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Scotland's most famous comedian, Billy Connolly enjoyed years upon years of stardom in the U.K. before briefly cracking the U.S. market, and subsequently settling into a career as an accomplished character actor. Connolly actually discovered his penchant for comedy while pursuing a career as a folk musician, and even scored a British number one single just as his comedy career was beginning to take off.
Billy Connolly was born November 24, 1942, in Glasgow, into a poor and not altogether stable family; he left school at age 15 and served as (among other jobs) a shipyard worker, a paratrooper in the Territorial Army, and a welder, the latter including a stint building an oil rig in Nigeria. Shortly after his return, Connolly quit working and, supporting himself with the money he'd saved, concentrated on learning to play folk music on the banjo and guitar. He became a regular on the Glasgow folk scene, instantly recognizable with his wild hair and beard; he drifted in and out of several bands before forming the Humblebums with guitarist Tam Harvey in 1965. Gerry Rafferty (later of Stealers Wheel and "Baker Street" fame) joined sometime later, and the group built a following with their live performances, which spotlighted Connolly's humorous between-song bits. As Rafferty's songs became the Humblebums' primary musical focus, tensions among the members escalated; Harvey departed, and Connolly and Rafferty recorded two albums in 1969 and 1970 before disagreements over Connolly's concert comedy split them up in 1971.
Connolly soon began performing around Scotland and northern England, concentrating more on comedy but still mixing occasional folk songs into his act. 1972 saw the release of Connolly's first album, Live, and also the debut of The Great Northern Welly Boot Show, a musical play Connolly co-authored with poet Tom Buchan based on his experiences in the shipyards of Glasgow. The show was a hit in Edinburgh and London, and Polydor signed Connolly to a recording contract. In 1974, his Solo Concert album sparked protests from the Christian community over a rowdy routine in which Connolly described the Last Supper as if it had taken place in Glasgow; all the publicity only helped his career, and he was quickly becoming one of Scotland's favorite entertainers. His 1974 follow-up album, Cop Yer Whack for This, became his biggest hit yet, going gold in the U.K., and his comic take on Tammy Wynette's "D.I.V.O.R.C.E." became a surprise number one hit single in 1975. That same year also saw Connolly put in star-making appearances on Michael Parkinson's chat show and at the London Palladium. He consolidated his success with a rigorous touring schedule over the next few years (including the massive Extravaganza tour of the U.K. in 1977), and continued to release comedy recordings on a regular basis into the '80s.
During the late '70s, Connolly began taking on acting roles in television and film productions, and tried his hand at playwriting, with somewhat less success. His first marriage dissolved in 1981 amidst an affair with comedienne Pamela Stephenson (whom he would later marry in 1989, the same year he shaved off his trademark shaggy beard). Taking up residence in London with Stephenson, Connolly continued his comedy career while taking on more theatrical and television roles. Toward the late '80s, his appearances on American television became more frequent, which — along with an unsold pilot for a Dead Poets Society series — helped Connolly land a gig replacing Howard Hesseman on the high school honor-student comedy Head of the Class in 1990. His highest-profile American exposure was short-lived, however, as the series was canceled after just one season; however, Connolly was back on American airwaves in early 1992, starring in the sitcom Billy. It too was canceled after a short run, and after appearing in the film Indecent Proposal, Connolly returned to the U.K. (though he still officially resided in the Hollywood Hills). In 1994, he hosted the acclaimed series World Tour of Scotland, which explored the flavor of contemporary Scottish culture. It proved so successful that Connolly hosted two further exploration-themed BBC series: 1995's A Scot in the Arctic, in which he spent a week on a remote northern Canadian island, and 1996's World Tour of Australia. Lent a new respectability, Connolly appeared in BBC Scotland's historical dramas Deacon Brodie (1996) and Her Majesty Mrs. Brown (1997), the latter of which also featured Judi Dench and was released worldwide to much acclaim. In addition to still-regular standup tours, Connolly has continued his work as a character actor in American films, though he returned to Scotland after the Labour Party swept to power.