Billy Connolly: I don’t want to be on stage with Parkinson’s

Sir Billy Connolly is a stand-up megastar – an all-time great. Here he tells about his decision to step back from performing live

There’s a river that flows right behind Sir Billy Connolly’s Florida home, and he likes to fish in his slippers. The 78-year-old Scot has Pamela, his wife of over 30 years, and his dogs for company. Two of their daughters live on the same street with their boyfriends, and so they often have BBQs together.

And he likes his neighbours – he’s become friends with the guy next door, a taxi driver. This is the legendary comedian’s life now – and he’s “settled and happy”.

After being diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2013, the star recently announced he is officially taking a step back from doing live stand-up performances. In honour of his mighty career, ITV is airing Billy Connolly: It’s Been A Pleasure; a star-studded, one-off special which celebrates his funniest moments.

The emotional programme features unseen performance footage, exclusive chats with famous fans (Sir Paul McCartney, Sir Elton John, Sir Lenny Henry, Dustin Hoffman, Russell Brand, Whoopi Goldberg, Sheridan Smith and Aisling Bea), and clips of Sir Billy himself, filmed by Pamela at home.

Billy Connolly

“It’s funny talking about the end of my career… It’s strange talking about it as a thing of the past,” notes the funnyman, when we chat over the phone. “It’s nice to come to that conclusion myself, that I should stop. It’s a nice, healthy feeling.”

It was an “obvious” choice to make, he adds, because of the Parkinson’s, a progressive neurological condition. Symptoms can include involuntary shaking of particular parts of the body, slow movement and stiff, inflexible muscles. “I don’t want to be on stage with Parkinson’s, and that’s the end of it,” says the father-of-five (he has Jamie and Cara from his first marriage to Iris Pressagh, and Scarlett, Amy and Daisy with psychologist Pamela). “And it’s a natural end because I’m dead happy in my skin. I had a nice career, I did rather well, and I got knighted and that’s like the full stop.”

“Did rather well” is perhaps the understatement of the century. A musician and actor, as well as a comedian, the Big Yin was working as a welder in Glasgow shipyards when he pursued a career as a folk singer. Turning to comedy in the 1970s, he quickly became a national treasure and went on to crack the US, thanks to an HBO special with Whoopi Goldberg in 1989.

He moved to Hollywood and had roles in several big films, including action drama The Last Samurai, animation Brave and fantasy adventure The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies. But what is Sir Billy most proud of when it comes to his career? “I’m proud of the fact that it didn’t sink. There was no point where it went down below popularity. It just went up and up, until I said, ‘That’s the end, thank you very much and goodnight’.”

He is also “proud of the people who managed me”. “I didn’t go on telly and do sketches, and melt it down a bit,” he elaborates. “I just stayed where I was and got on with it – I stayed good.”

Sir Billy is famous for being forthright and is predictably frank when talking about his attitude towards having Parkinson’s. He says he does not feel any pressure to be an “ambassador” for the disease. “I don’t go to meetings with other Parkinson’s people and talk about it. I just get on with it. I get invited all the time to these Parkinson’s society things, to come and have lunch on a Wednesday and talk about Parkinson’s – I can’t imagine anything more awful. I went one day with my son and we were having lunch and it was less than great…”

“Talking about Parkinson’s, it’s depressing,” he continues. “It’s just a fact of life, it’s in me and I deal with it. And then sometimes it’s a bit awkward. If you’re in a restaurant, you sometimes have to ask the waiter to help you out of your chair, and at first, it’s kind of embarrassing but, after a while, you realise that people are brilliant. They love helping you. So you just get on with the bits that are good, and the bits that are bad take care of themselves.”

When we talk it’s November, and he says that recently, his “energy has gone. I haven’t been doing so well the last month”.

But humour and making art are things the star has found relief in. Earlier in the year, he even saw one of his pieces translated into a sculpture for the first time – it was “a drawing of a welder with wings”. “He was welding the world, so he’s God as a welder,” Connolly explains.

Investitures at Buckingham Palace

Sir Billy Connolly after being knighted by the Duke of Cambridge during an Investiture ceremony at Buckingham Palace.

After taking drawing up in his 60s, Sir Billy was signed by Castle Fine Art, who own a chain of galleries across the UK, including one in Glasgow, where he grew up. He has immense pride in his working-class background in the city, and his upbringing is something that has undeniably shaped his comedy. He hasn’t lived in Scotland for nearly 30 years though. “When you’re away from where you come from, something in you misses it, but you know you’re doing the right thing by being away,” he muses, thoughtfully. “There’s a time to be there, and there’s a time to grow beyond it.”

Connolly takes time to deliberate over his answers at points in our conversation, his voice soft and gentle. He is every bit as captivating over the phone as he is on stage. He has a way of holding your attention, whether he’s talking about Scottish independence (“I think they’re getting close to it”), how people should read more books (he avidly recommends Patti Smith), or what he’s watching on the box (murder programmes like The First 48).

Little Britain is “the best television show” he ever saw, he says, but he doesn’t seek out comedies, “because usually, I don’t find them very funny,” he follows. “I watch Saturday Night Live [an American sketch show] and I think they should be fired. They’re terrible! British television comedy is outstanding.”

So, as the man who is arguably the king of British comedy retreats from the limelight, how would he like the public to remember him? “I would like to be remembered as being good at what I did,” he reflects. “I’d like it to be on my gravestone: ‘He was a comedian, and he was very good at it’.”

Billy Connolly: It’s Been A Pleasure airs on ITV on Monday, December 28.

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