Michael Parkinson, Famous for Interviewing the Famous, Dies at 88

Michael Parkinson, a broadcaster known throughout Britain for his interviews with hundreds of the world’s most famous actors, musicians, athletes and politicians — many of them conducted on his long-running BBC program, called simply “Parkinson” — has died. He was 88.

A statement his family issued to the BBC on Thursday said that “after a brief illness Sir Michael Parkinson passed away peacefully at home last night.” It did not give a location or a specific cause.

Mr. Parkinson started out in newspapers but soon became a fixture on British television, first on Granada Television and then, beginning in 1971, on “Parkinson” on the BBC. The first incarnation of that show lasted until 1982, and the BBC brought it back in 1998. The new show lasted until 2004 on the BBC, then moved to ITV for another three years.

On Thursday, social media and British newspapers were awash in tributes from those who had worked with or been interviewed by Mr. Parkinson, with many praising his ability to put his subjects at ease. Nick Robinson, another BBC broadcaster, said on social media that Mr. Parkinson was “the greatest interviewer of our age.”

Mr. Parkinson was sometimes compared to Johnny Carson, but though the two interviewed the same caliber of celebrities, Mr. Parkinson’s sit-downs were a different breed from the somewhat facile opportunities Mr. Carson gave a guest on “The Tonight Show” to plug a movie or album. He engaged his subjects in conversations that could be lengthy and pleasantly rambling.

“My aim as an interviewer was always to establish a ‘relationship’ and rapport with, a couple of exceptions aside, a person who is basically a stranger in even stranger surroundings,” Mr. Parkinson wrote in “Like Father, Like Son: A Family Story” (2020), one of his several books. “I achieved that, I believe, by being ‘reactive’ in my style of interviewing, in the sense that I always prepared as well and as diligently as I could, shaping the interview into an editorially linked and justified series of questions.

“I went into each encounter confident of my subject,” he continued, “which gave me license to listen carefully to the answers and judge the mood and demeanor of the guest in order to be ready to, as it were, go ‘off script.’”

“I believe some of my very best interviews have been when I have only asked perhaps one or two of my prepared questions,” he added, “and it has then developed into a natural free-flowing conversation.”

That didn’t always happen. His interview with the actress Meg Ryan in 2003 was a notorious disaster, with Ms. Ryan giving only curt answers.

“It was not just car-crash TV,” The Guardian wrote later, “it was a prime-time multiple pileup.”

The two later traded barbs in the press: Ms. Ryan called Mr. Parkinson a “nut,” and Mr. Parkinson responded that “to be called a nut by her is a compliment.”

Mr. Parkinson interviewed Muhammad Ali four times from 1971 to 1982. In one of those interviews, Ali grew angry with him.

“For 15 minutes, the nicest thing he called me was ‘honky,’” Mr. Parkinson, sitting in the interviewee seat for once, recalled decades later on “Friday Night With Jonathan Ross.”

“It’s one thing sitting next to a jockey who loses his temper with you,” he told Mr. Ross. “But when it’s the heavyweight champion of the world, and he weighs 16 and a half stone …”

Michael Parkinson was born on March 28, 1935, in Cudworth, about 50 miles east of Manchester. His father, Jack, was a miner who loved cricket and hoped Michael would become a star in that sport. His mother, Freda (Dawson) Parkinson, wanted to name him Gershwin after her favorite composer, he wrote in his autobiography, “Parky” (2008), and she also loved the movies and would take him to them four nights a week.

“I knew how a New York taxi driver spoke long before I knew how anyone in Manchester talked,” he said in a 2007 interview. “In the end, I got to interview the people I’d only ever seen before 30 feet high on a screen.”

Although he never made the professional ranks in cricket, as a youngster in Cudworth he was captain of his school team. He left school at 16 and became a reporter for The South Yorkshire Times; he later worked for The Manchester Guardian and The Daily Express in London.

His leap to television came via an unexpected phone call in the early 1960s from a man he had met at a conference. The man had become a producer at Granada Television, a relatively new outlet in northwest England, and he offered Mr. Parkinson a job as a producer.

“And I said, ‘I don’t know anything about television,’” he told Mr. Ross. “He said, ‘Nor do I.’”

At Granada he was soon doing on-air work, including hosting a show about the movies. Then, in 1971, the offer came from the BBC to host an interview show.

After the first incarnation of “Parkinson” went off the air in 1982, Mr. Parkinson joined with four other television personalities, including David Frost, to start TV-AM, a “breakfast television” enterprise, but it didn’t last.

Mr. Parkinson, though, continued to be a presence on various television and radio programs. His credibility was such that, in the 1992 Halloween season, when he was the presenter on a BBC spoof radio drama about a supposedly haunted house, alarmed viewers called police stations and newspapers.

“With Michael Parkinson presenting the thing, I believed it was real,” one woman told The Daily Mail of London.

Mr. Parkinson, interviewed afterward, invoked the name of a man he once interviewed who had pulled a similar stunt on the radio in 1938 with his “War of the Worlds” broadcast.

“If it does for my career what it did for Orson Welles’s career,” Mr. Parkinson said, “I shall be delighted.”

In 1959 Mr. Parkinson married Mary Heneghan, who survives him. His survivors also include three sons, Andrew, Nicholas and Michael.

Mr. Parkinson was knighted in 2008, an honor he said he never expected.

“I thought there was more chance of me turning into a Martian, really,” he said at the time.

He knew that one key to a good interview was knowing when to stop.

“In their prime, Billy Connolly, Peter Ustinov, David Attenborough and the like could and should, for the benefit of the common weal, have been interviewed nightly for at least an hour until they ran out of things to say, or more likely the interviewer reached retirement age,” he wrote in “Like Father, Like Son.”

“But most interviewers should heed the maxim of the late Conservative politician Lord Mancroft, whose advice, although he was specifically talking about making a speech, can easily be applied to the arena of an interview: ‘A speech is like a love affair — any fool can start one, but to end it requires considerable skill.’”


Exit mobile version