Parkinson and company... the favourite guests from four decades with the stars

In his newly-published book Parky's People, Michael Parkinson looks back on 100 of his most famous chat show guests. Here we publish extracts from five of Sir Michael's favourite interviews.

John Wayne (1974)

John Wayne was weary from ill-health and jet lag when he appeared at the top of the stairs, but he still looked like a star. When he ambled towards me I saw the sheriff about to make an arrest.

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No one represented the Wild West, the American frontier spirit, better than JW Wayne. The political side of Wayne was more controversial. He was president of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, an organisation aimed at defending Hollywood from communist infiltration. He didn't much like being questioned about the part he played in the blacklisting of Hollywood talent.

MP: Can I talk to you now about another much-publicised aspect of your life, which is the political views you hold. I'd like to ask you about that period in Hollywood when you were to the forefront of people who were blacklisting alleged communist members of the industry.

JW: That's not a true statement, we were not blacklisting.

MP: Well you were…

JW: No, they were blacklisting, we didn't name anybody. We stayed completely out of it and said: "We are Americans." Anybody who wanted to join us, it was fine. We gave no names out to anybody at any time, ever.

MP: But when you look back at that now, John, are you proud of what happened in Hollywood at that time?

JW: I think it was probably a very necessary thing at the time because the radical liberals were going to take over our business and you wouldn't have had any pictures like that then.

MP: But seriously, were they in a position, the people who got kicked out of Hollywood…

JW: Who were kicked out?

MP: The people…

JW: No wait a minute, tell me who was kicked out?

MP: Let's take for an example Carl Foreman.

JW: Yeah, Carl Foreman.

MP: There was Dalton Trumbo.

JW: Carl Foreman, Dalton Trumbo.

MP: Look what happened to Larry Parks.

JW: About Larry Parks, he admitted he'd been a commie and he went on working.

MP: He didn't work for some time, he'd had a very unpleasant…

JW: He hadn't worked a hell of lot before that had he?

MP: Well no, but these aren't people who you would expect to take over the industry?

JW: At the time, it seemed rather serious, and they were getting themselves into a position where they could control who would do the writing.

MP: But isn't it right that people of all shades of opinion should be able to make movies, if they're from the extreme right wing or extreme left wing?

JW: Definitely, anytime, if that's their opinion. But the trouble was that they were spouting by rote somebody else's way of life, and that's all right for those fellas over there, that's the way they want to live, but we don't have to have it in our country.

MP: But you could say your point of view was reflecting the capitalist way of life, the American way of life.

JW: Well, I don't think "capitalist" is such an unpopular word. In 200 years we've taken a wilderness and built a factory that feeds the world, a farm that feeds the world. And we've been doing our best to help everybody out that we can. I think it's a pretty good way of living.

Muhammad Ali (1971)

I first encountered Ali in 1971 and I have little doubt the hour-long interview did more than any other to establish the reputation of the show. He had great physical beauty and grace as well as a wonderful sense of the absurd. I didn't know then I was to chart both his rise and sad decline in three more encounters. The man I met again in 1974 had jettisoned some of his charm. At the time he was world champion, having just spectacularly beaten George Foreman in Zaire. He was angry but invincible.

Our last meeting was in 1981 and signalled an end to a career without parallel in any sport you care to mention. He brayed at the moon and we all listened. I cannot watch our final interview without feeling both sad and angry. Sad because the man who had truly been the greatest could be so betrayed by the sport he loved, and his life would become a misery. Angry because people who should have known better let it happen.

I'm not just a boxer. I do a lot of reading, a lot of studying, I ask questions, I go out travelling to these countries and watch how their people live and I learn. And I always asked my mother, "Say mother, how come is everything white?" I'd say, "Why is Jesus white with blond hair and blue eyes?" I said, "Mother, when we die, do we go to heaven?" She said naturally we go to heaven. I said, "Well, what happened to all the black angels? They took the pictures?"...And this was when I knew something was wrong.

I won the Olympic gold medal in Rome, Italy. The flag is going up, and I'd have whupped the world for America! I took my gold medal, thought I'd invented something. I said, "Man, I know I'm gonna get my people's freedom. I'm the champion of the whole world, Olympic champion. I know I can eat downtown now." I had my big old medal on, and in the restaurants at that time, black folks couldn't eat downtown. And I went downtown, I sat down, and I said, "A cup of coffee, and a hot dog." The lady said, "We don't serve negroes." I was so mad I said, "I don't eat 'em either, just give me a cup of coffee and a hot dog!" I said, "I'm the Olympic gold medal winner. Three days ago I fought for this country in Rome, I won the gold medal, and I'm gonna eat." I heard her telling the manager. Anyway, I didn't raise nothing, they put me out. And I had to leave that restaurant in my home town where I went to church and served in their Christianity and fought in all the wars. I'd just won a gold medal and couldn't eat downtown. I said, "Something's wrong." And from then on I've been a Muslim.

Dame Judi Dench (2002)

Dame Judi was once asked if there was any award left for her to win. "There's still Cruft's," she said, which explains the soft spot I have for our greatest actress. She also confessed she couldn't bear to see herself on screen because she imagined she was tall and glamorous, and she didn't like what she saw. She might not be six foot tall but I think she is beautiful, and empathic as well, with a ribald sense of humour. But then I'm biased. She sang Thanks for the Memory to me on my last show, a serenade that sent me into retirement a happy man.

My brother always wanted to be an actor and I trained as a theatre designer. That's all I wanted to be, really. I was much encouraged by my father and mother, who were not anything to do with the business. My father was an amateur actor and a doctor, and my ma joined in as well – made a lot of costumes.

My best memory of my father, and the best way I could sum him up, would be that he was an ordinary GP. I used to go with him in the car sometimes when he was visiting patients, and he would turn into a road and the children would come and hold on to the car and run with him. He was a family doctor par excellence. My parents were wonderfully supportive of both my brother and me. When I played Juliet for Zeffirelli – his very first production he ever did before films – in Romeo and Juliet at the Old Vic in 1960, and came to the line, "Where are my father and my mother, nurse?" my father, a very sane, calm man, said loudly to at least 12 people around him, "Here we are darling, in row H."

Jonathan Miller (1972)

Jonathan Miller appeared on the show nine times, which didn't come anywhere near accommodating the many people he is. However, I did manage to interview the doctor who became a comedian, the neuropsychologist who directed opera, the film critic and documentary film maker who, late in life, became a sculptor. My favourite Miller was the humourist. Generally speaking, we have not made the most of Jonathan Miller... One of my very favourite guests and a most endearing man.

I had a stammer as a child, but it got troublesome, as it does now, only when I'm anxious or ill-at-ease.

It always got troublesome on trains or on buses, having to ask for my fare. The awful thing about stammering is that you never quite know which consonants are going to be the fatal ones. You think you've got it all taped – avoid "t"s and "d"s today – and then suddenly you find you're tripping up over an "m". I remember having a very bad time with initial "m"s and I would make the sound tube trains make when they're waiting – "Mmmm". Once, I was travelling to Marble Arch and I could see the conductor coming down the corridor and I knew I would have to say "Mmmm…" and as often happens with stammering, a fantastic act of creation took place. I said: "One to the arch that is made of marble, please."

I used to be given extra fare money by my parents for the days I'd find that the only station I could possibly say was somewhere like Wembley Park, and I'd need the money to cover these gigantic journeys out into Hertfordshire. At school, I had a friend who also had a stammer, and there were terrible moments in roll calls when I would stammer over my name but I could say his, and vice-versa, so we would simply swap identities for the purpose of the roll call.

Jacob Bronowski (1974)

If I could save one interview from the thousands I have done, it would be the one-guest show with Professor Jacob Bronowski in 1974. He was a scientist who visited Nagasaki to assess the effect of the dropping of the atomic bomb. What he saw there and at Hiroshima caused him to change his direction of scientific study to biology. What he witnessed haunted him and eventually led to The Ascent of Man for the BBC, regarded by some as one of the greatest documentary series of all time. This is my favourite interview because, for 75 minutes or more, a diminutive intellectual gave a masterclass in the art of communication.

I was convinced in 1933 that if the German people had known my fellow scientists, had known the people I loved and admired, such as Einstein, Max Born, Niels Bohr and a hundred others, had known them as I knew them with their wonderful warm humanity, they could never have been deceived by a cold, brutal, monomaniac like Hitler, and learnt to hate them as if they were vermin.

And I was convinced at that moment that those of us who could had a duty to show not only that science was wonderful, but that science was human, that scientists had some right to say that they were doing the most human things in the world, the most natural things, and that we must stop being professionals and become people.

But then, of course, I was even more shocked to find in 1945 that we had invented a means of re-establishing a distance between the technician and his victim, by making these terrible bombs – a man sits in a plane, or nowadays he sits in an underground silo, and he presses a button that says, "Hey presto!" and he goes on munching his sandwich out of his brown paper bag while in Nagasaki 40,000 people and in Hiroshima 80,000 people die in less than a second. So my life has been much shaped by the fact that I have thought that my first moral duty was to make people warm and real about science and make science about people.

Einstein said at the end of his life, "If I had known the Germans were nowhere near making a bomb, I wouldn't have lifted a finger." On the knowledge that we had in 1933, I am convinced that when 1939 came, we had to make bombs. That wasn't wrong. But with the knowledge we had, I'm equally convinced that in 1945 it was a crime to drop the bombs merely because we'd made them.

Hear Michael Parkinson interviewed

Parky's People is published by Hodder and Stoughton, 20. To order a copy from the Yorkshire Post Bookshop, call free on 0800 0153232 or go online at P&P is 2.75.