Billy Connolly battles back to play it for laughs

The Big Yin has suffered one of the most challenging times of his life.

Billy Connolly battles back to play it for laughs

Billy Connolly

Billy Connolly was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 2013 but has refused to slow down. He is on the road for a major UK tour and on Wednesday and Thursday will feature at the Barclaycard Arena.

His shows promise to be among the most hilarious nights of the year.

Connolly has even made a joke of his debilitating illness by wearing a T-shirt that says ‘Shakey is the new cool’. It was given to him by fellow comic Rick Shapiro.

Connolly has fought bravely against Parkinson’s. “Some days I walk badly, and other days I don’t,” he says. “Sometimes I find it difficult to get out of my chair when I’m in a restaurant. it’s kind of embarrassing. I have to ask for help, but it’s okay.”

He’s left his New York home, which he moved to in 2011, to live in Los Angeles, where he lived during the 90s when he made his American breakthrough in Head Of The Class and the spin-off, Billy.

LA’s warming climate helps him to cope by increasing his exposure to Vitamin D. “There are a number of modifying factors, two of them being exercise and sunshine. I need to exercise more.”

In his darkest moments, he has considered following the example of his friend, the late actor and comedian Robin Williams, who committed suicide in August 2014 after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s.

Connolly has had to battle ill health before. In 2013, he underwent surgery for prostate cancer, though he realises Parkinson’s has no cure.

“I shoved the cancer behind me but the Parkinson’s – I think about it every morning. It’s forever, isn’t it?”

His wife, Pamela Stephenson, has been his biggest help. “She’s very supportive in so much as she’s become my mother.”

His life has changed as his nervous system gradually degenerates.

“You get very emotional. “There were things I liked to do, like smoking cigars. I can’t do that anymore because it makes me drunk.

“I can’t play the banjo anymore because of my left hand. I don’t move as much as I used to because I don’t feel secure in my balance. My way of speaking has changed a bit too.”

His shows in Birmingham will give fans a unique opportunity to see one of the greatest comedic talents of all time.

The former welder and boilermaker who gave it up to pursue a career as a folk singer before turning to comedy is frequently placed at the top of lists to rank the greatest comedians ever.

Having enjoyed a remarkable career in stand-up, he turned to TV and film, making numerous hit movies including Pocahontas (1995); Muppet Treasure Island (1996); Mrs. Brown (1997); The Boondock Saints (1999); The Man Who Sued God (2001); The Last Samurai (2003); Brave (2012); Quartet (2012) and The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014). Earlier this year at the National Television Awards, he received a Special Recognition award from Hollywood legend Dustin Hoffman.

“I am so deeply moved,” he said of the honour. “It’s a precious thing. I don’t feel I deserve it. When I see all these other stars parading up I don’t feel like them. I feel like a welder.”

Laughter helped him overcome numerous personal difficulties, including a troubled marriage. He prefers to make light of things, rather than analyse them.

“The thing is,” he says, “it’s there, so I might as well talk about it. I like to get it out of the way early because it’s kind of obvious. You cannot sit at home wondering about your symptoms.

“It is not going to go away. I think it is an attitude – you say, ‘screw it, let’s get on with it’.”

By Andy Richardson

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