Parkinson's can do one but I think about death a lot, says Billy Connolly
HE enjoys life in sunny Florida — but as Billy Connolly battles Parkinson’s Disease, he draws on the gritty wit that he honed while working in the shipyards of his native Glasgow.
The legendary entertainer is not just defiant in the face of terminal illness — he is also philosophical about nearing the end of his incredible life as a world-famous comic, musician and actor.
Billy, 79, says: “You have to have a Glasgow attitude and say, ‘Oh you think you have me beat? Well, try this for size!’
“I just deal with it. If I fall, I fall. I made the decision to stand back from stand-up because of my illness. It was affecting the work that I do. The sharpness was gone. It rounded all the corners.
“But I’ve got absolutely no regrets. I feel great. I think about death a lot. Not an excessive amount. I think about it every day.
"I’ve seen people die and it’s OK. It’s not painful. You just go away. You exhale and it’s gone. It’s nothing to be frightened of. It’s just the next step.
“Buddhists think you come back as a recreation of someone else. I don’t know — I’ll settle for whatever they’ve got.”
A new ITV documentary, My Absolute Pleasure, visits Billy in the family home he shares with wife Pamela Stephenson-Connolly, 72. Although he appears to live a blissful existence, he admits the disease has tainted his life following his diagnosis in 2013.
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Billy said: “Parkinson’s has taken a lot from me. I can’t play the banjo any more. It’s just a noise. I can’t yodel any more — I used to like yodelling. I can’t smoke cigars.
“As it goes along it’s taken more and more of what I like. And it’s kinda painful. I have to behave in a certain way so my children don’t think I’m a dead loss. I want them to think: ‘He does well with what he’s got.’”
Viewers who tune in to the doc on Boxing Day will see Billy paddling on a kayak with his wife — but even this was far from plain sailing.
He said: “When I came to go into the kayak I tumbled over it and into the river. It’s just the way of life. You get soaked, you make an a**e of yourself and you get back in and do it again.”
Billy, whose autobiography, Windswept And Interesting, was published last year, was born in 1942 in Anderston, Glasgow, to Catholic parents. Mary, his mum, left the family when he was just four. Dad William returned from fighting in the war and started to physically and sexually abuse Billy.
Billy learned from an early age that his home life wasn’t normal and he became determined not to let history repeat itself. He said: “About ten or 11 years old. I was really unhappy then. I grew up in a very ‘though shalt not’ society.
“The people who brought me up didn’t like the jolly things in life. But I wanted a party like everybody else. It wasn’t too much to ask. It was a tough upbringing but I survived it and it was made great by my friends. I could tell by their houses and their atmosphere and families that it could be done right.
“Whatever was wrong, was wrong with my family. It wasn’t wrong with the world so I learned that if ever I got married I’d live like them, that I’d be lovely and cheery with them.”
I have to behave in a certain way so my children don’t think I’m a dead loss.
Billy went on to have two children, Cara and Jamie, with his first wife, Iris, whom he married in 1969. By this point he had also quit his job as a boilermaker in Alexander Stephen and Sons shipyard in Linthouse, Glasgow, to become a folk singer and develop his comedy career.
Then he became a huge star in the Seventies after several appearances on Michael Parkinson’s chat show, where he first showed he wasn’t afraid to talk about sex or tell risque gags.
He told Parky a now infamous joke about a Glaswegian man who buried his murdered wife’s body in the ground with just her bum sticking out of the ground so he had somewhere to park his bike.
Billy recalls: “The first talk show I did was Parkinson in 1975. The bum joke shocked the pants off people. You’ve got to rattle the box every now and again, give the world a shake.”
It was around this time that he appeared on BBC2 show Not The Nine O’Clock News where he was in a mock chat show interview with Pamela Stephenson pretending to be Janet Street-Porter.
She took a shine to The Big Yin, who was a stark contrast to the middle-class intellectuals who dominated comedy at the time.
He said: “I thought she was a cracker and I thought she’d be hanging out with university guys cos that’s who she was working with. Then she came to see me in Brighton and I realised I was to her taste.
“Pamela went to my room with my key and phoned me from there. She said, ‘Isn’t it time you came upstairs?’ I did and we’ve been together ever since.”
‘Old hippies live here’
In the documentary, he recalls the story in front of Pamela who says: “It’s embarrassing.” He replies: “No it’s not. It’s romantic.”
Billy has always said he was saved by New Zealander Pamela, who switched from being a comedian to a psychiatrist. She helped him to come to terms with the abuse he dealt with as a child and prevented him from spiralling into alcoholism.
He became teetotal in 1985, the same year he divorced Iris following their separation in 1981. Pamela, who also left her first husband, married Billy in Fiji in 1989 and they had three children — Scarlett, Amy and Daisy.
Billy’s movie career also took off, with roles in Mrs Brown with Judi Dench, in 1997, and The Hobbit in 2014 but he scaled back his work following his Parkinson’s diagnosis.
His daughter Scarlett features in the documentary, helping her father as he visits a beach party, a market and a bookshop. In one store, she has to pay for her father’s goods.
But Billy seems blissfully happy in the sunshine of Florida Keys, which he says is full of young-at-heart people just like him. He jokes it wasn’t really his decision to move there, saying: “I didn’t settle in Florida Keys, my wife settled in Florida Keys. She sold my house and moved. And then she gave me the option, would I want to come or not?
People do yoga here and you can stand and hate them as they bend backwards — the bs!
“It’s a good place. A lot of old hippies live here and people who refuse to be old. It suits me lovely. People do yoga here and you can stand and hate them as they bend backwards — the bs!”
Speaking at the end of the documentary, he says: “Well, that’s it for this time.
“It’s a pretty good place to spend your time and it’s been nice spending it with you. Goodnight.”
- Billy Connolly: My Absolute Pleasure is on ITV on Boxing Day at 9.30pm.
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