LONDON – Michael Parkinson, the renowned British broadcaster who interviewed some of the world's most famous celebrities of the 20th century from Muhammad Ali to Miss Piggy, has died. He was 88.
His family said in a statement to the BBC on Thursday that Parkinson died “peacefully at home last night" after a brief illness.
After training and working as a journalist, Parkinson got his big television break in 1971 when the BBC offered him his own eponymous talk show.
Hosting “Parkinson” over three spells through to 2007, he earned his status as Britain's talk show king by putting his guests at ease, drawing out insights others could not. Flirty, funny and serious by turns, he would spar with his guests, rather than seeking anecdotes, although those were welcome when they came.
Over four animated interviews with the great heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali, Parkinson knew he had met his match.
“I’m not going to argue with you,” Parky told him during one animated discussion.
“You’re not as dumb as you look,” Ali replied.
Born in the coalmining village of Cudworth, near the town of Barnsley, in northern England, Parkinson could have easily become a miner just like his father. But he had other aspirations, not least playing for Yorkshire County Cricket Club. When that dream was dashed, he left school at 16 and began working at a local paper, later joining the Manchester Guardian and then the Daily Express.
That journalistic pedigree stood him in good stead when he moved to television, first at regional channels Granada and Thames Television, and then at the BBC, where the first stint of his talk show ran from 1971 until 1982. In 1998, the show was revived on the BBC and proved an instant hit, switching to commercial rival ITV in 2004 until it ended three years later.
“Michael was the king of the chat show and he defined the format for all the presenters and shows that followed," BBC director general Tim Davie said. “He interviewed the biggest stars of the 20th century and did so in a way that enthralled the public."
In the course of some 2,000 interviews, he met some of the most accomplished actors from Hollywood's golden age, including Fred Astaire, Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Jimmy Cagney Bing Crosby and Orson Welles. He also interviewed musical greats including David Bowie, John Lennon and Paul McCartney and sporting legends such as George Best.
Politicians also featured strongly, including Tony Blair in 2006, the first time Parkinson interviewed a sitting prime minister. During that interview, Blair said God would judge him over his decision to back the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq three years previously.
Parkinson didn't just interview humans, even after being terrorized by a puppet emu in 1976. Two years later, he confessed he was “madly in love” with Miss Piggy, and the pair cuddled up together, much to Kermit the Frog’s apparent discomfort.
“What’s it like being a sex symbol?," he asked her.
“It’s a deep responsibility to be a taste-setter in fashion, to be a sex symbol and to be a pig superstar,” she replied.
Not all his interviews went smoothly. His 2003 encounter with actor Meg Ryan was arguably his frostiest, after she took offense at a question about her risque film “In the Cut.” When Parkinson asked in desperation what she would do if she were conducting the interview, she snapped: “Wrap it up.” He later called her “an unhappy woman,” while Ryan called him a “nut.” In 2021, Parkinson apologized.
He brought down the curtain on more than 30 years of his chat show with a final show that featured, among others, soccer player David Beckham, actors Michael Caine and Judi Dench, and naturalist David Attenborough.
“Over the years it has been a privilege to meet some of the most intelligent and interesting people," he said on his final show. "It has always been a great joy and I shall miss it.”
Parkinson was knighted by the late Queen Elizabeth II in 2008 and said of the accolade, “I never expected to be knighted — I thought there was more chance of me turning into a Martian, really.”
In 2013, he spoke openly about being diagnosed with prostate cancer after a routine health check.
He had three sons with his wife Mary, whom he married in 1959.