Parkinson enjoyed one of the most illustrious careers in the history of British broadcasting, the miner’s son setting out from Cudworth in South Yorkshire to begin a career in print journalism in the 1950s, rising from local newspapers to stints at The Daily Express and The Guardian before landing his eponymous interview show at the BBC in 1971.
Parkinson, on which he sat down to quiz some of the most famous faces from the worlds of art, sport and politics, quickly became a primetime staple and would run until 1982 before being successfully revived by the Beeb in 1998. It moved to ITV in 2004 where it ran for a further three years before the presenter finally announced his retirement in 2007.
More than 800 episodes of the show aired over the course of four decades, with Parkinson interviewing everyone from Orson Welles and Kenneth Williams to John Wayne, Fred Astaire, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, George Best, Sir Elton John, Sir Michael Caine, Dame Edna Everage, Bette Midler, Madonna, David Bowie, Sylvester Stallone, Tom Cruise and Peter Kay.
He later admitted he had fallen in love with Lauren Bacall, Elizabeth Taylor and Sophia Loren during their appearances, and lamented that the only guests he had never been able to secure were Frank Sinatra and Barbra Streisand.
Looking back on his career for the BBC retrospective Parkinson at 50 in 2021, the former host reflected that the art of the interviewer had been lost in recent years, observing: “Today it’s quips and banter because the interviewers are not journalists. Graham Norton gets people chatting away, having a party. But too often the presenters cannot ask a question or listen to an answer.”
With that in mind, here is a look back at some of his most memorable celebrity encounters over the decades, not all of which went entirely according to plan.
Muhammad Ali (1974)
The second of Parkinson’s three matchups with the celebrated American pugilist was an astonishingly confrontational affair that made for gripping television.
While Muhammad Ali had been all charm and bravado on their first sit down in 1971, he had been politically radicalised after joining the Nation of Islam in the interim and cut a much less relaxed and breezy figure three years later.
“I’m not just a boxer,” Ali told Parkinson. “I can talk all week on millions of subjects and you do not have enough wisdom to corner me on television, you are too small mentally to tackle me on nothing I represent.”
The host’s father subsequently told his son that he should have stood up for himself and punched Ali, which, undoubtedly, would not have played out too well.
“The Greatest” would return to the show for a third time in 1981 in the grip of what proved to be Parkinson’s disease, a very moving spectacle that stood in stark contrast to his earlier feistiness and was only slightly offset by the decision to seat comedian Freddie Starr alongside him.
Sir Billy Connolly (1975)
The Glaswegian comic, affectionately known as the Big Yin, was one of Parkinson’s regularly returning guests over the years, making 14 appearances in total – his last on the penultimate Parkinson show – and always providing great value but it was his debut appearance that first made him a household name.
“I hope I can get away with this – it's a beauty!” the former shipyard welder said, reclining in a beige suit, before launching into a gleefully macabre anecdote about a Scotsman who murdered his wife and left her buried in a shallow grave with her rear sticking out of the ground for use as a place to park his bicycle.
The studio audience ate it up and a star was born.
Dame Helen Mirren (1975)
Far from the broadcaster’s finest hour, Parkinson’s disastrous encounter with the British actor, then an emerging talent, threatened to define his career at one stage.
It is certainly a cringeworthy experience to revisit, with the host pursuing an unpleasant line of questioning about whether Mirren’s “sexy” image threatened to compromise her credibility as a “serious actress” and making leery reference to her “physical attributes” and “equipment” after she appeared wearing a low-cut black dress and toying with an ornamental feather.
In no mood to humour his sexism, the future Dame Helen responded icily: “I’d like you to explain what you mean by my equipment.
“You mean my fingers? Come on, spit it out. Serious actresses can’t have big bosoms, is that what you mean?”
To the enormous credit of both parties, she returned to the show in 2006 while promoting her film The Queen to patch up their differences.
Parkinson told The Daily Telegraph in 2017: “That whole fuss was silly. You have to consider every situation according to the mood of the time, and at the time I didn’t cause a ripple. We had a row but nobody considered me unduly sexist. But now some people are making out it was like World War Three.”
Rod Hull and Emu (1976)
Parkinson being violently assaulted in his chair by the children’s puppet Emu instantly became an iconic moment in British television history.
“Those are the stories people talk about most. Being attacked by a bloody emu – what an epitaph,” he grinned in later years.
James Cagney (1981)
Speaking on Parkinson at 50, the former host revealed that his favourite ever encounter was with the legendary Hollywood actor James Cagney, star of The Public Enemy (1931), Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) and White Heat (1949).
Something of a recluse in his later years, assuming the world was no longer interested in his talents, Cagney warmed to the situation and made for an incredibly engaging guest.
“He summed up everything marvellous about my job. There I was, a movie fan who grew up watching my heroes at my local cinema in Yorkshire. And now I was interviewing them,” Parkinson remembered in 2021.
George Michael (1998)
Appearing in the wake of his arrest in Los Angeles for indecent exposure after propositioning an undercover policeman in a public restroom, which ultimately forced him to come out as gay, the former Wham! star was candid and honest about his sexuality and terrifically good-humoured about his recent ordeal.
He began by saying what an honour it was to be invited on to Parkinson having watched it ever since he was a child with his late mother, who, he said, would have been especially delighted.
“She probably wouldn’t have been quite as thrilled that I had to take my willy out to be on here,” he added with a wry grin.
Of the sting operation he had fallen victim to, he was equally droll, recounting: “I responded to, you know, a very handsome, tall, good-looking American cop. You know, they don’t send Columbo in there to do that.”
“It was a stupid moment and obviously I’ve suffered for it,” he added. “I was not in the best state of mind, and it was a kind of reckless thing to do.”
Victoria and David Beckham (2001)
Perhaps not a highwater mark for journalistic exclusives but great fun nonetheless, Parkinson invited Britain’s first couple onto the show, and unexpectedly got the Spice Girl to reveal that her pet nickname for her husband was “Golden Balls”, to David’s excruciating embarrassment.
“That’s one of those things I shouldn’t have said,” she joked.
Ali G (2002)
Unafraid to keep up or to play with fire, Parkinson invited Sacha Baron Cohen onto the show as his alter ego Ali G in 2002 to ask about life in the “ghettos of Berkshire”.
Wearing a tiger print tracksuit, a Trilby hat and plenty of bling, G claimed to have burgled Parkinson’s home and discovered a pornographic tape in the VCR. He spent time teaching him authentic Staines slang, and how to throw gang signs, and invited him out on a date with his grandma at the Bracknell branch of Harvester.
“I expect you to be a perfect gentleman,” he told the host. “Unfortunately, she don’t.”
Meg Ryan (2003)
In another car crash exchange, Parkinson interviewed Meg Ryan, formerly known as “America’s sweetheart” for her roles in classic romcoms like When Harry Met Sally (1989) and Sleepless in Seattle (1993), but at the time attempting to reinvent herself by starring in Jane Campion’s gritty erotic thriller In the Cut.
Clearly uncomfortable, Ryan gave clipped answers and was evasive when faced with the presenter’s increasingly impatient questioning on her attitude towards fame and stardom, eventually joking that she would wrap the interview up if she was in his shoes.
She later told Marie Claire that Parkinson had behaved “like a disapproving father”.
Remembering the clash in an interview with the Radio Times 18 years later, he confessed: “I wish I hadn’t lost my temper with Meg Ryan. I wish I’d dealt with it in a more courteous manner.
“I was quite obviously angry with her and it’s not my business to be angry towards the guests. I came across as kind of pompous and I could have done better.”
Asked what he would say to Ryan if he saw her again, Parkinson replied: “I’m sorry. But you must understand that you played a part in it too. Neither of us were on top form, and we were both discomfited.”
Joan Rivers (2007)
The great American comedian delivered one of the all-time masterpieces of black comedy when she appeared on the show, flanked by Sir Cliff Richard, and discussed the suicide of her husband and manager Edgar Rosenberg in 1987.
“It was just a very sad time,” she said. “My daughter wasn’t talking to me, my career was gone and I actually took out a gun. I had this little dog and – it sounds so… He crawled into my lap and I thought, ‘Somebody needs me.’”
Rivers paused, amid a deathly silence in the studio, before stroking the fur lapels of her jacket and proclaimed: “And here he is!”
Her bravery brought the house down.
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