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Famous in the United Kingdom as a musician and groundbreaking stand-up comic since the 1970s, Scottish entertainer Billy Connolly did not hit the American radar until he was showcased on "Whoopi Goldberg and Billy Connolly in Performance" (HBO, 1990). He spent a season as Howard Hesseman's replacement on the sitcom "Head of the Class" (ABC, 1986-1991) before he was given his own short-lived series, "Billy" (ABC, 1991-92), while at the same time, touring relentlessly, charming audiences in the British Isles, Australia and New Zealand - all locations where he made a series of successful tour documentaries for the BBC. His boisterous, animated physical style and off-the-cuff vulgarity eventually caught on with American audiences and he toured the United States more regularly, becoming a familiar sight on late night talk shows. As an actor, Connolly revealed a dramatic side with his BAFTA-nominated performance as a confidante of Queen Elizabeth in "Her Majesty, Mrs. Brown" (1997), and also had memorable character roles in such diverse fare as "The Last Samurai" (2003), "Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events" (2004) and "The X-Files: I Want to Believe" (2008). Seemingly able to do it all and...
Famous in the United Kingdom as a musician and groundbreaking stand-up comic since the 1970s, Scottish entertainer Billy Connolly did not hit the American radar until he was showcased on "Whoopi Goldberg and Billy Connolly in Performance" (HBO, 1990). He spent a season as Howard Hesseman's replacement on the sitcom "Head of the Class" (ABC, 1986-1991) before he was given his own short-lived series, "Billy" (ABC, 1991-92), while at the same time, touring relentlessly, charming audiences in the British Isles, Australia and New Zealand - all locations where he made a series of successful tour documentaries for the BBC. His boisterous, animated physical style and off-the-cuff vulgarity eventually caught on with American audiences and he toured the United States more regularly, becoming a familiar sight on late night talk shows. As an actor, Connolly revealed a dramatic side with his BAFTA-nominated performance as a confidante of Queen Elizabeth in "Her Majesty, Mrs. Brown" (1997), and also had memorable character roles in such diverse fare as "The Last Samurai" (2003), "Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events" (2004) and "The X-Files: I Want to Believe" (2008). Seemingly able to do it all and succeed, the multi-talented Connolly continued his long and varied career well into the 21st century.
Born in Glasgow, Scotland on Nov. 24, 1942, Connolly suffered family discord at four years old when his parents, William and Mary, divorced. As a result, Connolly and his younger sister, Florence, were raised by an abusive father and two aunts in a poor, unhappy home. By the age of 13, Connolly knew he wanted to be an entertainer, but he was torn between his love of American country music records and his admiration for the comedians at the local variety show. Music ended up being Connolly's first pursuit, but it was nearly a decade before he made a name. He dropped out of school at 15, then worked as a delivery boy before taking a five-year apprenticeship as a shipyard welder. He spent a brief tour building an oil rig off the coast of Nigeria, after which he moved to London in time to join the booming folk rock scene as a banjo and guitar player. He co-formed the folk group, The Humblebums, along with future pop star Gerry Rafferty, and while playing around local clubs, Connolly's between-song banter proved to be a hit with audiences which he parlayed it into a sideline in standup comedy.
Audiences had not heard anything like Connolly when he began making a name for himself as a comic in the late 1960s. His was a modern new perspective, with long hair and a working class Scottish accent at a time when the only comic voices on television and radio were university-educated Brits. Inspired by the bawdy humor of his ship-working colleagues, Connolly strove to be like funny "ordinary guys," whom he found entertaining, rather than tell standard jokes as a detached comic. To that end, he focused on observational humor that discussed the absurd and uncomfortable in everyday life, with a bit of an obsession for sophomoric bathroom humor. Connolly went solo as a musician, releasing Billy Connolly Live! in 1972 and performing an original musical play based on his time at the shipyard, "The Great Northern Welly Boot Show," at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. After "Welly Boot" opened to rave reviews in London, Connolly scored a number one hit in the U.K. in 1975 with a parody version of Tammy Wynette's country classic "D.I.V.O.R.C.E." A tour of his comedy and music hybrid act was turned into the film "Big Banana Feet" (1975), which was followed by a famously controversial appearance on the English interview show "Parkinson" (BBC) that helped turn Connolly into a star.
Connolly was tapped to perform his stand-up act on Elton John's 1976 American concert tour, after which he returned to the U.K. to launch a three-month tour throughout Britain, "The Billy Connolly Extravaganza." In 1977, Connolly's first non-musical play, "An' Me Wi' a Bad Leg," debuted in London to a sold-out run at the Royal Court Theater. The following year, the ever-evolving artist appeared in a Scottish Opera production of "Die Fledermaus," then had his play, "The Red Runner," performed to packed houses at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 1979. Connolly went on to appear in the Amnesty International music and comedy fundraiser "The Secret Policeman's Ball," which put the working class Scotsman alongside revered British comic icons as John Cleese and Peter Cook, confirming his status as a top British talent. The subsequent concert, "The Secret Policeman's Other Ball" (1982), achieved cult status with British music and comedy fans in the United States, laying the groundwork for Connolly's eventual breakthrough to American audiences. In 1982, his ninth album, Pick of Billy Connolly, went gold almost immediately, and by the mid-1980s, the well-known stage act was appearing in British film productions and making guest appearances on television.
When the Fox network aired "Freedomfest: Nelson Mandela's 70th Birthday Celebration" (1988), Connolly was a virtual unknown in the United States. But his performance caught the attention of producers, who brought him to the States in 1990 to appear in "Whoopi Goldberg and Billy Connolly in Performance," a special produced at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Connolly was subsequently cast in a television adaptation of the film "Dead Poets Society" (1989). But when the pilot went unsold, he was instead cast as a teacher on the ABC sitcom "Head of the Class" after Howard Hesseman left the series. In an interesting cultural twist, Connolly - who was initially an outcast among educated British comedians because of his working-class status - was brought on the show to play an Oxford-educated teacher able to handle genius-level students. The show lasted another season to diminishing ratings amid complaints that Connolly's accent was too thick for American ears. Undaunted, Connolly relocated his family to Los Angeles, intent on breaking into the U.S. market. He headlined his own HBO special "Billy Connolly: Pale Blue Scottish Person" (1991) and followed with the short-lived ABC sitcom "Billy" (1991-92), again playing a teacher - this time, a college instructor who marries a student (Mary Springer) to remain in America.
After the demise of his short-lived sitcom, Connolly broke into American films with roles in the Robert Redford/Demi Moore drama "Indecent Proposal" (1993) and in Disney's animated hit "Pocahontas" (1995). In between both films, he undertook a 40-date stand-up comedy tour of Scotland which was filmed by the BBC and aired as a six-part series "World Tour of Scotland" (1994). In 1996, the network sent Connolly to shoot "A Scot in the Arctic" (1996) and "Billy Connolly's World Tour of Australia," before he triumphed as the hunting servant who brings Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) out of her depression after the death of Prince Albert in "Her Majesty, Mrs. Brown" (1997). With the film's rave reviews on both sides of the Atlantic, Connolly had finally arrived as an actor, and had a BAFTA Award to prove it. Connolly returned to American film with a hilariously bawdy role as a horny tennis pro aboard a luxury cruise liner in Stanley Tucci's ensemble comedy "The Impostors" (1998) and relived his early years in music playing a roadie in the British comedy "Still Crazy" (1998). The comic then sold out a 59-date tour of Australia in New Zealand, as well as a solid 25-date run at London's Hammersmith Apollo Theater. He rounded out the millennium with the British thriller "The Debt Collector" (1999), then entered the next century alongside Sharon Stone in the popular European theatrical release "Beautiful Joe" (2000), playing a florist unwittingly mixed up in a mob heist.
Back in his native land, he filmed another BBC tour series, this time performing in England, Ireland and Wales, before returning to American film with a highly visible role opposite Michelle Pfeiffer in "White Oleander" (2003). His film profile continued to rise with "Timeline" (2003), director Richard Donner's lackluster adaptation of the Michael Crichton bestseller. After a more winning turn as Tom Cruise's loyal sergeant in "The Last Samurai," Connolly had a great supporting role in "Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events," adapted from the popular series of children's books, then hit the road again to tour New Zealand and film another successful series for the BBC. In 2006, the unstoppable 63-year-old unveiled a new stage show, "Too Old to Die Young," which was also given a five-week run in New York. Back on the big screen, Connolly gave a strong dramatic performance as a disturbed Catholic priest in the otherwise disappointing sequel, "The X Files: I Want to Believe" (2008). After reprising Noah "Il Duce" MacManus for the long-in-the-making sequel, "The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day" (2009), Connolly was the King of Lilliput in the poorly reviewed adaptation of "Gulliver's Travels" (2010), starring Jack Black as the light-hearted Lemuel Gulliver. He went on to voice King Fergus in the animated hit "Brave" (2012), and was one of four retired opera singers who revive both Verdi and old rivalries in the British-made dramedy, "Quartet" (2012), co-starring Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay and Pauline Collins.
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