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Billy Connolly: ‘It might be lovely on the other side’

A fostered-off schoolboy going nowhere fast, turned apprentice welder on the Clyde. A welder turned regionally popular musician. A musician turned nationally popular comic. A comic turned Hollywood actor and an actor turned New York artist, then a retiree who’s recently been muttering his memoirs into a recording device in the Florida Keys… Billy Connolly has already been through one or two big transitions in his life. Perhaps it’s no surprise that the 78-year-old, who has been ill with Parkinson’s for some time, can face up to the next transition (the last one) with such a playful disposition. If he ever finds himself brooding on death, Connolly confesses, when we chat one autumn morning, he will shake along his wrist a little bracelet made out of small, plastic skulls. He wears the bracelet most days now. And in his mind, Connolly says, the skulls represent death. But (twist!) they have all been cast in bright, jolly colours. “I find that takes the scare away.”

It has just turned 11.30am in the Keys. Connolly says that he wasn’t very long out of bed when he left the home he shares with his wife, Pamela Stephenson, and walked to a neighbouring house belonging to one of their daughters. There, in a quiet and well-lit room that he uses as an art studio, he plugged his hearing aids into a specially equipped computer and logged on to Zoom for our chat. He sits forward in an easy chair now, explaining that it will take some getting out of, this chair, when he’s done. Lots of rocking and jerking, he guesses, until he’s upright. But he’ll face that problem when he gets to it. “What works on a Monday, to get you out of a chair, doesn’t always work by Wednesday. It can be a cruel disease.”

Connolly has long white hair that he’s tied back. The famous beard, striped with grey, has been shaped into a sort of dangling sporran over his mouth, chin and throat. He wears black circular specs and black clothes, quite a forbidding look; but his is one of those warm, confessional personalities, and quickly you feel you can ask him anything, just so long as questions come from a place of honest curiosity about the human experience. It’s something he’s very curious about himself.

Billy Connolly standing on a quay, surrounded by palm trees with the sea behind him
‘I’ve just got a feeling we don’t just turn to shite’: Billy Connolly. Photograph: Brian Smith/The Observer

I want to know, if he’s not scared of death, then does he resent it as a moment when the busy ride of life has to stop? Does he think about all the events and funny-anecdotes-in-the-making that will go on taking place without him, afterwards?

Connolly chuckles softly. “I do feel that. Cheated, in a way? But it hasn’t happened yet. So how can I have been cheated? And who knows? It might be so lovely on the other side that you don’t ever think about that.”

There’ll be another side, you think?

“I’m sure there’s something. I’m sure there’s something.”

Why?

“I don’t know, in recent years, I’ve just got a feeling that there is. That we don’t just turn to shite. Mebbe this is my refusal to accept something so mundane.”

Billy Connolly with wife Pamela Stephenson, 1985.
Being the Big Yin: with wife Pamela Stephenson, 1985. Photograph: Steve Fenton/Shutterstock

You mean: that after an extraordinary life, the most ordinary thing will happen to you, too?

“Yes. That I’ll be squashed, like any other garden mite, and that’ll be the end. Well that can’t be what happens, can it?”

At least in our conversation, Connolly does not refer to Parkinson’s by name. Instead he calls it “it”, part of a deliberate strategy, is my guess, to belittle the illness and diminish its hold over him. “I’m still quite ignorant about it,” Connolly smiles. “There are lengths I choose not to go to, in terms of information about it. And that works for me. Once, I was invited to a meeting of people that had it, in a hotel here in Florida, and I went with my son. I couldn’t wait to leave. Place was full of people who thought about it all the time. They had obviously surrendered themselves to it. I haven’t.”

He runs his hands into his hair, making the skull bracelet clack. “Though sometimes I think of it like a strange animal. One that sits beside you and says, ‘How will you get on without this?’ – before it takes away something else. I can’t play the banjo any more. My handwriting’s gone. My yodelling’s gone… Y’know,” he says, “I fly a lot in my dreams. I fly in an upright position, with a power that comes out the soles of my feet.”

Just like Iron Man, I say.

“Yes! And I have another dream. It happens regularly. I’m on a high plane. There are people who want me to come to them, but they’re on a low plane, down a cliff. I have to get down there, too, so I step off. I fall, vertically. And I land on my feet.” Connolly holds out his hands. “I have no idea what that’s about.”

Comedy Trio American comedian Robin Williams (left) outside Langan’s restaurant, London, with English comedian Dudley Moore (1935 - 2002) and Scottish comic Billy Connolly (right), circa 1985
Comedy trio: with Robin Williams and Dudley Moore, 1985. Photograph: Dave Hogan/Getty Images

Having just read his new book of memoirs, Windswept & Interesting, I think I might have some idea what that’s about. Connolly suffered through some exceptional and appalling things in his youth, especially as a very young child in Glasgow. He and his sister, Florence, were abandoned by their teenage mother in the 1940s. They were cared for (barely) by aunts. Later, at the hands of his father, Connolly suffered sexual abuse. In his 20s and 30s, even while he rose to prominence as a banjo player and a comedian, he was a functioning alcoholic. Still, he survived all this. And at a certain point, the story of Connolly’s life became one of somebody landing on their feet, over and over, just like that tumbling vision of himself in the dream.

Take as one example his startling track record with traffic accidents. He once escaped an exploding Morris Minor (he was 20ish) and later fell asleep at the wheel of a speeding Beetle and crashed off a motorway into a field (40ish). He barrel-rolled in a lemon yellow Land Rover off a winding Highlands road (60ish). Casually recounting all of this in his book, Connolly sounds surprised, amused, even mildly outraged that he should have lived long enough to hit old age and disability.

Billy Connolly on stage in 1975.
On the way up: on stage in 1975. Photograph: Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy

He was once described by a friend as “a welder who got away with it” and Connolly puts a lot of store by that appraisal. After all, he rose from a crappy childhood and a youth as a labourer to become a sir, an honorary doctor (four times over), a close friend to Pythons, Beatles and Stones, a king in one of the Hobbit movies, a co-star of Cruise and Dench. He owns three houses on the same street in Florida, in order that his grown-up children can be his neighbours if they wish to be. Instead of walking the 100 yards to see each other, his wife and kids can swim along a river that connects the properties, dodging manatees and domesticated alligators. He mostly enjoyed dictating his memoirs over the past year, Connolly says, and little wonder: “Looking at it all from a distance, when you’re comfortable, when you don’t have any of the younger person’s horrors for your aspirations – it all feels behind you, in a good way. You’re a successful guy. You live in Key West. You’re telling the whole story.”

He can no longer write prose himself. He gave up performing standup comedy years ago. But this new book was put together using the remains of those two lost skills. Ahead of a “writing” session, Connolly would sit with one or more of his daughters, who volunteered to help craft the book. He geed himself up with cups of tea and then he gave them a show, his last, most likely – a freewheeling monologue of memories and stories that they listened to, laughed at, cried at, jotted down, and slowly started to shape into a 400-page narrative. If his daughters weren’t around to dictate to, he says, he sometimes picked up his smartphone and spoke into a digital dictation app called Otter. Boy, though, did Otter know how to make a mess of his accent. Otter has never been to Glasgow in its fucking life, Connolly chunters.

Billy Connolly with Pamela Stephenson after being knighted.
On show: with Pamela Stephenson after being knighted in 2017. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Stephenson, his wife of 32 years, puts her head around the door to tell Connolly she’s off in the car to run an errand. “OK!” says Connolly, turning to me to add, “Wait a minute till she’s out the door.”

“Why?” asks Stephenson, smiling. “You gonna talk about me?”

Connolly, without any malice, simply as if it’s the only subject he ever has in mind, says: “Yeah.”

They met on the set of Not the Nine O’Clock News, the 1980s sketch show, when Stephenson was a regular cast member and Connolly a guest. He saw her whizzing down a studio corridor in a shopping trolley and was greatly charmed. Both were married at the time.

After the episode was filmed they didn’t see each other again for a year. In that time Connolly separated from Iris Pressagh, his first wife and the mother of his oldest two children, Cara and Jamie. In the memoirs he blames his travelling for work, his drinking and his general wildness. He was on another long comedy tour, gigging in Brighton, when Stephenson came to see him backstage. She sat on the sink in his changing room and admitted that her marriage was over, too. They slept together that night. In the morning, when a roadie coolly walked into Connolly’s hotel room to pack his stuff (as if the fact of there being a new woman in the bed was such a common occurrence it didn’t warrant basic politeness), Stephenson challenged the men’s boorish behaviour. This would become a theme of the relationship to come.

She was the first person to tell Connolly directly, no messing, “You’re drinking too much.” He promised her he would stop, and tried to several times. His fear of her leaving him spurred him on. Sometimes, he says, he has dreams where he’s drunk again. “I’m always on the way home, after, thinking, ‘Oh God, what will I say to Pamela? How will I explain this?’ In the dreams I think, ‘She’ll never forgive me.’ But actually I think she would forgive me.”

Billy Connolly standing on a rock, sea and blue sky behind him, arms reaching out to the side
‘Can you go fishing forever?’ Billy Connolly, now living in Key West, Florida, reflects on one of his favourite activities. Photograph: Brian Smith

Throwing in his lot with expensive cigars instead of booze as a principal vice, Connolly had his last ever drink in December 1985. By now he and Stephenson had had the first of their three daughters, Daisy, later followed by Amy and Scarlett. When Stephenson got a job as a sketch performer on Saturday Night Live, the family moved to New York. He had long been notorious in the UK, ever since a 1970s appearance on Michael Parkinson’s talkshow, when, against orders from his own manager, Connolly told a favourite joke about burying his wife bottom-up in the garden. (“I needed somewhere to park ma bike.”) It wasn’t until he did some standup on Whoopi Goldberg’s HBO special in 1989 that he made a name for himself in the US. Soon after that he got a part in a sitcom, Head of the Class, and the family moved again to LA.

When Stephenson became a US citizen, via green-card lottery, it was prompt enough for them to marry. They did so on a beach in Fiji, bagpipes playing, the theme from The Archers sung by a choir as Stephenson came down the aisle. There were well-known guests aplenty. Ringo Starr was almost bitten by a snake. In what sounds like a reasonably blissful marriage that followed, there were many more celeb-fest parties (either in the States or in the family’s summer-holiday pile in the Cairngorns), even as Stephenson left showbiz and retrained as a therapist.

As for Connolly, he spent his 40s, 50s and 60s fashioning a pretty decent movie career, appearing in a Pixar movie (Brave), a Tom Cruise blockbuster (The Last Samurai), one of Peter Jackson’s Middle-earth sagas (The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies) and – best – in Mrs Brown, as the kilted boyf of a widowed Queen Victoria. Judi Dench played the Queen. The two of them used to lay £50 bets with each other, about how long scenes would take to wrap. Dench, the veteran, always won.

The biggest surprise in his life, Connolly writes in his new book, was not that he blagged it as far as he did in Hollywood (after the Hobbit film, he recalls with hilarity, “I was a wee plastic toy in a breakfast cereal… I was even in a McDonald’s Happy Meal”), but that he became an artist in middle age, and a reasonably successful one. The family had moved to New York. His daughters were starting to leave home for college. Bored, one day, he bought some art supplies and began drawing peculiar figures. There are examples of his work on the walls of the room he’s sitting in today. Connolly cranes around, carefully, to describe them. “That’s a guy fishing with an angel. That’s a little man on stilts.” His work has collectors. It gets exhibited. “Still can’t get my head around it.”

Judi Dench on horseback with Billy Connolly holding the reins in a scene from Mrs Brown
Role play: with Judi Dench in Mrs Brown. Photograph: Photo 12/Alamy

In the early 2010s, he was back in Los Angeles to make a guest appearance on Conan O’Brien’s talkshow, and walking back from one of his beloved cigar shops, when a random doctor he passed gave him a quick, blunt, street-diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease, based entirely on Connolly’s gait. It was a shock, of course. (And an unbelievable bit of cheek on the part of the doctor, I suggest.) After formal tests confirmed the diagnosis, the family moved once more, this time to Florida. “Pamela had already bought the house when she told me we were going,” Connolly says. “Off we went. The whole idea was to get me away from the slippery sidewalks. I was starting to fall.”

He misses the shoe shops of New York. The cigar shops, too. Not so long ago, he tells me, he was searching for something in his study and he found one unsmoked cigar in a case. He’d given them up. Due to complications from his illness, the tobacco had started to make him feel dizzy and drunk: not a welcome sensation for a recovering alcoholic. But now Connolly took the stray cigar out to his decking, sat in front of the river, lit up, and tried a puff. He tried one more. “And it was brilliant. I sat there for about 10 minutes, until the wobblies came on.” Connolly stubbed out his final cigar unfinished, and threw it away.

Billy Connolly in a kilt in 2011
Fashion statement: in a kilt in 2011. Photograph: Andrew H Walker/Getty Images

He has lost a lot of people close to him in recent years, including his manager Steve Brown and various actor friends, including Sean Connery and Robin Williams. When his sister Florence died six years ago, Connolly tells me, he experienced an unsettling season of paranoia. “She used to beat people up at school who were picking on me. She ended up being a school teacher. When Flo died I got an irrational terror that I was gonna be picked on again. A wave would come over me, that I was unsafe, that I was exposed. Then it would go away again.” Years earlier he had been unable to visit either his father or his mother on their deathbeds, despite, in both cases, getting all the way to the hospital car park. The mixture of sadness, love, resentment and pity was always too much.

Given that he discovered a way to write about his life that was effective, with his children taking dictation and shaping it into paragraphs, I ask if Connolly envisages writing more books. “No,” he says, “too hard, too many painful bits. And, of course, I had to explain it to my daughters, away from the book, what had gone on.” What about books on other subjects, away from his own story? “It is tempting. But my daughters have their lives to lead.” He can still draw, though. And he can fish, he says, sometimes getting out on the Florida water with his son. “Can you go fishing for ever?” he wonders. “Maybe you can.”

Before we say goodbye, Stephenson checks in by phone from her driving errand. She wants to make sure that Connolly is all right and that he’ll be able to get back along the road to their neighbouring home once our conversation ends. It’s normally best if he has a family member around to haul him upright. In restaurants, he teases me, he is always careful to choose a table served by “some real beefy waiter, who can lift me at the end”.

“Is everything OK, Billy?” Stephenson asks, over the phone. He throws a mischievous look my way and says to her, “This bad man’s been making me cry.”

“Billy, will you be OK walking home afterwards?”

“Yeah,” he sighs. “I remember how it’s done.”

Windswept & Interesting: My Autobiography by Billy Connolly is published by Two Roads at £25. Buy a copy for £21.75 at guardianbookshop.com