It’s not easy for Billy Connolly to get onstage these days. In fact, it’s not easy for the 73-year-old comedian and actor to do much really. In 2013, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s and has since been suffering the slow encroaching effects of the disease on his body and nervous system. To get up there takes not only a lot of physical effort but a little outside help.
“You’ve got to get your meds just right,” he says, speaking during a visit to London. “It’s quite a complicated procedure.”
The good news is that, although his illness has slowed him down, it hasn’t stopped Connolly. If anything, it has inspired him to do as much as he can before he is unable. He turned his diagnosis into an exploration of death and dying as part of the TV series Billy Connolly’s Big Send Off. And he’s mining the symptoms for laughs as part of his stand-up act, like his joke about a friend suggesting that he stuff his shaking hand in his pocket, which he said might cause some problems at the art gallery while he checks out paintings of nude women.
What’s sadly gone is the manic energy and wiry physicality that has marked Connolly’s on stage presence for four decades now. Instead, he tends to stand stock still behind a microphone, punctuating his material with some slight physical gestures. But what hasn’t dimmed is that agile mind and those bright, playful eyes which still enjoy exploring life’s absurdities and relaying choice anecdotes from his many years in the limelight.
As he kicks off a small run of performances here in the U.S.—April 27th (tonight) in New York, May 14th in Washington DC, and May 19th in Boston—it is with the knowledge that they might be his last stand-up gigs in the States. Those three dates, though, will be the perfect endcap for what has been a long, healthy relationship with American audiences, starting in a small restaurant in Norwood, Massachusetts.
“I was a folk singer then,” the Glasgow-born comic remembers. “The Vietnam War was still on. I was there for seven or 10 weeks. It was early days. But my first impression of the States was that I saw a guy sweeping the street and smoking a cigar and I thought, ‘Jesus, it’s different here.’ It was only the rich that smoked cigars where I came from.”
It was a rather unceremonious beginning to Connolly’s stage dalliances on this side of the Atlantic, but as his star grew in the U.K. on the strength of his sets that mixed up stand-up comedy with folk songs and a best-selling concert album Billy Connolly Live!, he was lured back in hopes of some crossover success. Which is how he landed at Madison Square Garden, opening for Elton John for a seven-night stand at the arena.
“There was no such thing as comedy clubs in those days,” Connolly says. “I opened for rock bands like Elvis Costello and Dr. Hook. I’ve been booed off more than any living man. The thing that saved me was, I was reading Rolling Stone and Tom Waits was talking about opening for a rock band and he said, ‘It was a nightly exercise in terror.’ I thought, ‘Oh good, I’m not alone.’”
Things didn’t start to click with American audiences until 1989 when he filmed the HBO special Whoopi Goldberg Presents Billy Connolly. That still-brilliant half-hour set kicked open plenty of doors for Connolly, including his most high-profile gig at the time as the replacement for Howard Hesseman in the ABC series Head Of The Class. It also inspired him to relocate to Los Angeles.
“I arrived just as Desert Storm happened,” he says. “By the time I was in that sitcom, I had moved my family over, so when I finished those obligations, we just stayed.”
Since then, Connolly maintained a torrid pace in the entertainment world, racking up tons of movie roles and the occasional TV gig when he wasn’t performing regularly in the U.K. and North America. That is, until he was hit with the double whammy of his Parkinson’s diagnosis and the news that he had prostate cancer (caught early enough that it was treated surgically). He’s kept busy, for sure, scoring appearances in one of The Hobbit films and Dustin Hoffman’s directorial effort Quartet, and his work for ITV like the recent series Billy Connolly’s Tracks Across America which found the comic traveling across the U.S. by train, but he’s had to temper himself and his schedule along the way. In the past, he could easily sell out a 10 night run of shows in San Francisco, as he did in 2008. Now, his performances have become less frequent on account of his condition and the strain that it puts on his person.
These three Stateside performances this year will then have an additional luster to them, as audiences come to potentially say farewell to one of the best comic voices of our time, someone who has, from the jump, maintained his person and personality no matter where he is.
“I don’t change material for people or anything like that,” he says. “I just plow straight ahead. I’ve gotten a following over the years. They know what to expect from me.”
Correction: This piece originally said that Connolly was playing in Philadelphia on May 14. He’s actually playing in Washington DC that day.
Robert Ham is a Portland-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. Follow him on Twitter.