began when he was ten and lasted until he was about fifteen. "Sometimes, when father hit me, I flew over the settee backwards, in a sitting position. It was fabulous. Just like real flying, except you didn't get a cup of tea or a safety belt or anything."
In 1949, Mona gave birth to a child, Michael, by a "local man". He was presented as a brother to Billy and Flo, and nobody questioned it.
Connolly's bedroom had double windows, which directly faced St. Peter's Primary School across the street. Now defunct, it has been converted into living accommodation. "The school was very violent indeed. At first, in the infant school, the nuns were very violent. And then over here (at St Peter's) they were just strapping you all the time. I had a psychopath in here, called McDonald — Miss McDonald. "Big Rosie", they called her. There was a guy with glasses in my class and she called him "four eyes", and she was a teacher!"
It was while at St Peter's that Connolly decided he wanted to make people laugh. "I can remember the moment in the school playground. I would have been 7 or 8. And I was sitting in a puddle and people were laughing. I had fallen in it and people found it funny. And it wasn't all that uncomfortable, so I stayed in it longer than I normally would because I really enjoyed the laughing. My life was very unhappy at the time, and laughter wasn't something I heard all the time, so it was a joy. And I realised quickly that if you can have an audience this way, life was rather pleasant."
While at St Peter's, Connolly joined a gang. His arch-enemy was Geordie Sinclair, who lived around the corner.
Connolly was a Cub Scout with the 141 Pack. He revisits the site of one field trip, Auchengillan scout camp, during his World Tour of Scotland.
At age 12, Connolly decided he wanted to become a comedian but did not think that he fit the mould, feeling he needed to become more "windswept and interesting". Also at that age, he joined an organisation called The Children of Mary. The group would visit people and say the Rosary, with a statue of the Lady of Lourdes in a shoebox. "We were as welcome as hemorrhoids." The group would all kneel around the statue and pray. "You could hear people hurrying prayers because there was a good television programme coming."
In the 1950s, Glasgow's sandstone tenements fell out of favour with the planners, which resulted in new houses being built on the fields and farmlands in the outskirts of the city. Between the ages of fourteen and twenty, Connolly was brought up on a now-demolished council estate on Kinfauns Drive in the Drumchapel district of Glasgow, and would make the daily journey to St. Gerard's Secondary School (also now defunct) in Govan, on the southern side of the River Clyde. He rode the bus to Partick, crossed the water by ferry and walked to 80 Vicarfield Street.
"Drumchapel is a housing estate just outside Glasgow. Well, it's in Glasgow, but just outside civilisation," he has joked. "To be quite honest, I quite liked it when I lived there. When I moved to Drumchapel, I was fourteen and there was a bluebell wood there, and it was in great condition then — I don't think it's in quite so good condition now — but it was lovely then. We had rabbits and pheasants, and I really quite liked it. I just started to dislike it when I got older, into my teens and things. In my late teens, when I was stuck out there, it cost me a lot of money to go anyplace. It was a kind of cowboy town, but I liked that aspect of it, buying stuff out of vans, a ragman coming in a wee green van."
Connolly revisited this tenement in Drumchapel during filming for the South Bank Show in 1992. "It eventually started to pall. This dreadful atmosphere came about the place. It's like Siberia. And once you're out here, there's no getting out of it. You have to buy your way out, or some kind of talent has to take you out, or you have to be very bright and move away to university."
Also at fourteen, Connolly started to become interested in music — mainly Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry.
At 15, he left school with two engineering qualifications, one collected by mistake which belonged to a boy named Connell.
Connolly was a year too young to work in the shipyards. Instead, he started working for John Smith's Bookshop, on St Vincent Street, delivering books on his bicycle. He also became a delivery-van driver with Bilslands' Bakery until he was sixteen when he was deemed overqualified (due to his J1 and J2 certificates) to become an engineer. Instead, he worked as a boilermaker at Alexander Stephen and Sons shipyard in Linthouse.
"What an extraordinary feeling," Connolly said, upon returning to the site of the now-demolished shipyard in 1992. "I spent a great deal of my life in here. From age 16 to... well, I started at 15. I started my apprenticeship at 16 and finished when I was 21. Stayed till I was 22, and moved along. I finished welding when I was 24. When I came here, as an apprentice, there was six ships being built, right where I'm standing. It was an extraordinary place. A hive of activity. Welders, caulkers, platers, burners, joiners, engineers, electricians. I learned how men talked to one another, and how merciless Glasgow humour can be. It has made an indelible mark on me." His foreman was Sammy Boyd, but the two biggest influences on him were Jimmy Lucas and Bobby Dalgleish.
Connolly also joined the Territorial Army Reserve unit 15th (Scottish) Battalion, the Parachute Regiment (15 PARA). He later commemorated his experiences in the song "Weekend Soldier".
Origin of "The Big Yin"
Connolly's The Big Yin nickname was first used during his adolescent years to differentiate between himself and his father. "My father was a very strong man. Broad and strong. He had an 18½-inch neck collar. Huge, like a bull. He was "Big Billy" and I was "Wee Billy". And then I got bigger than him, and the whole thing got out of control. And then I became The Big Yin in Scotland. So, we'd go into the pub and someone would say, 'Billy Connolly was in.' 'Oh? Big Billy or Wee Billy?' 'The Big Yin.' 'Oh, Wee Billy.' If you were a stranger, you'd think, 'What are these people talking about?'"
In the early 1960s, Connolly attended the Edinburgh Festival Fringe for the first time. After spending time on the city's Rose Street, patronising the various drinking establishments, he became enamoured by some long-haired musicians and decided to model himself on them.
In 1965, after he had completed a five-year apprenticeship as a boilermaker, Connolly accepted a ten-week job building an oil platform in Biafra, Nigeria. Upon his return to Scotland, via Jersey, he worked briefly at John Brown & Company but decided to walk out on a Fair Friday to focus on being a folk singer.
After watching The Beverly Hillbillies, he bought his first banjo at the Barrowland market. He began touring with the Folkie crowd, including regular stints at The Scotia bar, on Stockwell Street, guided by folk singer Danny Kyle. "I kind of introduced Billy to the folk clubs, such as there were in those days — there were very few in the those days. We used to go to places like Saturday Late or the Montrose Street Glasgow Folk Club."
Connolly formed a folk-pop duo called The Humblebums with Tam Harvey. They were joined, in 1969, by Gerry Rafferty, who had approached Connolly after a gig in Paisley. The band signed for independent label Transatlantic Records, and after recording one album (1969's First Collection of Merry Melodies), Harvey left the trio, and Connolly and Rafferty went on to release two more albums: The New Humblebums (1969) and Open up the Door (1970). Connolly's time with Rafferty possibly influenced his future comedy, because 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 albums were not big commercial successes but enjoyed cult status and critical acclaim. Connolly's contributions were primarily straightforward pop-folk with quirky and whimsical lyrics, but he had not especially focused on comedy at this point.
In 1968, a 26-year-old Connolly married Springburn native and interior designer Iris Pressagh, with whom he had two children. They initially lived on Redlands Road in Glasgow's West End, but when fans began to wait out in the street, they moved to Drymen, near the south-eastern shore of Loch Lomond.
Later that year, Connolly's mother went to meet him backstage after a Humblebums gig in Dunoon, where she was working in the cafeteria at Dunoon General Hospital. It was the second and final meeting between them since she abandoned Connolly. She had been living in the town with her partner, Willie Adams, with whom she had three daughters and a son. "I went home to her house and stayed the night, instead of the hotel. The sadness is... She was a very nice woman, but we never got along. We both tried to like each other, and I don't think she liked me very much. I don't regret it, but I'm sad about it. I wish I'd liked her. And I wish she'd liked me."
In 1971, the Humblebums broke up, with Rafferty going on to record his solo album Can I Have My Money Back? Connolly returned to being a folk singer. His live performances featured 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 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.
In 1972, Connolly made his theatrical debut, at the Cottage Theatre in Cumbernauld, with a revue called Connolly's Glasgow Flourish. He played the Edinburgh Festival Fringe with poet Tom Buchan, with whom he had written The Great Northern Welly Boot Show, and in costumes designed by the artist and writer John Byrne.
Also in 1972, Nat 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 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, they broke Connolly throughout the UK – an unusual development for a regional comedian. Connolly employed Frank Lynch as his first manager around this time.
Also in 1974, he sold out the Pavilion Theatre in his home town.
In 1975, the rapidity and extent of Connolly's breakthrough was used to secure him a booking on Britain's premier TV chat show, the BBC's Parkinson. Connolly made the most of the opportunity and, ignoring objections from his manager, 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 that!!' 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 US improbable.
His increased profile led to contact with other individuals, 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 US (he had released records in the US by veteran British pop singer Cliff Richard on his own Rocket 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. John's American fans had no interest in being warmed-up by an unknown comedic performer – especially a Scotsman whose accent they found incomprehensible. "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. 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." (which he performed on Top of the Pops in December 1975) and the Village People's "In the Navy" (titled "In the Brownies").
In 1976, Connolly's first play, An' Me wi' a Bad Leg, Tae opened in Irvine and toured in London. It was there that, after consuming a sizable amount of cocaine and alcohol, he collapsed on the floor of a recording studio.
In 1979, Connolly met Pamela Stephenson, the New Zealand-born comedy actress, for the first time when he made a cameo appearance on the BBC sketch show Not the Nine O'Clock News, in which she was one of four regular performers.
Returning to the stage, Connolly embarked on his Big Wee Tour of Britain, performing 69 dates in 84 days. While backstage in Brighton, he met Stephenson for a second time. He confided in her that he was unhappy and that his current marriage was over. Back at his hotel, where they began an affair, he reportedly drank thirty brandies. "What I saw of him – particularly in that dressing room – was that he was about to die," Stephenson said. "He was very suicidal. He was throwing everything away, desperately trying to feel no pain at all. You know how you get a sense from some people when they are very self-destructive that there is something they are trying to bury? They've got something they are trying to forget, or they are trying to drown their sorrows? He was hurting in a very deep way. I thought, 'If I leave this man, he's going to die.'"
Also 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 The Secret Policeman's Balls 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. 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.
On December 8, 1980, the day John Lennon was assassinated, Connolly was performing in Hull. "Halfway through the show, I said, 'God, I'm so fed up. John Lennon...' And the whole audience stood up and went hooray! A standing ovation. And they all sat down and we got on with the show."
In 1981, John Cleese and Martin Lewis invited Connolly to appear in that year's Amnesty show, The Secret Policeman's Other Ball. The commercial success of the special US version of 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 the US in his own right eight years later.
En route to begin filming Water (1985) in Saint Lucia, Connolly drank an excessive amount of alcohol on the plane. Upon arriving on the island, he had dinner with the cast and crew, including Michael Caine.
"They had a jolly evening, then travelled back by bus through a part of the island that features steep cliffs on either side of a jungle road. As they careered along, Billy thought it would be a wheeze to cover the driver's eyes with his hands. 'I'll guide you,' insisted our drunken control-freak, 'Left, right... more right.' It was a game he had apparently played with his London driver: God knows how they managed to survive. Michael Caine apprehended Billy just in time to save the bus from plunging down a St Lucian ravine."
— Excerpt from Billy by Pamela Stephenson (2001)
In 1985, he divorced Iris Pressagh, his wife of sixteen years (they had separated four years earlier). That same year, he performed An Audience with..., which was videotaped at the South Bank Television Centre in front of a celebrity audience for 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.
On 30 December 1985, Connolly became tee-total, having been an alcoholic. He credits both Michael Caine and Pamela Stephenson for helping him give up the habit; Stephenson had given Connolly an ultimatum, either giving up the drink or giving up her. "I don't miss drinking. It has taken me by surprise," Connolly stated 24 years later. "I miss the craic. I miss the joy of it all. The headbanging stupidity, the loveliness, the craziness of it. I miss it terribly." He recalls blackouts that he would fill in upon returning to sobriety. "Well, [the memories] stopped coming back. But when I drank, I would go, 'Oh, I remember now.'" Psychologists call it state-dependent learning. "That was frightening. I remember thinking, 'Beware, Billy boy. Beware. All is not well. Do something.'" Regarding the decision he made to stay sober: "If [Pamela] goes away, I'm on my own. There's nothing. There's only me and it. So the choice becomes very apparent."
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 dwarfs.
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 March 1988, Connolly's father died after a stroke, the eighth of his life. His mother died five years later, in 1993, of motor neurone disease.
In October 1989, Connolly shaved off his trademark shaggy beard for a film role and he remained clean-shaven for several years.
Connolly and Stephenson married in Fiji on 20 December 1989; 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."
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.
Connolly joined Frank Bruno and Ozzy Osbourne when singing "The War Song of the Urpneys" in The Dreamstone.
The following year, Connolly and Stephenson moved 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.
Connolly also bought a house in Windsor, Berkshire. "I left Scotland and came to live here, because of the break-up of my marriage," Connolly said in 1992. "I had done everything that it was possible to do [in Scotland] — well, certainly everything I wanted to do. I had filled the concert halls, I had done the television that I wanted to do, and I'd done the film that I wanted to do. And in order to grow, I had to move away. I'm still as big there as I ever was. Bigger, probably, but I don't live there anymore and don't go there as often as I used to."
For his fiftieth birthday, Connolly had his nipples pierced. Interviewed in 1996 by Gay Byrne on the Late Late Show on RTÉ, he explained he did it "to prove you're still alive".
On 4 June 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. This year also saw him contribute vocals to Mike Oldfield's single "The Bell" as the "Master of Ceremonies".
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 1995, Connolly recorded a BBC special, entitled A Scot in the Arctic, in which he spends a week by himself in the Arctic Circle. He voiced Captain John Smith's shipmate, Ben, in Disney's animated film, Pocahontas.
A year later, he appeared in Muppet Treasure Island as Billy Bones.
In 1997, Connolly starred with Judi Dench in Mrs. Brown, in which he played John Brown, the favoured Scottish servant of Queen Victoria. He was nominated for a BAFTA Award and a BAFTA Scotland Award for Best Actor, as well as a Screen Actors Guild Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance.
In 1998, Connolly's best friend, Danny Kyle, died. "He was my dearest, dearest, oldest friend," Connolly explained to an Australian audience on his Greatest Hits compilation, released in 2001. It was Kyle who helped Connolly overcome his recoiling nature at being touched by others, a remnant of the abuse he endured as a child. "Every time it happened, Danny would just collapse with hysterics," said Pamela Stephenson. "'That's not normal, Billy,' Danny tried to be patient with him. 'You'll have to relax. It's touchy-feely, you know, the way we live. We like to touch each other and we kiss: we're different. You'll have to calm down or you'll always be fighting.'"
He performed a cover version of the Beatles' song, "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite", on George Martin's 1998 album, In My Life.
In November 1998, Connolly was the subject of a two-hour retrospective entitled Billy Connolly: Erect for 30 Years, which included tributes from Judi Dench, Sean Connery, Whoopi Goldberg, Robin Williams, Dustin Hoffman, and Eddie Izzard. The special was released on DVD in North America in 2004.
In 1999, after forming Tickety-Boo management company with Malcolm Kingsnorth, his tour manager and sound engineer of 25 years, 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 first biography of her husband, Billy, was published. 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.
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). He has also played an eclectic collection of leading roles in recent years, including a lawyer who undertakes a legal case of Biblical proportions in The Man Who Sued God (2001), and a young boy's pet zombie in Fido (2006).
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 (37 m) yacht with the profits from their house-sale and split the year between Malta and the 12-bedroom Candacraig House in Strathdon, Aberdeenshire, which they had purchased in 2008 from Anita Roddick.
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.
In 2006, Connolly revealed that he also has a house on the island of Gozo. He and his wife also have an apartment in New York City, near Union Square.
On 30 December 2007, Connolly escaped uninjured from a single-car accident on the A939 near the Scottish town of Ballater, Aberdeenshire.
In late February 2008, it was announced that Connolly would play ten shows in early April at the Post Street Theatre in San Francisco.
On 10 March 2008, tickets went on sale for Connolly's Irish tour, set to take place in May, June, and July. He performed three shows in University Concert Hall, Limerick, ten shows at the Olympia Theatre, Dublin, five shows at the Waterfront Hall in Belfast and three shows at the Cork Opera House. They all sold out in a matter of hours. The tour also travelled to Kerry (two shows) and Mayo (two shows).
In October 2009, he played a tour of his homeland, and sold out everywhere, despite adding extra dates. He stated he was proud to have broken the computer system for Glasgow and Edinburgh, as they could not handle the rush for tickets. His Glasgow concerts were held at the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre, which was built a half mile from his Dover Street birthplace.
In 2011, Connolly and his wife were living full-time in New York City, while still retaining their Candacraig residence.
In May 2011, Connolly suffered a broken rib and a gashed knee when his motor trike rolled on top of him while filming for the ITV travel documentary Billy Connolly's Route 66. He returned to filming a week later.
The Connollys decided to sell Candacraig House in September 2013, with a price tag of £2.75 million.
In 2012, Connolly provided the voice of King Fergus in Pixar's Scotland-set animated film Brave, alongside fellow Scottish actors Kelly Macdonald, Craig Ferguson, Robbie Coltrane, Emma Thompson, and Kevin McKidd. Connolly appeared as Wilf in Quartet, a 2012 British comedy-drama film based on the play Quartet by Ronald Harwood directed by Dustin Hoffman. In 2014, Connolly appeared in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies as Dáin II Ironfoot, a great dwarf warrior and cousin of Thorin II Oakenshield. Sir Peter Jackson stated that "We could not think of a more fitting actor to play Dain Ironfoot, the staunchest and toughest of dwarves, than Billy Connolly, the Big Yin himself. With Billy stepping into this role, the cast of The Hobbit is now complete. We can't wait to see him on the battlefield."
Connolly has been married to his second wife, comedian and psychologist Pamela Stephenson since 1989. He is father to five children: two (Jamie and Cara) from his first marriage, to Iris Pressagh, and three (Scarlett, Amy and Daisy) from his second. Connolly and Stephenson won custody of Jamie and Cara in 1983, due to the fact that "[Pressagh] was unable to care for herself, let alone children". Pressagh moved to Spain and became estranged from her children. She died in 2010. Connolly became a grandfather in 2001, when Cara gave birth to Walter.
In the book Billy, and in a December 2008 online interview, Connolly states that he was sexually abused by his father between the ages of 10 and 15. He believes this was a result of the Catholic Church not allowing his father to divorce after his mother left the family. Because of this, Connolly has a "deep distrust and dislike of the Catholic church and any other organization that brainwashes people". On his religious views, Connolly called himself an atheist.
In September 2013, Connolly underwent minor surgery for early-stage prostate cancer. The announcement also stated that he is being treated for the initial symptoms of Parkinson's disease. Connolly admitted earlier in 2013 that he had started to forget his lines during performances.
Connolly appeared on Who Do You Think You Are? on 2 October 2014, when his family's Indian ancestry was revealed.
He is a fan of Glasgow-based Celtic F.C. and has a seat for life at the club's Celtic Park stadium, an honour bestowed only on him and Rod Stewart.
Connolly has stated in the past that he disapproves of Scottish independence, although he also disapproves of entertainers telling people how to vote, but admitted that 2012 had been "a very interesting time for Scotland".
He questions the expense of independence, and whether average Scots would benefit from another level of government. "But Scots are very capable of making up their mind without my tuppence worth."
In April 2014, despite previously vowing not to step into the 'morass' of the debate over the breakup of the Union, Connolly gave the clearest indication yet of his opposition to Scottish independence. In an interview with the Radio Times, he stated, "I think it's time for people to get together, not split apart. The more people stay together, the happier they'll be." He also wrote, referring to the Darien scheme, "You must remember that the Union saved Scotland. Scotland was bankrupt and the English opened us up to their American and Canadian markets, from which we just flowered."
In October 2004, during an 18-night stint at London's Hammersmith Apollo, Connolly was criticised for making jokes about the hostage Kenneth Bigley. Shortly after Connolly joked about the future killing of the hostage and touched on the subject of Bigley's young Thai wife. 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.
Support for charity
Connolly is a patron of the National Association for Bikers with a Disability. He is also a patron of Celtic F.C.'s The Celtic Foundation.
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, who saw Connolly at a charity show in Paisley. "Gerry was very good for me. He taught me that I would never be a musician as long as my arse looked south. He was just so outstandingly good and getting better, and although I was getting better too, the space between us remained huge. He was a real musician, he knew and felt music, a bass player, with a lovely sense of harmony, as well as a great guitarist. I knew tunes and how to play them but that was where my musicianship ended. Unfortunately, I’m still the same to this day. I work very hard, I play every day but I’m still ordinary. I can be flashy, but it’s all tricks really. He’s a musician and I’m just not in the same league. So, I gave up these ambitions and concentrated on what I was really born to do." After Harvey left the group, Connolly and Rafferty continued as a duo and the latter two of their three albums featured just that duo. Connolly sang, played five-string banjo, guitar, and autoharp, and at live shows entertained the audience with his humorous introductions to the songs.
Frank Bruno and Billy Connolly provided lead vocals on "The War Song of the Urpneys" from The Dreamstone, although the version heard in the series was largely sung by composer Mike Batt.
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 Yehudi Menuhin.
The Humblebums broke up in 1971 and both Connolly and Rafferty went solo. Connolly's first solo album in 1972, Billy Connolly Live! on Transatlantic Records, featured him as a singer/songwriter.
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 parody of the Scottish folk song "The Wark O' The Weavers," which became his theme song for several years; "In the Brownies", a parody of the hit Village People songs "In the Navy" and "Y.M.C.A." (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," both of which were 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" was a UK No. 1 single for one week. Wynette's original was about parents spelling out words of an impending marital split to avoid traumatising their young child. Connolly's spoof of the song played on 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. Connolly's 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 cover of the song "No Charge".
In 1985, he sang the theme song to Super Gran, 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, such as a 1980s recording of his composition "Sergeant, Where's Mine?" with The Dubliners. In 1998, he covered The Beatles' "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!" on the George Martin tribute album, In My Life. He sang a song during the film Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. And in 1995 and 2005, he released two albums of instrumental performances Musical Tour of Scotland and Billy Connolly's Musical Tour of New Zealand, respectively.
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 has offended certain sectors of audiences, critics and the media with his free use of the word "fuck" and he has made jokes relating to masturbation, blasphemy, defecation, flatulence, haemorrhoids, sex, his father's illness, his aunts' cruelty and, in the latter stages of his career, old age (specifically his experiences of growing old). In 2007 and again in 2010, he was voted the greatest stand-up comic on Channel 4's 100 Greatest Stand-Ups. He once again topped the list on Channel 5's Greatest Stand-Up Comedians, broadcast on New Year's Eve 2013.
Since the 1980s, Connolly has worn a custom-made black T-shirt with a shirt-tail as part of his on-stage attire. The first one was by English designer Steven King. From around the same time, his manager has been Steve Brown.
Below is a partial list of Connolly's solo musical and comedic recordings. For his releases with the Humblebums, see here.
- 1972 – Billy Connolly Live
- 1974 – Cop Yer Whack for This
- 1974 – Solo Concert
- 1975 – Get Right Intae Him!
- 1975 – Words and Music
- 1975 – The Big Yin
- 1976 – Atlantic Bridge
- 1977 – Billy Connolly
- 1977 – Raw Meat for the Balcony!
- 1978 – Anthology
- 1979 – Riotous Assembly
- 1981 – The Pick of Billy Connolly (compilation)
- 1983 – A Change Is As Good As Arrest
- 1983 – In Concert
- 1984 – Big Yin Double Helping (compilation)
- 1985 – An Audience With Billy Connolly
- 1985 – Wreck on Tour
- 1987 – Billy & Albert
- 1991 – Live at the Odeon Hammersmith London
- 1995 – Musical Tour of Scotland
- 1995 – Billy Connolly – Live Down Under 1995
- 1996 – World Tour of Australia
- 1997 – Two Night Stand
- 1999 – Comedy and Songs (compilation)
- 1999 – One Night Stand Down Under
- 2002 – Live in Dublin 2002
- 2002 – The Big Yin – Billy Connolly in Concert (compilation)
- 2003 – Transatlantic Years (compilation of material recorded between 1969 and 1974)
- 2005 – Billy Connolly's Musical Tour of New Zealand
- 2007 – Live in Concert
- 2010 – The Man Live in London, recorded January 2010
- 2011 – Billy Connolly's Route 66
|1. Live at the Odeon Hammersmith and Live 1994 †||2000||Double feature. Hammersmith Odeon 1991 and Hammersmith Apollo 1994|
|2. Live 2002 †||2002||Has "Live in Dublin 2002" on the cover, but it features excerpts from additional shows in Killarney, Newcastle, London, Manchester and Sheffield|
|3. Bites Yer Bum! †||2003||Live from The Victoria Apollo Theatre 1980|
|4. One Night Stand Down Under and The Best of the Rest||11 October 2004||Live in Brisbane, Australia 1999 and clips from earlier shows|
|5. Two Night Stand||11 October 2004||1997 tour. London and Glasgow shows|
|6. Erect for 30 Years||11 October 2004||Documentary|
|7. Billy and Albert †||22 November 2004||Live at the Royal Albert Hall 1987|
|8. An Audience with Billy Connolly||2005||1985 London Weekend Television special. Available in both broadcast and uncut versions|
|9. Live in New York †||14 November 2005||Live at New York Town Hall|
|10. Was It Something I Said? †||19 November 2007||Live in Adelaide|
|11. Live in London 2010 †||15 November 2010||Live at London's HMV Hammersmith Apollo|
|12. You Asked For It †||14 November 2011||Billy's Most Requested Clips and his unreleased first television special from 1976|
|13. High Horse Tour: Live †||13 December 2016||Live at London's Eventim Apollo|
† denotes this performance is also available on a boxed set (see below)
The following boxed sets are available:
- Billy Connolly: The Essential Boxset Collection (2006) (Live in New York, World Tour of Scotland, Bites Yer Bum/Hand Picked, Billy and Albert and Billy Connolly Live)
- Billy Connolly: Live 2007 Boxset (2007) (Was It Something I Said?, Live in Dublin 2002 and Billy and Albert)
- Billy Connolly 2009 (2009) (Live in New York and Was It Something I Said?)
- Billy Connolly: The Ultimate Boxset (2009) (Billy and Albert, Live at Hammersmith 1994, Live in Dublin 2002, Bites Yer Bum/Hand Picked, Live in New York, Was It Something I Said?, World Tour of Scotland, World Tour of Australia, World Tour of England, Ireland & Wales, World Tour of New Zealand and Journey to the Edge of the World)
- Billy Connolly: Scotland, Australia, England/Ireland/Wales and New Zealand (2010) (all of his World Tours)
- Billy Connolly Triple Pack (2010) (Live in London 2010, Bites Yer Bum/Hand Picked, Live in Dublin 2002
- Billy Connolly: The Live Collection (2010)
- Billy Connolly Live (2011) (You Asked For It and Live in London 2010)
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)
|1989||The Return of the Musketeers||Caddie|
|1990||The Big Man||Frankie||US title Crossing The Line|
|1993||Indecent Proposal||Auction M.C.|
|1996||Muppet Treasure Island||Billy Bones|
|1997||Beverly Hills Ninja||Japanese Antique Shop Proprietor|
|1997||Deacon Brodie||William Brodie|
|1997||Mrs Brown||John Brown|
|1998||The Impostors||Mr. Sparks, the Tennis Pro|
|1999||Still Crazy||Hughie Case|
|1999||The Debt Collector||Nicky Dryden|
|1999||The Boondock Saints||Noah MacManus / Il Duce|
|2000||An Everlasting Piece||Scalper|
|2001||Gabriel & Me||Gabriel|
|2001||Who Is Cletis Tout?||Dr. Mike Savian|
|2001||The Man Who Sued God||Steve Myers|
|2002||White Oleander||Barry Kolker|
|2003||The Last Samurai||Sergeant Zebulon Gant|
|2004||Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events||Dr. Montgomery Montgomery|
|2006||Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties||Lord Dargis|
|2008||The X-Files: I Want to Believe||Joseph "Father Joe" Crissman|
|2008||Open Season 2||McSquizzy||Voice|
|2009||The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day||Noah MacManus / Il Duce|
|2010||Gulliver's Travels||King Theodore|
|2014||What We Did on Our Holiday||Gordie McLeod|
|2014||The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies||Dáin II Ironfoot|
|1975-1976||Play for Today||Jody / Paddy||Just Another Saturday (1975) |
The Elephants' Graveyard (1976)
|1980||Worzel Gummidge||Bogle McNeep|
|1983||Androcles and the Lion||Androcles||TV Movie|
|1985||Super Gran||Angus McSporran|
|1984-1985||Tickle on the Tum||Bobby Binns|
|1985||Blue Money||Des||TV Movie|
|1988||City Lights||The Dosser|
|1991||Screen Two||Game Show Host / Busker|
|1990-1991||Head of the Class||Billy MacGregor|
|1993||Screen One||Jo Jo Donnelly|
|1996||Dennis the Menace and Gnasher||Captain Trout|
|1996-1997||Pearl||William 'Billy' Pynchon|
|1998||Tracey Takes On...||Rory Cassidy|
|1999||3rd Rock from the Sun||Inspector Macaffery|
|2016||Billy Connolly's Tracks Across America||Himself|
Connolly was awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters degree by the University of Glasgow on 11 July 2001.
In 2003, the BAFTA presented him with a Lifetime Achievement award. Also in 2003, he received a CBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours.
On 4 July 2006, Connolly was awarded an honorary doctorate by Glasgow's Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (RSAMD) for his service to performing arts.
On 18 March 2007 and again on 11 April 2010, Connolly was named Number One in Channel 4's "100 Greatest Stand-Ups".
On 22 July 2010, Connolly was awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Letters (D.Litt) by Nottingham Trent University.
On 20 August 2010, Connolly was made a Freeman of Glasgow with the award of the Freedom of the City of Glasgow.
On 10 December 2012, Connolly picked up his BAFTA Scotland Award for Outstanding Achievement in Television and Film at his BAFTA A Life in Pictures interview in the Old Fruitmarket, Glasgow.
In January 2016, he was presented with the Special Recognition award at the National Television Awards to honour his career.