Apparently this Thanksgiving I am giving thanks for Billy Connolly (b. 1942), who turns 80 years old today. Actually it’s now SIR Billy Connolly — The Big Yin was knighted in 2017. What an irreverent, plain-spoken, earthy excuse for a knight of the realm, eh? One who makes hilarious sport of the English (and everything else) and has finally (and sensibly) come around to supporting Scottish Independence since the debacle of Brexit. (Do titled Scots keep their titles if they split?) To Americans at any rate, Connolly has over time sort of become THE Scotsman, a sort of national mascot, in the tradition of Sir Harry Lauder. As a Stewart, I am bred in the bone to appreciate him in that capacity (although, once again, he confounds that, for think about it — he’s a Connolly, a CONNOLLY, that’s an Irish name!). But I do like that he’s born less than a week before St. Andrews’s Day.
Connolly’s far from the most accomplished Scot who ever lived (go here for a short list of those), but he’s still pretty dazzling: comedian, musician, actor, writer, and lately a painter. Our appreciation is heightened by his working class Glasgow background and the fact that he spent years working in a shipyard before he went into show business. In the late 60s and early 70s he was in a folk group called The Humblebums with Gerry Rafferty, who was later responsible for hits like “Stuck in the Middle With You” and “Baker Street”. In 1971 the pair broke up, and Connolly was a solo musician for a time, which evolved into straight stand-up and solo theatre. Connolly is, by the way, possibly the best, funniest, most garrulous storyteller who ever lived. I think he’s a genius on the order of Richard Pryor in terms of his gifts. Robin Williams was a huge admirer and liked to compare himself to Connolly, but was really nothing like him in terms of subject matter, though they shared a certain manic quality. There is nothing like the visual impression Connelly creates on stage, this very large man flying around on stage, his long hair bouncing around all over the place. He could be speaking to an audience of thousands and still create the intimate atmosphere of a pub.
In 1976 Connolly toured America as Elton John’s opening act, which was not a success, but he did finally move the needle here with his appearance in The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball (1981) with John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Rowan Atkinson, Dame Edna, Marty Feldman, Neil Innes, and rock musicians like Sting, Donovan, Pete Townsend, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Phil Collins. Throughout the ’80s he continued to turn out comedy albums, appear on television and get movie roles. An HBO comedy speical with Whoopi Goldberg in 1990 turned the tide in his favor once again. The following year he was hired as Howard Hesseman’s replacement on Head of the Class, which morphed into the short-lived spin-off series Billy in 1992.
Then came movie roles in film such as Disney’s Pocohontas (1993), Muppet Treasure Island (1995), the critically acclaimed Mrs. Brown (1997, opposite Dame Judi Dench), Beautiful Joe (2000, opposite Sharon Stone), The Last Samurai (2003), Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004), Gulliver’s Travels (2010), Brave (2012), The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014), and dozens of others, along with countless televised comedy specials, record albums, live appearances etc. His last film was Live Oats (2016) with Shirley Maclaine, Jessica Lange, and Demi Moore. In 2018 he announced his retirement from comedy and acting (due to the onset pf Parkinson’s), although he has continued to work as a presenter of travel shows and TV documentaries in the years since.
Co-là breith sona dhut, Sir William!
For more on show biz history, please read No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.