In 2006 the Loch Ness monster, Robert Burns, Sean Connery, Robert the Bruce, and William Wallace were placed as the top five in a poll of UK adults looking for the most famous Scot. The person who was placed sixth was Robbie Coltrane.
I have only just finished a biographical piece following the death of an actor and then another one presents itself. The last one was for everybody’s favourite screen aunt or granny, Angela Lansbury. Today my evening was spoilt by the announcement that everybody’s favourite half giant groundskeeper had passed away. Robbie Coltrane had died in a hospital in Larbert, Scotland after being ill for a couple of years.
Anthony Robert McMillan OBE was born in Rutherglen, South Lanarkshire, Scotland in March 1950. His mother, Jean, was a teacher and pianist while his father, Iain, was a general practitioner. As well as being the local doctor, his father acted as a forensic police surgeon. Whether that might have helped in Robbie’s TV career is hard to say but he did enjoy reading his father’s reference books as a child.
Due to his coming from a middle class background his education took place in independent schools and colleges. He wasn’t content as a boarder, though, and later described his experiences there as deeply unhappy. This was despite him playing rugby for the First XV, was head of the school’s debating society, and won prizes for his art.
Later in life he turned his back on his conservative upbringing and was a member of Amnesty International, Greenpeace, the Labour Party, and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, He earned the nickname “Red Robbie” and called for the abolition of independent schools. His higher education started in the, very beautiful, Glasgow School of Art. When he arrived there he was teased for sounding like Prince Charles. After all, Prince (now king) Charles also went to school in Scotland.
While in the Glasgow School of Art, Robbie specialised in drawing, painting, and film. He also worked on losing his accent, presumably because he was fed up of being called Little Lord Fauntleroy by the other students. From GSA he went to Moray House College of Education, presumably to follow a teacher training course. The world of education didn’t get what would have been, I feel sure, an excellent teacher.
Treading The Boards
The early seventies saw developing an interest in the dramatic arts. His first known performance was at age twelve while he was attending Glenalmond College. He was fascinated by Marlon Brando and Orson Welles at the time. So it is interesting to speculate as to how his various rants from Henry V were actually delivered. Also interesting is whether any of his various rants were used when he appeared as Falstaff in Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 film version of Henry V.
It was when he turned to theatrical work that he adopted his professional name. He took his middle name and Coltrane in tribute to jazz saxophonist John Coltrane. He appeared in the premiere production of John Byrne’s The Slab Boys at the Travis Theatre, Edinburgh in 1978. He was also honing his comedy skills both as a stand up and as a comic actor.
In fact, to me, he started out as a stand up and comic actor. His early television appearance saw him at the heart of the new wave of comedy talent. Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Adrian Edmondson, Rik Mayall, Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, Emma Thompson, Alexei Sayle, Tracey Ullman, Ben Elton, Harry Enfield, Miriam Margolyes, Tony Slattery, John Sessions, and many, many more. Robbie Coltrane was right in the middle of it all for the first half of the eighties.
He regularly appeared in, wrote for, and, occasionally, directed episodes of The Comic Strip Presents, Alfresco, A Kick Up The Eighties, Laugh??? I Nearly Paid My License Fee, Saturday Live, Girls On Top, The Young Ones…these were all anarchic, cutting edge comedy sketch shows and sitcoms that were totally new. The new wave of, what was known as, “alternative” comedians were ripping up the old rule books and writing new ones; first in the London comedy clubs and now on TV. The effect was similar to that which Monty Python had had in the late sixties.
But, despite all that, his first appearance on British TV was on 23rd January 1979. Running from 1970 to 1984, the BBC broadcast an anthology drama series called Play For Today. Over three hundred modern plays were shown. Some of them led to TV series, others were re-edited and release in the cinema. I do remember the first one; The Long Distance Piano Player which starred frontman for The Kinks, Ray Davies. Coincidentally, the play that Robbie debuted in was called Waterloo Sunset.
So, alongside being all over our TVs came the inevitable, “blink and you’ll miss it” film appearances. His first appearance was in 1980’s Death Watch. This was actually quite an interesting shot which you can find on YouTube. Robbie is a limousine driver and has to find the woman who he is supposed to be driving. The seen is notable not only for Robbie’s acting but also impressive use of the Steadicam which was in its infancy.
His next appearance was in the 1980 film version of Flash Gordon. His contribution is over and done with by the five and a half minute mark and the first four are filled with the opening credits. His next film was a change in that his character had a name. Not Limousine Driver or Man At Airfield. This time he was Detective Fritz Langley. It wasn’t a brilliant film but he pulled off the American accent really well!
In 1985 he popped up in three quite different films. First he was Man in Bathroom in National Lampoon’s European Vacation. Then he was Detective Sergeant Troy in The Supergrass; a feature length spin off from the The Comic Strip Presents… cast and crew. His third offering was in a totally different venture. He played Leo McAskey in Defence Of The Realm; a radical change of direction and proof that Robbie Coltrane was not a one trick pony. From then on he started popping up in all manner of films!
Not Type Cast
American history in Revolution, art history in Caravaggio, crime romance in Mona Lisa, musicals in Absolute Beginners, satirical comedy in Eat The Rich. As they used to say, more strings on his bow that Yehudi Menuhin. To be honest though, he always seemed more at home in TV comedies and could be found in The Lenny Henry Show, Thompson, French And Saunders, and was the Spirit of Christmas in Blackadder’s Christmas Carol. He saw out the eighties as Falstaff in Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 film version of Henry V which I mentioned earlier.
He had a few clunkers though. Nuns On The Run had him reunited with his National Lampoon’s European Vacation cast mate, Eric Idle. This was after Michael Palin had a scheduling conflict which opened the door for Robbie. You’d have thought that, with those two, it would have been funnier. Maybe I don’t have the Catholic thing which you might need to find nuns funny.
Talking of things Catholic, the following year saw the release of The Pope Must Die. This had its fair share of controversy after the Catholic Herald, The Universe, and The Sun found out about and started making a fuss at a stage in development when the only thing that they could object to was the title. As result most advertising was for either The Pope Must… or The Pope Must Diet!
The early nineties saw Robbie Coltrane’s biggest TV success…Cracker. In this, Robbie played Dr. Edward “Fitz” Fitzgerald. An obese, foul mouthed, sarcastic, collection of addictions wrapped up in a cerebral and brilliant man; a genius in his field of criminal psychology. As Fitz puts it in one episode: “I drink too much, I smoke too much, I gamble too much. I am too much.” Cracker was taut, and compelling and still bears a rewatch.
Zukovsky, Valentin Zukovsky
Also around that time was when Robbie hit what could be argued was the big time; he got a Bond film! He played former KGB agent Valentin Zukovsky in GoldenEye. He and Bond have a little history but there’s no real bad blood between them. The character actually comes back in The World Is Not Enough and manages to save Bond’s life. You must have done something right for them to bring your character back.
It was the new millennium that saw the REALLY big, big time startup for Robbie Coltrane. I’m not referring to his appearance as Sgt Peter Godley opposite Johnny Depp in From Hell. Neither am I referring to his appearance in Frasier as one of Daphne’s brothers. 2001 was the year that the first Harry Potter film was released; Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone. He played Hagrid, the half giant groundskeeper of Hogwarts. As with Valentin Zukovsky, he was asked to return and appeared in all eight films in the franchise; Maggie Smith didn’t manage that!
Enter The Potterverse
Mind you, that’s hardly surprising given that when JK Rowling wrote the character, she was probably thinking of Robbie for the part should the films ever get made. When she was asked whom she would like to see in the role, she responded “Robbie Coltrane for Hagrid” in one quick breath. I have to admit, it is one of those castings that I can’t imagine going any other way.
Following the Harry Potter franchise Robbie turned mainly to voice and TV work. He had been getting progressively more and more ill. Osteoarthritis meant that he was in intense pain all the time. His last big starring role was in the mini series National Treasure. His last mainstream TV appearances were in a couple of episodes of the series Urban Myths where he appeared as his childhood hero, Orson Welles.
An Untimely End
His very last appearance was in the Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return to Hogwarts special that streamed via HBO. I thought he looked ill in that but just put it down to time’s winged chariot drawing near. He was a proud Scot who rejected the glitz and glamour of London or Los Angeles and lived in Stirlingshire until his untimely end. Dropping into local shops in and around Glasgow and just chatting with the people he met. He was a lovely and very talented man who was totally unaffected by stardom. He will be missed.
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Former teacher, lecturer, homelessness administrator, pharmacy dispenser now happily retired, happily married, and a very happy granddad. I live next to the Mersey but on the side Daniel Craig and Taron Egerton come from rather than the side the Beatles came from!