An actor and stand-up comedian with a long and memorable career, we take a look at the varied dramatic roles of Billy Connolly.
Sir William Connolly, better known as Billy, or The Big Yin, is one of the most respected and revered comedians in the world, both by the public and his fellow comics. However, throughout his career, Connolly has sought to challenge both himself and his public image, appearing in an eclectic range of roles that moved from comedy to drama and even psychological thrillers.
The first of these is perhaps his role as boxing trainer Frankie in the 1990 drama The Big Man. Helmed by David Leland and headlined by Liam Neeson, the film follows a down on his luck bare knuckle fighter. It’s a movie probably best remembered for the climactic fight sequence, which to this day stands as one of the longest and most realistic fistfights ever filmed.
But the film that really put Connolly on the map as a dramatic actor was 1997’s Oscar winning period drama Mrs Brown. Cast opposite Judi Dench’s Queen Victoria, Connolly plays John Brown, a trusted servant of Prince Albert who is drafted in to help guide the Queen through her grief over his passing. Connolly’s natural affability afforded him the chance to catch the audience off guard, as the material he had to play was almost completely straight.
The nature of the story, wherein Brown’s anarchic spirit disrupts the prim and proper Royal Household, does allow Connolly to provide some comic relief, but the majority of his scenes with Dench are quiet and contemplative. In an interview with Michael Parkinson, Connolly, in a typically self-effacing manner, eschewed any praise for himself, instead lauding Judi Dench and her ability to deliver the same level of emotion in her performance whether it was the first take or the fiftieth. Likewise, Dench, during a BAFTA tribute, was equally complimentary about Connolly, citing his ability to put her at ease before scenes.
Much closer to his stand up persona is his role as roadie Hughie in Still Crazy. Released the year after Mrs Brown, the film is a joyous celebration of 70s excess, as fictional rock band Strange Fruit attempt to stage a reunion tour. Arguably one of the most underrated comedies of the 90s, the film boasts a screenplay from sitcom legends Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, as well as barnstorming performances from the likes of Bill Nighy and Timothy Spall.
The music was written especially for the film by members of Squeeze and Foreigner – the latter liked the finale song The Flame Still Burns so much that they released it as a single of their own in 2011. In comparison, Connolly’s role is a relatively small one, but it is made all the more poignant as it harks back to his musical roots, as one of The Humblebums, a band that also included Gerry Rafferty.
It wasn’t until 1999’s The Debt Collector that Connolly really got to show his dark side. A tragedy of Shakespearean proportions, the film follows Connolly as ex con Nicky Dryden, the titular enforcer who used to collect debts for gangsters. Recently paroled and embarking on a new life as a sculptor, his efforts are waylaid by Ken Stott’s obsessed policeman Gary Keltie, who sets out to prove that Dryden’s crimes are beyond penance. It’s the furthest Connolly has ever been from his usual jovial joker, the film requiring him to both act as a conflicted antihero and, eventually, revert back to his violent ways.
Written and directed by Scottish playwright Anthony Neilson, the screenplay is unremittingly bleak, the city of Edinburgh (though filmed in Glasgow) acting as the backdrop for a tale of barbarism and brutality. It is Ken Stott who gets to play scenes of truly psychotic desperation, to which Connolly has to play a plethora of emotions, from calm and collected to terrifying rage. This culminates in a vile, sickening act by Keltie that is difficult to stomach as a viewer, not because of any blood and gore, but because it is filmed completely naturalistically, and Neilson’s camera is unerring in its honesty, refusing to give the viewer any moments of respite.
For Connolly, his most affecting scenes are Dryden’s most empathetic, as he has to fend off Keltie whilst supporting wife Val, played by Francesca Annis, through her grief after losing her son. These include some of the most heartbreaking scenes of both Connolly and Annis’ careers, and as Dryden becomes carer, we bear witness to scenes depicting the loss of basic human dignity. It remains an extremely tough watch, but it is ultimately a rewarding one, as Connolly gives one of the greatest performances of his career.
Around this time, he also appeared in Troy Duffy’s 1999 cult classic The Boondock Saints as the formidable father of the central duo. This was the first time Connolly got to play scenes of paternal emotion, as well as partake in some gunslinging action. He reprised the role ten years later in the sequel, The Boondock Saints 2: All Saints Day.
Arguably his most widely seen role is that of Sergeant Zebulon Gant in Edward Zwick’s 2003 period epic The Last Samurai. Cast opposite Hollywood heavyweights Tom Cruise and Ken Watanabe, Connolly’s role is relatively minor, and yet in many ways is the catalyst for Cruise’s character arc. The 2000s saw Connolly undertake huge stand up comedy tours of Europe and Australia, meaning his film appearances dwindled somewhat. Perhaps the most interesting role from this period is that of a boy’s pet zombie in micro budget 2006 comedy Fido. The film relies almost entirely on Connolly’s lumbering, wordless performance.
Connolly got to play amongst the elite of the acting profession once again in 2012, when he was cast in Dustin Hoffman’s amiable ensemble comedy Quartet alongside such luminaries as Shirley MacLaine, Maggie Smith and Michael Gambon. This is perhaps the best example, maybe even the culmination of, Connolly’s ascension from Glasgow dock worker to the top tier of Hollywood.
Connolly’s most enduring work may well be in stand up, and rightly so, there are few other comedians who can claim to have spread quite as much laughter to so many over such a long period of time. But as a dramatic actor, Connolly has gone toe to toe with the best in the business, and proves that comedy and drama are not diametric opposites – they inform each other and can inspire a plethora of performances that will stand the test of time.
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