British Icon of the Week: Sir Billy Connolly, Beloved Comedian and Cultural Colossus
(Photo: Getty Images)
Today is the 77th birthday of Sir Billy Connolly, the multi-talented Scotsman who’s become a true U.K. cultural colossus. To mark the occasion, we’re making him our British Icon of the Week and celebrating 10 of the things we respect and admire about him.
1. In 2012, he was voted the U.K.’s most influential stand-up comedian of all time.
He's such a revered figure that Queen Elizabeth II awarded him a Knighthood in 2017 for "services to entertainment and charity."
2. He’s a proud Scotsman.
But this doesn’t mean he can’t poke some good-natured fun at his homeland. “There are two seasons in Scotland: June and Winter,” he once famously quipped. He’s also sent up Glasgow, his industrial home city, by saying: “The great thing about Glasgow is that if there’s a nuclear attack it’ll look exactly the same afterwards.”
3. In 1975, he scored a U.K. number one single with a spoof version of Tammy Wynette’s “D.I.V.O.R.C.E.”
Connolly actually tried to make it as a folk singer in the ‘60s before realizing that his true calling was comedy. Still, he kept his musical skills sharp over the years by recording several novelty singles including this playful parody riffing on Wynette’s classic country hit: whereas she spells out awkward words to stop a child from hearing, Connolly does it to avoid upsetting his dog.
4. He’s affectionately known as the “Big Yin.”
It’s a Scottish slang term meaning “big man” or “the big one,” which given his many achievements, Connolly has more than earned.
5. He’s a BAFTA-nominated film actor.
Connolly was nominated for Best Actor in 1998 for his performance opposite Dame Judi Dench in the acclaimed period drama Mrs Brown. He plays John Brown, a Scottish servant who became the rather controversial personal favorite of Queen Victoria following her husband Prince Albert’s death.
6. More recently, he appeared as formidable warrior Dáin II Ironfoot in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies.
When Connolly's casting was announced, director Peter Jackson commented: "We could not think of a more fitting actor to play Dáin Ironfoot, the staunchest and toughest of dwarves, than Billy Connolly, the Big Yin himself."
7. He has spoken candidly and without self-pity about being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
Connolly revealed his diagnosis in 2014 and confirmed earlier this year that he has now retired from stand-up comedy. "The Parkinson's has made my brain work differently and you need to have a good brain for comedy," he told Sky News. "It was lovely and it was lovely being good at it. It was the first thing I was ever good at, and I'm delighted and grateful to it."
8. Over the years he’s been an absolutely top-tier chat show guest.
During an appearance on The Late Late Show in 1998, he reduced host Tom Snyder and various crew members to fits of giggles with a hilarious bit on flatulence featuring name-checks for Steve Buscemi, Stanley Tucci, and Queen Elizabeth. Now, that's what we call range.
9. Since 2012 he’s successfully reinvented himself as a contemporary artist.
You can check out his debut collection, a series of humorous black-and-white drawings called Born on a Rainy Day, in the video below.
10. When he was given a special recognition prize at the U.K.’s National Television Awards in 2016, it was a genuinely emotional moment.
Connolly was presented with his award by Dustin Hoffman – who directed him in the 2012 movie Quartet – and deservedly earned a standing ovation as he took the stage.
Do you have a favorite Billy Connolly comedy bit or acting role?