20 Things You Never Knew About Billy Connolly
A star of music, TV and film, Billy Connolly is known and loved best of all for his raucous comedy. With sold-out international tours to his name as well as prominent movie roles in the likes of The Last Samurai, Quartet and Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, he’s also affectionately known by his Scots nickname ‘the Big Yin.’
But before he won international fame as a comedian, singer and actor – not to mention a successful artist, with the comic having sold sculptures for thousands of pounds – this Glaswegian star worked in an unusual range of jobs, from the coast of Nigeria to a power station in Jersey.
Here are some things you probably didn’t know about Connolly.
20. He has Indian heritage
Connolly ranks among the most famous Scotsmen of our time, and his grandfather was an Irish immigrant. However, Connolly discovered in 2019 that some of his ancestors lived far beyond the British Isles.
The comedian learned this after appearing on an episode of TV series Who Do You Think You Are? The BBC’s celebrity genealogy series digs up the family trees of its participants, with often surprising results.
Connolly found out during his time on the show that he is a direct descendant of John O’Brien, a soldier in the Siege of Lucknow, and a local Indian woman named Matilda. The couple settled in Bangalore after the war and had four children, one of whom was Connolly’s great-great-grandmother.
19. He raised money for his stage career by building oil rigs in Nigeria
In adulthood, Connolly found worldwide fame and fortune as a star of both stage and screen. Of course, as is the case with most big-name celebrities, Connolly didn’t achieve his success overnight.
Before forming the band Humblebums and setting out on a stage career, Connolly worked in construction. After completing a five-year apprenticeship as a boilermaker, Connolly accepted a job in Biafra, Nigeria in 1965.
There, the 23-year-old Connolly worked on the construction of an oil platform for ten weeks. Following this, Connolly also used his construction background to secure a job in Jersey, where he helped to build a power station.
18. He used to be bandmates with Stuck in the Middle with You singer-songwriter Gerry Rafferty
When Connolly first broke into show business it was as a musician rather than a comedian. His band the Humblebums started life as a duo, but they later had a third member in Gerry Rafferty. The band’s co-founder Tam Harvey soon left, and Connolly and Rafferty went on to record two albums together as the Humblebums.
After they decided to break up in 1971, Rafferty pursued a solo career and enjoyed much success as a singer-songwriter. Rafferty’s biggest hits as a solo artist included Baker Street, Night Owl and Right Down the Line.
He also went on to form the band Stealers Wheel, who recorded Stuck in the Middle With You, which was immortalised in the movie Reservoir Dogs. Connolly has long reflected with fondness on his time with Rafferty, who sadly passed away in 2011.
17. He was abandoned by his mother when he was four
Connolly became famous for spreading laughter, but there wasn’t much that was funny about his upbringing. He and his sister were at first raised alone by their mother while their father was out of the country with the RAF.
Their mother then abandoned them when Connolly was aged four, leaving he and his sister to be raised by their aunts. Connolly’s aunts were not very happy to be burdened with the children, and their relationship was uneasy.
Sadly, things did not improve when Connolly’s father finally returned home after years away. Between the ages of 10 and 15, Connolly suffered regular physical abuse at the hands of his father.
16. He’s been called an ‘optimism nuclear generator’
Unfortunately for him, Connolly has experienced more than his fair share of dark moments in his past. This being the case, the comic could very easily be forgiven for taking a bleak, downbeat outlook on life.
Instead, the opposite is true: Connolly has been affectionately described as an ‘optimism nuclear generator.’ Discussing his positive worldview, Connolly says: “Optimism is everything. The desire for peace and happiness creates peace and happiness.”
In a 2019 BBC Radio interview, Connolly explained that optimism is “up to yourself… It’s the old half full half empty. It’s up to you.” He says, “The world’s a great place, it’s full of great people. The choice is yours,” and dismisses pessimism as “a luxury you can’t afford.”
15. He’s a talented artist famed for his stainless steel sculptures
On top of his acclaimed work as a comedian and actor, Connolly is also an accomplished artist. The comedian’s comical drawings have become a great success over the past eight years.
Released as a collection entitled Born on a Rainy Day, they were dreamt up while Connolly was stuck in a drizzly spell in Montreal. However, Connolly’s skill at creating works of art is not limited to the use of pen and paper.
A former welder, Connolly used his metalwork knowledge to create a stainless steel sculpture in 2020. Named And on Monday, God Made the World, it shows a winged and masked figure working away at a globe. The impressive piece of artwork was based on an earlier illustration drawn by Connolly.
14. He hasn’t drunk alcohol since 1985
Once an alcoholic, Connolly gave up the drink for good 35 years ago (as of December 2020). He was able to quit drinking with help from his wife and fellow comedian, Pamela Stephenson Connolly.
In an interview with BBC Scotland, the star explained, “I enjoyed drinking but it’s a thing of the past.” “It was lovely when I was [drinking] and then the fun went away and I stopped it. There’s a sign to watch for, when the fun disappears.”
After successfully giving up drinking, Connolly spent a number of years appearing in TV commercials for alcohol-free beer Kaliber. However, more recently the comedian has insisted his number one beverage of choice is tea. “Tea is the best substance in the world,” he noted. “I love tea. It makes me feel good, it makes me feel jolly – tea is the substance.”
13. He has a seat for life at Celtic FC’s stadium
Like a lot of proud Scotsmen, Connolly is a lifelong fan of Scottish football team Celtic FC. Connolly regularly travels to Glasgow for matches, often greeting his own fans at the famous grounds.
Amid Celtic Park Stadium, you may spot Connolly’s ‘seat for life’ in the main stand. The seat isn’t all that hard to spot, as it is marked with a plaque bearing the comedy legend’s name.
The only other celebrity to be awarded this honour by Celtic is the singer Rod Stewart. The rock legend famously mentions the team by name in his song You’re in My Heart.
12. Connolly got his nickname, ‘The Big Yin’, from people trying to distinguish him from his father
Billy Connolly is named for his father, William Connolly, who served as an engineer in the Royal Air Force. Connolly once explained that, as his father was a very big man, the two would often be referred to as ‘Big Billy’ and ‘Wee Billy.’
However, things changed as the younger Connolly got older, and wound up being even bigger than his father. Connolly said in his TV series Billy Connolly’s World Tour of Australia, “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.'” The comedian acknowledges, “If you were a stranger, you’d think, ‘What are these people talking about?!'”
11. He’s also a playwright
While his comedy career was first taking off in the late 70s, Connolly added another string to his bow. The comedian wrote his first stage play, An’ Me Wi’ A Bad Leg Tae, in 1977.
His second play, When Hair Was Long and Time Was Short, followed two years later. Then, Connolly’s third and to date final play, entitled Red Runner, came in 1979.
We can assume that Connolly’s success in comedy didn’t leave him much time to pursue his playwright career further. Today, none of Connolly’s three plays are in print, nor have they been widely performed.
10. He was in two failed American sitcoms in the 90s
Billy Connolly is one of the best-loved comedians from the British Isles, notable for his distinctly Scottish sensibility. It might be a bit unexpected, then, that Connolly spent some time making sitcoms in the United States.
In 1990, Connolly joined the cast of American TV comedy series Head of the Class. Connolly joined the school-based sitcom in its fifth season portraying a teacher named Billy MacGregor.
After Head of the Class was cancelled, Connolly reprised the role of Billy MacGregor in spin-off series Billy. The series co-starred Johnny Galecki, future star of The Big Bang Theory, as Billy’s son David. Unfortunately for the cast, Billy didn’t prove popular with audiences, and was cancelled after only 13 episodes.
9. He accidentally picked up two engineering qualifications when he was 15
Connolly was a bright kid in his time at St Gerard’s Secondary School in Govan, Glasgow. He got his engineering qualification aged only 15 – but he accidentally collected not one but two certificates.
Unknowingly, Connolly scooped up the qualification of a boy with the surname Connell, along with his own. In the meantime, the teenage Connolly was developing his tastes in music, and he became a big fan of Chuck Berry.
He would later launch his stage career by playing the banjo and singing in the folk-pop duo Humblebums. Whilst performing with the Humblebums, his interplay with the audience and lengthy introductions to songs eventually made him realise that stand-up comedy would be a good fit for him.
8. He appeared on talk show Parkinson a record-breaking 15 times
On reaching fame, Connolly quickly became a favourite guest of Michael Parkinson, the iconic British talk show host. Connolly wound up being invited to return to Parkinson more times than any other guest.
The comedian clocked in 15 appearances in total, with the first in 1975 and the last in 2007. Connolly has attributed his early showbiz success to the support of host and, later, close friend Michael Parkinson.
In his 2004 documentary Billy Connolly: Erect for 30 Years, Connolly said of his debut on Parkinson: “That programme changed my entire life.” The closeness between Connolly and Parkinson is reflected in the fact that his last appearance in 2007 was also Parkinson’s very last episode.
7. He calls his ideal holiday destination “my own home”
Connolly has a holiday house of his own on Gozo, an island of the Maltese archipelago. However, in characteristically curmudgeonly fashion, the funnyman says he isn’t keen on staying in new surroundings.
“I f***ing hate going on holiday anywhere but in my own home,” he said in 2013. His wife Pamela Stephenson Connolly said at the time that the couple hadn’t taken a holiday together since 1982.
Stephenson Connolly remarks, “I like being active on holiday… Billy, on the other hand, likes to do sweet FA.” “My idea of a nice break is lying in bed being brought cups of tea while watching football, episodes of Law & Order or one of those reality shows set in a prison,” he said.
6. He once travelled 8,500 km around New Zealand on a custom-made motorcycle
Billy Connolly is extremely well versed when it comes to the world of motorbikes and trikes. Connolly first developed a passion for two-wheeling in his youth on a pedal-driven bicycle.
Later he progressed to motors, and he proved to be equally proficient with this mode of transport. In 2004, he filmed his World Tour of New Zealand, travelling 8,500 km around the nation on a custom-made motorised tricycle.
Long before his own diagnosis with Parkinson’s disease, Connolly became a patron of the National Association for Bikers with a Disability. Back in 2003, he showcased the talents of expert motorcyclists in the documentary Disabled Bikers.
5. He’s played two kings in Hollywood movies
Amongst his many film appearances, Connolly has twice adopted royal personas for the big screen. In 2010, he starred as King Theodore, reigning over the miniature island of Lilliput in the comedy Gulliver’s Travels.
This update of the classic novel by Jonathan Swift starred Jack Black, Emily Blunt and Jason Segel. Two years later, Connolly followed this with another regal role, as King Fergus in Brave.
Connolly was an obvious choice for the Disney-Pixar adventure set in medieval Scotland. These are but two of the 39 film roles to Connolly’s name, others including such diverse titles as Muppet Treasure Island, Indecent Proposal and The X-Files: I Want to Believe.
4. He was knighted in 2017
The man we all know as Billy Connolly and/or The Big Yin has a far more auspicious official title. He is properly addressed as Sir William Connolly, C.B.E. (Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire).
Connolly was awarded the C.B.E. in the Queen’s birthday honours list in 2003, for services to entertainment. He was then knighted by Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge in 2017, in recognition of his continued services to both entertainment and charity.
Connolly said at the time that it was “a bit nerve-wracking… I’m sure Prince William will think I’m a mentally ill person. I answered his questions in the most stupid fashion just through nerves.” On top of these honours, Connolly also has two lifetime achievement awards from BAFTA, and holds honorary doctorates from the Universities of Glasgow, Strathclyde and Nottingham Trent.
3. He’s been married twice
Billy Connolly married his first wife, Iris Pressagh, back in 1969 before his career had really taken off. Connolly was still married to Pressagh when he first met Pamela Stephenson, then an actress and comedian famous for TV’s Not the Nine O’Clock News.
The couple began an affair, and Connolly soon separated from his wife, although they didn’t legally divorce until 1985. Connolly and Stephenson (who eventually abandoned TV and trained as a psychologist) wed in 1989, and they remain together to this day.
He has also fathered five children, two with Iris Pressagh, and three with Pamela Stephenson. He is also a grandfather, his daughter Cara having given birth to two children.
2. He retired from stand-up after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease
After undergoing minor surgery for early stage prostate cancer, it was announced that Billy Connolly had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. Connolly admitted afterwards that the affliction had already been taking its toll on his work.
His condition meant that he had difficulty memorising his lines as well as he had in years gone by. Initially Connolly refused to be swayed by this, and went on his final tour in 2017 – but in March 2020 he confirmed that his comedy days were done.
He told Sky News, “I’m finished with stand-up – it was lovely and it was lovely being good at it. It was the first thing I was ever good at.” He explained that Parkinson’s has “made my brain work differently… and you need a good brain for comedy.”
1. He’s made more movies than you might realise
While Connolly is of course best known for his comedy, he’s appeared in quite a lot of movies over the years. While a lot of these were comedy roles, Connolly has also taken more serious dramatic parts in some acclaimed films.
Most famously, he appeared alongside Judi Dench in the Oscar-nominated Mrs Brown, in a role first offered to Sean Connery. Connolly took further dramatic parts in such films as The Debt Collector and The Boondock Saints.
He’s also made movies further afield than Hollywood and the United Kingdom, appearing in Australian comedy The Man Who Sued God and Canadian zombie movie Fido.