Billy Connolly: Career

In 1966, after he had completed a five-year apprenticeship as a boilermaker, stand-up comedian Billy Connolly accepted a ten-week job building an oil platform in Nigeria. Upon his return to Scotland, he worked at John Brown & Company, but focused increasingly on being a folk singer.

Connolly's career as a folk singer led to him forming a folk-pop duo called The Humblebums with Tam Harvey. After recording one album, Harvey left the partnership and was replaced by future rock star Gerry Rafferty. The Connolly-Rafferty version of The Humblebums recorded two more albums for independent record label Transatlantic Records. The albums were not big commercial successes but enjoyed cult status and critical acclaim. In 1970, the Humblebums broke up, Connolly returned to being a folk singer. His live performances featured folk songs with humorous introductions that became increasingly long in duration.

Nat Joseph saw several of Connolly's performances and noted his comedic skills and saw potential in Connolly. He was the one who suggested to Connolly that he drop the folk-singing and focus primarily on becoming a comedian. It was a life-changing suggestion.

In 1972, Joseph produced Connolly's first solo album, Billy Connolly Live!, a mixture of comedic songs and short monologues that hinted at what was to follow. In late 1973, Joseph produced the breakthrough album that propelled Connolly to British stardom. Recorded at a small venue, The Tudor Hotel in Airdrie, the record was a double album titled Solo Concert. He successfully promoted the album to chart success on its release in 1974. It featured one of Connolly's most famous comedy routines: The Crucifixion which was banned by many radio stations at the time. Building on his cult Scottish following, they broke Connolly throughout the UK.

In 1975, the rapidity and extent of Connolly's breakthrough was used to secure him a booking on Britain's premier TV talk show, the BBC's Parkinson. This ribald humor was unusually forthright on a primetime Saturday night on British television in the mid-1970s and his appearance made a great impact. Connolly's UK success spread to other English-speaking countries: Australia, New Zealand and Canada. However, his broad Scottish accent and British cultural references made success in the US improbable.

His increased profile led to contact with other individuals, including musicians such as Elton John who tried to help comedian Connolly to engage a career in America by using him as the opening act on his 1976 US tour. But the well-intentioned gesture was a failure. In spite of this, Connolly continued to grow in popularity in the UK. In 1975 he signed with Polydor Records. Connolly continued to release live albums and he also recorded several comedic songs that enjoyed commercial success: parodies of Tammy Wynette's song "D.I.V.O.R.C.E." and the Village People's "In the Navy" (titled "In the Brownies")

In 1979, Connolly was invited by producer Martin Lewis to join the cast of The Secret Policeman's Ball, the third in the series of the Secret Policeman's Ball fundraising shows for Amnesty International. His performance was considered to be one of the highlights of the show's comedy album (released by Island Records in December 1979) and feature film (released by ITC Films in 1980).

In 1981, John Cleese and Martin Lewis invited Connolly to appear in that year's Amnesty show, The Secret Policeman's Other Ball. Connolly's performance was again reported as one of the highlights of the show and he was prominently featured in the subsequent comedy album (Springtime!/Island Records 1981) and UK film (UIP 1982).

In 1985, he performed An Audience with..., which was videotaped at the South Bank Television Centre in front of a celebrity audience for ITV. The uncut, uncensored version was subsequently released on video. In July 1985 he performed at the Wembley , immediately preceding Elton John.

In 1986 he visited Mozambique to appear in a documentary for Comic Relief. He also featured in the charity's inaugural live stage show, both as a stand-up and portraying a willing 'victim' in his partner Pamela Stephenson's act of sawing a man in half to create two dwarves.

Connolly completed his first world tour in 1987, including six nights at the Royal Albert Hall in London, which was documented in the Billy and Albert video.

In 1990 stand-up comedian Billy Connolly was featured in the HBO special Whoopi Goldberg and Billy Connolly in Performance. Goldberg introduced Connolly, and his performance has been cited as the moment that officially launched his career in the States. Soon after, Connolly succeeded Howard Hesseman as the star of the sitcom Head of the Class for the 1990–1991 seasons.

Connolly also joined Frank Bruno and Ozzy Osbourne when singing 'The War Song of the Urpneys' in The Dreamstone. In 1991, Connolly received his first leading television role as the star of Billy, another sitcom and a spin-off of Head of the Class. It lasted only a half-season

On 4 June 1992, Connolly performed his 25th-anniversary concert in Glasgow. Parts of the show, and its build-up, were documented in The South Bank Show, which aired later in the year.

In early January 1994, Connolly began a 40-date World Tour of Scotland, which would be broadcast by the BBC later in the year as a six-part series. It was so well received that the BBC signed him up to do a similar tour two years later, this time in Australia. Also in 1995, Connolly recorded a BBC special, entitled A Scot in the Arctic, in which he spends a week by himself in the Arctic Circle.

In 1997, Connolly starred with Judi Dench in Mrs. Brown. He was nominated for a BAFTA Award and a BAFTA Scotland Award for Best Actor, as well as a Screen Actors Guild Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance.

In November 1998, Connolly was the subject of a two-hour retrospective entitled Billy Connolly: Erect for 30 Years, which included tributes from Judi Dench, Sean Connery, Whoopi Goldberg, Robin Williams, Dustin Hoffman, and Eddie Izzard. The special was released on DVD in North America in 2004.

The following year, Connolly undertook a four-month, 59-date sellout tour of Australia and New Zealand. Later in the year, he completed a five-week, 25-date sellout run at London's Hammersmith Apollo. In 2000 he travelled to Canada for two weeks on a 13-date tour.

In 2000 Connolly starred in Beautiful Joe alongside Sharon Stone. In 2001, he completed the third in his "World Tour" BBC series, this time of England, Ireland and Wales, which began in Dublin and ended in Plymouth. It was broadcast the following year. Also in 2001, Pamela Stephenson's first biography of her husband, Billy, was published. A follow-up, Bravemouth, was published in 2003.

Connolly has also written several books, including Billy Connolly (late 1970s) and Gullible's Travels (early 1980s), both based upon his stage act, as well as books based upon some of his "World Tour" television series.

A fourth BBC series, World Tour of New Zealand, was filmed in 2004 and aired that winter. Also in his 63rd year, Connolly performed two sold-out benefit concerts at the Oxford New Theatre.

He has continued to be a much in demand character actor, appearing in several films such as White Oleander (2002), The Last Samurai (2003) and Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004). He has also in The Man Who Sued God (2001), and a young boy's pet zombie in Fido (2006).

In January 2005, Connolly came 8th in The Comedian's Comedian, and embarked on a major UK tour with 15 sold-out nights in Glasgow. The same year, Connolly and Stephenson announced, after fourteen years of living in Hollywood, they were returning to Scotland. Later in the year, Connolly topped an unscientific poll of "Britain's Favourite Comedian" conducted by TV network Five.

On 10 March 2008, tickets went on sale for Connolly's Irish tour, set to take place in May, June and July. He performed three shows in University Concert Hall, Limerick and ten shows at the Olympia Theatre, Dublin, five shows at the Waterfront Hall in Belfast and three shows at the Cork Opera House. They all sold out in a matter of hours. The tour also travelled to Kerry (two shows) and Mayo (two shows).

In October 2009 he played a tour of his homeland, and sold out everywhere, despite adding extra dates.

In 2007 and again in 2010, he was voted the greatest stand-up comic on Channel 4's 100 Greatest Stand-Ups.

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