Billy Connolly reaches high in Dustin Hoffman’s ‘Quartet’

Starring opposite Maggie Smith pushed stand-up comedian Billy Connolly to do his best in a film about opera singers in a retirement home.
(KERRY BROWN, Weinstein Co.)

Billy Connolly may have been named the U.K.'s “most influential stand-up comedian of all time” this year, but at his core he’s the same banjo-playing welder who infused his Humblebums gigs with joke-telling. So when he was asked to play a role recently abandoned by Albert Finney and opposite Maggie Smith in Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut “Quartet,” it was only natural the 69-year-old Scot would feel some pangs of trepidation.

“I thought, ‘Oh, my God!’ I got a bit scared,” said Connolly of acting opposite such acclaimed talent. “But I made a movie with Judy Dench some time ago and I remembered how the greatness of her acting brought out the best in me. With people of that stature acting right next to you, you’ve got nowhere left to go than to act right back. You can’t stand waving your arms around like you’re in some kind of soap.”

Connolly does very little arm-waving, but he is the comic relief as the sweet letch Wilf in “Quartet,” which centers on a group of retired opera singers living in a retirement home reserved for accomplished musicians and the reuniting of a famous quartet (Smith and Connolly joined by Pauline Collins and Tom Courtenay).

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The film debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival and has received a warm embrace at subsequent confabs in London and San Sebastian, Spain. With the median actor age of the film hovering around 70, “Quartet,” which opens Dec. 28 and is based on Ronald Harwood’s stage play, follows the popular film “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” in chronicling life’s third act.

Or as Connolly likes to put it, “It teaches older people to stop being old.”

He elaborates, “There is so much life in these people [in the film], and I think a lot of people give up and start wearing old people’s clothes and stuff. You don’t need to. You can still go to Vivienne Westwood and get yourself something crazy.”

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Much of the life in the film comes from the score of retired musicians and accomplished stars Hoffman employed to serve as the other residents in the retirement home, including Grammy-winning opera singers and a former conductor of the London symphony. That decision not only fills the film with great music but also infused the set with an energy that comes from giving people a new beginning.

“They are all real musicians and no one had phoned them for 20 years,” said Connolly. “And there they are playing their hearts out and playing beautifully.”



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