Michael Parkinson’s 10 most extraordinary interviews

Michael Parkinson versus Rod Hull and Emu
Michael Parkinson versus Rod Hull and Emu - PA

With the death of Michael Parkinson at age 88, television has lost one of its greatest ever interviewers. He reinvented the chat show with his boisterously raconteuring style. Sitting opposite Parkinson, celebrities knew they were in for a lively grilling – though Parkinson never made them feel they were being interrogated. He was also lively on his feet – useful when sparring with some of the greatest minds and fastest mouths of his time. Here are 10 essential Parky moments.

1. Orson Welles, 1971

Parkinson’s career was only beginning when he landed his first big guest. A charm offensive was required to lure the Citizen Kane director to the studio. Welles, Parkinson recalled, agreed to fly to London only “if we knocked the first two rows out of a jet so he could sleep on a mattress”.

The conversation was meandering – but to have Welles on air was a scoop. “We thought, if we can get Orson Welles, the rest will follow – bill it and they will come,” said Parkinson. “And we were right.”

2. Muhammad Ali, 1971

The world’s greatest interviewer and greatest boxer sparred on four occasions, though it is their first encounter, in 1971, that has gone down in the annals. Ali was as nimble in the TV studio as in the ring – and just as ruthless. Parkinson recalled Ali arriving in the mood for a fight and accompanied by an intimidating scrum of bodyguards from the Nation of Islam. Though later describing the boxer as “the most extraordinary man I have met”, he had to call on his verbal dexterity to hold his own in a full-blooded back-and-forth.

Ali spoke powerfully about the campaign for African-American rights and his part in that struggle. “I’m not involved in a power struggle between black and white,” he said. “I’m not trying to get power over white. I’m involved in a freedom struggle. Not a power struggle. We’re not trying to take power away or rule anybody – we’re just trying to get up from under the rulers.”

Later encounters between the two were more laid back. At one point, Ali took pity on Parkinson as the host tried to go toe-to-toe with his charismatic guest. “You think it’s easy?” the boxer asked the audience. “Come take his position – you’ll find out that I’m a witty person, and it’s kinda hard to talk to a man like me.”

3. John Lennon and Yoko Ono, 1971

A year after the Beatles broke up, John and Yoko agreed to parlay with Parky – on the proviso there were no questions about the Fab Four. If Parkinson “went there”, Lennon decreed, the host would have to wear a bag over his head for the rest of the interview. Parkinson agreed – and ensured a sack was on hand. But Lennon was at his most animated when defending Yoko Ono, already blamed for his split with Paul McCartney. “The British press called Yoko ugly in the papers. I’ve never seen that about any woman or man… She’s not ugly. Even if she was, they wouldn’t be so mean…”

4. Les Dawson, 1974

“Let’s talk about you fairly seriously, Mr Dawson, as a comedian,” said Parkinson at the start of his  interview with the stand-up legend. Dawson ignored the “serious” bit and fired off gags throughout his 15 minutes opposite Parkinson. But he also spoke about the challenges of being a stand-up, explaining his combative style had originated in a bruising encounter at a working man’s club in Hull.

“How can you analyse what is funny?” wondered Dawson at the end of the conversation. “If something happens to you personally and it’s tragic to you, other people will sympathise, but it’s your problem. The same with humour – what is funny to you is a personal thing.”

5. Billy Connolly, 1975

Parkinson booked the then-obscure Glasgow comedian after a taxi driver recommended Connolly as a guest. It was a moment when a superstar was born in real-time. One of Parkinson’s great gifts as an interview was knowing when to stay schtum and surrender the spotlight to his guest. He did so with Connolly, who told a hilarious joke involving an unusual parking arrangement for a bicycle. He brought down the house – and Parkinson with it. It confirmed that Parkinson’s show was a place stars were made – and that was never truer than in the case of Connolly.

6. Rod Hull and Emu, 1976

The Seventies were a different time – as proved by the superstar status enjoyed by puppeteer Rod Hull and his aggressive, non-verbal companion Emu. The gag was that Hull could not control the bird – and for years, the joke never wore thin. It impressed Parkinson, who couldn’t stop laughing as Emu terrorised him with aplomb.

“Just let Mr Parkinson give you a little stroke,” said Hull. Parson patted the bird, who proceeded to rip up the host’s prepared questions and then attack the table.

7. Robert de Niro, 1981

The Taxi Driver and Mean Streets star cut an enigmatic figure when he appeared on Parkinson to promote Raging Bull. Thoughtful and softly spoken, he unpacked for Parkinson his extreme approach to acting – which, in the case of Raging Bull, had involved packing on the pounds to play boxer Jake LaMotta late in life.

“Some actors work cerebrally, some work physically. I like to work physically. Putting on certain clothes can give you a feeling of another character – which it does to actual people, who are characters. It helps them identify with the role they want to play in life – be that be a businessman or whatever.”

8. David and Victoria Beckham, 2001

Parkinson landed a big scoop when Victoria Beckham revealed that her nickname for her superstar husband was “Golden Balls”. It was one of many notable Parkinson encounters with footballing royalty. In the Seventies, he had interviewed the troubled George Best several times and later said they had become “best friends”.

9. David Bowie and Tom Hanks, 2002

Is there a more unlikely duo than the Thin White Duke and the star of Big and Forrest Gump? But they made for a cuddly twosome opposite Parkinson. Hanks had his early success in comedy – but it was Bowie who cracked up Parky with a hilarious impression of his old pal, Mick Jagger, as he recalled seeing the Stones for the first time in 1963. “It was priceless, I’d never seen anything so rebellious in my life,” said Bowie. “I thought, “Oh my God, this is the future of music!””

10. Meg Ryan, 2003

Not every star fell for Parkinson’s charms. One of his more painful interviews was with movie star Meg Ryan. Grumpy from the outset, she disagreed with his claim that her new film, In the Cut, was rather bleak. “That’s so not how I think of it, and I so don’t think you’re right!” Ryan explained: “It always feels very awkward to me to be in the spotlight.”

“So why do it?” Parkinson wondered. Ryan shrugged. “I don’t know… Maybe you can help me out.” Parkinson sighed: “If you were me, what would you do now?” Ryan stared him in the eye: “I’d just wrap it up.”