Billy Connolly: he's not your average 71-year-old

The comedian was diagnosed with prostate cancer on the same day he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, but it seems nothing can stop the Big Yin laughing

Is it ageist to suggest that Billy Connolly neither looks nor acts like your average 71-year-old? Maybe. But it's tricky to otherwise convey what an outsized figure he is. At 1.85m, the Big Yin is just that. His colossal personality threatens to dwarf everything in its sphere. He seldom stops laughing, whether he's discussing his cancer or grim details from his childhood or the recent Scottish referendum.

“People are disappointed by the referendum,” says Connolly, who refused to vote lest he become “one of those celebrities telling people how to vote. There was such a big turnout. Some people seem to think that it wasn’t fair”.

It’s difficult to interview Billy Connolly. You can listen, you can enjoy his tangents and diversions. But straight Q and A is not going to cut it.

There are tales of assorted Dubliners: "Ronnie Drew used to have me in stitches all the time. Luke Kelly used to make me roar with laughter. He wasn't supposed to be a comedian. I loved him. We need all the banjo players we can get."

There are random musings on Irish and Celtic identity. “The Irish are the funniest people in the world. I don’t know why. They just punch above their weight. I feel at home there, the people look familiar. It’s the one place I can go to the chemist and buy shampoo that says ‘normal’ and wash my hair with it.”

Connolly devotees – and they are legion – are sure to adore his roguish turn as a granddad with terminal cancer in What We Did on Our Holiday, a charming comedy from the makers of Outnumbered. But I'm not sure it's the role most performers would have plumped for in the aftermath of a cancer diagnosis.

Last year, Connolly underwent surgery for prostate cancer. He was diagnosed with the condition, rather improbably, on the same day he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. "I had only just been in Dublin. Shay Healey asked me to do something for Parkinson's. Because I got famous on the Parkinson show, you know? And Shay has Parkinson's disease. So he asked me to come and do some publicity for the cause and I'm there posing away like Mr Bountiful."

He erupts with laughter: “Sure, I didn’t know I had Parkinson’s.”

He found out, quite by chance, because a doctor approached him in a hotel lobby. “He was a Tasmanian doctor who was staying in the same hotel as me with a load of folk dancers,” Connolly splutters through more laughter. “He came up and says: ‘Listen I’m a big fan. And I’ve been watching you coming and going and I can tell by your gait, you’re showing signs of early onset Parkinson’s. You should go and see someone.’ And I did and he was right.”

He cracks up again: “It actually was quite funny, you know. Because I’d got a hearing aid in that Monday. And I was saying to my wife, ‘what’s next, haemorrhoids?’ And then I tested positive for acid reflux, permanent heartburn. And since then I’ve had gallstones. So now I have no sperm and I can’t take a quality piss. Somebody, somewhere has a little doll of Billy Connolly and they’re sticking pins in it.”

Only Connolly, one feels, could end up with a barrage of terrifying diagnoses just after he'd agreed to do Billy's Big Send Off, a documentary series on death and funerals. "A total and absolute coincidence," he promises.

So there’s no risk of a deathbed conversion for this avowed atheist? “Oh no. They all look like Jehovah’s Witnesses to me.”

Perversely, dying becomes Billy Connolly. He has been seen pining for the fjords many, many times onscreen. He even managed it for Muppet Treasure Island, prompting Rizzo the Rat to exclaim: "He died? And this is supposed to be a kids' movie."

“I’ve got it down to a fine art now,” says Connolly. “I’ve been dying for many years. My children are really fed up with it. Luckily enough, the deaths have all been different so I’m not bored with it yet.”

Does he have a favourite death scene? "The weirdest one I did was in a film called Absolution with Richard Burton. He buried me. And he lay on top on me. I thought I was actually going to die. He thought it was really funny. I came out of there like a great colossus. Had to be hoovered after that."

Speaking frankly through books written in conjunction with his comedian turned psychologist wife Pamela Stephenson, we've come to know the Connolly story. The details make for dark reading: abandoned by his mother when he was three, raised by two bullying aunts, sexually abused by his father between the ages of 10 and 15. Of course, he's not bitter.

“I don’t care. I don’t give a shit about any of it.”

Is that because Stephenson helped him through it? Or is it a reflection of his disposition? “Part of my disposition. I remember when I worked on the river Clyde at the shipyards. There was a guy who used to give us electric lightbulbs. That was his job. He had the most dreadful cough. A cough from hell. And I said to him one day ‘you know, you got to do something about that cough’. And he says, ‘sure, the graveyard is full of people who would love my cough’. That changed my life. Really.”

He recalls being shy as a youngster, but being funny allowed him to make friends “with the popular fella

s and the ones that knew how to fight. And I was small. I didn’t grow until I was 17”.

He honed his craft in regional clubs and with comedy folk act The Humblebums until a bawdy joke on Michael Parkinson’s chat show introduced him to a national, then international audience.

Does he think he would have coped with the instant fame experienced by today's Britain's Got Talent alumni?

“No. I came up organic. And that was the best way. I started small. I kept trying. I wasn’t even too sure what I was going to be.”

He's been sober for 30 years, ever since he met Stevenson. Sobriety has allowed him to maintain a presence on both sides of the Atlantic. In the US, he's opened for Elton John, headed up the sitcom Top of the Class, and has appeared with Jack Black (on Guilliver's Travels), Jim Carrey (Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events), Tom Cruise (The Last Samurai) and Garfield.

For all his health problems, Connolly has seldom been busier. This Christmas, he'll appear as Dáin II Ironfoot in Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, the third and final instalment of the billion-dollar franchise. Working with CG and green screen was "weird at first", he says. "There was one bit where I was supposed to be addressing thousands of troops. And there was only four guys in an aircraft hangar."

He laughs again: “But one of the four was Ian McKellen. So that makes it okay.”

What We Did on Our Holiday is on general release tomorrow

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