Michael Parkinson, the British chat show king who was confirmed dead on Thursday, will be remembered as one of the outstanding interviewers of his generation. During his show’s 36-year run across the BBC and ITV, Parkinson sat down with some of the biggest stars of our time, attracting acclaim and sometimes controversy. Scroll on for some of his most memorable moments.
Parkinson had three significant encounters with the greatest boxer of all time, the first of which took place in 1971. The interview, in which Ali reflected on his skill in front of the camera and in the ring, was organized before a time when publicists heavily policed celebrity talk show appearances. On hearing Ali was in the UK to promote a soft drink, Parkinson’s producer snagged the boxer on a trip to a bottling factory for a “news interview.” In reality, Parkinson and a studio audience were eagerly waiting.
Parkinson’s 1975 interview with a 30-year-old Helen Mirren stoked controversy for the presenter in later life after he was accused of sexism. During the awkward exchange, Parkinson repeatedly commented on her sex appeal, made references to her “equipment,” and said: “You are, in quotes, a ‘serious actress.’” Mirren replied: “What do you mean, ‘In quotes?’ How dare you.” Asked about the interview in 2016, Parkinson refused to apologize for his remarks. “There is no need to apologize, not at all. She didn’t want to do an interview and after about 10 minutes I didn’t want to interview her,” he said. “There’s no problem, it’s not World War III for God’s sake.” Mirren did appear again on the show.
David and Victoria Beckham
Britain’s most famous couple sat down with Parkinson at the height of their powers, during which Victoria revealed the nickname she uses for her husband: “Goldenballs.” It’s a moniker that was seized upon by the press and has stuck with David for the rest of his life.
Parkinson, who did not pull his punches, probed Meg Ryan on her dislike of being in the spotlight. “So why do it?” Parkinson asked. Ryan shifted awkwardly in her chair and Parkinson commented on her body language. “If you were me, what would you do now?” Parkinson asked. “Just wrap it up,” Ryan joked.
Rod Hull and Emu
An interview that is woven into the fabric of British television folklore. Parkinson’s 1976 encounter with Rod Hull featured the comedian’s feathered friend, Emu, getting to know his host. Cue chaos.
Parkinson invited Billy Connolly on his show in 1975 after a Glasgow taxi driver introduced him to the comedian’s work. Connolly seized his moment, telling a TV audience of millions his famous “dead wife” joke. “I never looked back from that moment,” Connolly later reflected.
Dolly Parton spoke candidly about her relationship with plastic surgery in 2001. “Were you always bunched up at the top,” Parkinson asked. “I’ve always had bigguns,” Parton replied. “I’ve had a little help lately… My husband said, ‘Let me see your boobs,’ and I had to pull my skirt up.”
Parkinson was granted a rare interview with Orson Welles in 1974. Chomping on a cigar, Welles reflected on politics and his craft, saying actors are “neither men nor women, actors belong to a third sex.”
The late George Michael said sitting next to Parkinson in 1998 was a “great honor” because he had fond childhood memories of watching the show with his mother. His appearance came after he was arrested in Beverly Hills for being caught in a “lewd act” in a public lavatory by an undercover police officer. Michael told Parkinson: “She [his mother] probably wouldn’t have been quite as thrilled that I had to take my willy out to get on here.”
In 1979, Steve Martin was on anarchic form, slashing Parkinson’s tie as he explained the difference between American and British comedians.