Robbie Coltrane obituary: Blackadder, Cracker and Harry Potter star

Scottish actor Robbie Coltrane was a fixture in British film and TV, leaving an indelible mark in comedy, drama and fantasy alike.

18 October 2022

By David Parkinson

Cracker (1993 to 1996)

In 2006, Robbie Coltrane came sixth in a poll commissioned by Crabbies Green Ginger Wine to find the “most famous Scot”. The actor, who has died at the age of 72, was beaten only by the Loch Ness Monster, Robert Burns, Sean Connery, Robert the Bruce and William Wallace. It may not have been the most scientific of surveys, but Coltrane certainly made his mark: his career was studded with totemic roles that couldn’t have been more different and which couldn’t have been played by anyone else.

Born Anthony Robert McMillan in Rutherglen on 30 March 1950, Coltrane took his stage name from the jazz saxophonist John Coltrane. His father was a doctor and forensic police surgeon, while his mother was a teacher. He attended Glenalmond College, where he excelled at rugby, debating and art. However, he was so dismayed by his inability to commit his vision to canvas that he turned to standup on leaving Glasgow School of Art in 1972. His fortunes were transformed, however, by his performance in the Traverse Theatre production of John Byrne’s The Slab Boys (1978), about a carpet factory in 1950s Glasgow.

Coltrane raised his profile in such alternative sketch shows as Alfresco (1983 to 1984), A Kick up the 80s, and Laugh??? I Nearly Paid My Licence Fee (both 1984). He also guested on The Young Ones (1982 to 1984) and racked up 19 appearances on The Comic Strip Presents… (1982 to 2012), notably playing Charles Bronson essaying Ken Livingstone in the 1990 episode ‘GLC: The Carnage Continues’. Another highlight was his verbose Dr Johnson in Blackadder the Third (1987), a role he reprised alongside John Sessions in Boswell & Johnson’s Tour of the Western Isles (1993).

Having debuted as Romy Schneider’s chauffeur in Bertrand Tavernier’s Death Watch (1980), Coltrane also amassed feature credits in such notable pictures as Flash Gordon (1980), Krull (1983), Defence of the Realm (1985), Caravaggio, Absolute Beginners, Mona Lisa (all 1986) and The Fruit Machine (1988). But he made such an impact opposite Emma Thompson as would-be rocker Danny McGlone in Byrne’s six-parter, Tutti Frutti (1987), for which he received a BAFTA nomination, that he started combining comic and dramatic roles. 

He reunited with Thompson as Sir John Falstaff in Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V (1989) and it’s regrettable that he didn’t return to a role he seemed ideal to play, if only for his bulk and fabled bluffness and bonhomie. Similarly, he only made a single excursion into the equally beckoning Dickens country, as Jaggers in Mike Newell’s Great Expectations (2012). Instead, he took undemanding leads in mainstream comedies like Nuns on the Run (1990) and The Pope Must Die (1991), although indie director Amos Poe cast him in Subway Riders (1981), Triple Bogey on a Par Five Hole (1991) and Frogs for Snakes (1998).

Once again, however, it was television that provided Coltrane with a choice role. Creator Jimmy McGovern had envisaged Robert Lindsay as Dr Edward Fitzgerald, the Manchester-based criminal psychologist in Cracker (1993 to 1996). But Coltrane possessed the formidable physicality, fierce wit and tendency to excess that made him the perfect fit for Fitz, the heavy-drinking, compulsive-gambling and sadistic misogynist whose intuitive insights into human nature enabled him to deduce why suspects committed crimes. Channelling some of his own contradictions into the character, Coltrane completed a BAFTA hat-trick.

Back on the big screen, Coltrane was cannily cast as KGB agent-turned-mobster Valentin Zukovsky opposite Pierce Brosnan’s James Bond in GoldenEye (1995) and The World Is Not Enough (1999). Success took its toll, however, with Coltrane’s 1999 marriage to sculptor Rhona Gemmell lasting only four years, as he battled what friend John Sessions called “a deep, driving melancholy” and “a strong self-destructive streak”. 

He remained in demand in films as diverse as From Hell (2001) and Ocean’s Twelve (2004) to Provoked and Stormbreaker (both 2006), in which the once-dubbed ‘Red Rabb’ played the prime minister. His distinctive burr also made him a natural for voicework in Van Helsing (2004), The Tale of Despereaux (2008), Gooby, The Gruffalo (both 2009) and Brave (2012). By this time, however, Coltrane had secured another iconic role, which endeared him to a younger audience.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001)

Author J.K. Rowling had no doubt who she wanted to play Rubeus Hagrid, the Keeper of Keys and Grounds at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Having been taunted for his weight at school, Coltrane could identify with the half-giant who had difficulty fitting in. Having delivered the  seminal line, “You’re a wizard, Harry,” in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001), he offered Harry, Ron and Hermione imposing empathy for the remainder of the eight-film series.

Coltrane revelled in playing such a decent, trustworthy and lumberingly vulnerable character. Yet he went to opposite extremes in swapping dutiful devotion and gentle consideration for egotistical entitlement and damaged defensiveness in National Treasure (2016), for which he received another BAFTA nomination as Paul Finchley, a beloved comedian and quiz show host who is accused of historic sexual abuse. Sadly, osteoarthritis latterly limited Coltrane to a small part in Emma Thompson’s Effie Gray (2014) and a couple of turns as Orson Welles in Sky’s Urban Myths (2019 to 2020). But his legacy was already secure and it will long endure. 

  • Robbie Coltrane, 30 March 1950 to 14 October 2022
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