From Muhammad Ali to Helen Mirren: Michael Parkinson’s top interviewees

To untold millions he was simply Parky – a genial TV host seemingly happy to play second fiddle as the world’s biggest stars were beamed into the nation’s living rooms.

But the secret of the success of Sir Michael Parkinson, who has died aged 88, was that his casual manner tempted his A-list guests into producing some of television’s most memorable moments – and quotes – over the last half-century.

We have rounded up some of Parky’s most famous and infamous interviewees, starting of course with his top sparring partner – another who was known as The Greatest in his chosen profession.

Muhammad Ali

Sir Michael said: “When people ask me who I most enjoyed interviewing, I’m unable to give them an answer.

“If they ask me who was the most remarkable man I ever met, I answer without hesitation: Muhammad Ali.

“I interviewed him four times – I lost on every occasion.”

The verbal jousts of Parky and the world heavyweight champ provided some of the Parkinson show’s most iconic encounters as millions of extra viewers tuned in.

Sir Michael told Ali during one animated discussion: “I’m not going to argue with you” – to which the boxing legend hit back: “You’re not as dumb as you look.”

READ MORE: BBC announces schedule shake-up after Sir Michael Parkinson’s death

Sir Billy Connolly (1975)

The Scottish comedian was almost unknown outside the club circuit when Parky gave him his big break in 1975.

Billy – reportedly recommended to the host by a cabbie – had the studio audience in stitches with a string of risque gags and the appearance made him a big star overnight.

The now 80-year-old went on to appear on the show more than any other guest.

Rod Hull and Emu (1976)

Parky would often joke that his career would always be remembered for “that bloody bird”.

The puppet sidekick of comedian Rod Hull playfully and forcefully attacked the presenter, knocking him off his chair and wrestling him to the ground.

The clip has been repeated on TV countless times over the years.

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Kermit and Miss Piggy (1978)

The host had better luck with his next puppet interviewee.

In a comical exchange Parky confessed he was “madly in love” with Miss Piggy, and the pair cuddled up together – much to Kermit’s apparent discomfort.

At one point, Sir Michael asked Miss Piggy: “What’s it like being a sex symbol? She purred: “It’s a deep responsibility to be a taste-setter in fashion, to be a sex symbol and to be a pig superstar.”

Sir Paul McCartney (1999)

Macca fulfilled a 25-year-old promise when he finally appeared on Parkinson.

The TV presenter had agreed to be pictured with five other celebrities on the cover of the 1974 Wings album Band On The Run – if the former Beatle returned the favour by being a guest on his chat show.

Sir Paul said: “I owed him one. It’s been a long time coming but this is it.”

Landing the interview was a huge coup – it was McCartney’s first major TV appearance since the death of his wife Linda at 56 the previous year.

Meg Ryan (2003)

The US actress was Parkinson’s most frosty guest.

She took offence at his questions about her thriller film In The Cut and sat stony-faced, giving one-word answers and ignoring fellow guests Trinny and Susannah.

When Parky asked in desperation what she would do if she were conducting the interview, Ryan snapped: “Wrap it up.”

He later called her an “unhappy woman”, while Ryan called him a “nut” and said he had spoken to her “like a disapproving dad”.

However, in 2021 Sir Michael went on to apologise to When Harry Met Sally star Ryan, who is now 61, over their infamous studio encounter.

Speaking to Radio Times, he said: “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, he added: “‘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 discomforted.”

Dame Helen Mirren (1975)

Parky was accused of being sexist in his interview with The Queen actress.

The broadcaster introduced her as the “sex queen” of the Royal Shakespeare Company, quoting a critic’s description of her as projecting “sluttish eroticism”.

In the awkward exchange, he repeatedly referred to her sex appeal and said: “You are, in quotes, a ‘serious actress.’” To which Dame Helen, then 30, said: “What do you mean ‘In quotes?’ How dare you?”

He asked: “Do you find your equipment hinders you in that pursuit?” And she retorted: “I’d like you to explain what you mean by my equipment.”

Parky also queried if serious actresses can have “big bosoms”. She called him a “sexist old fart” and said the chat was “enraging”.

Speaking on Piers Morgan’s Life Stories in 2019, Parky said of the encounter: “I feel it’s of its time, and of its time it’s embarrassing. It was over the top, absolutely so.”

When Morgan suggested the comments were sexist, he replied: “Well, maybe. But nobody got hurt, nobody died.”

David Beckham

When Parky interviewed the football star, his Spice Girl wife Victoria revealed she called the England hero “Golden Balls”, adding: “That’s one of those things I shouldn’t have said.” The nickname stuck.

George Michael

The Wham! singer said sitting next to Parky in 1998 was a “great honour” as he had fond childhood memories of watching the show with his mum. His appearance came after he was arrested in Beverly Hills for a “lewd act” in a public toilet.

Michael told Parky his mother “probably wouldn’t have been quite as thrilled that I had to take my willy out to get on here”.

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