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Coltrane, Robbie (1950-)

Actor, Writer

Main image of Coltrane, Robbie (1950-)

His imposing build - 6'1" and heavy with it - might perhaps have limited his choice of parts over the years, but Robbie Coltrane has shown himself to be among the most versatile of the generation of performers who came to prominence with the alternative comedy boom of the early 1980s. With the exception of Hugh Laurie, none of his contemporaries has so successfully made the leap into 'straight' roles and Hollywood favour.

Born Anthony Robert McMillan in Rutherglen, Glasgow on 30 March 1950, the son of cultured Scottish Calvinists, at the age of 23 he won a Scottish Education Council award for a documentary about mental health. During his twenties he became involved with a number of theatre companies, including John Byrne's Traverse Theatre, while at the same time developing his skills in improvisational comedy and stand-up. His earliest screen work further demonstrates the diversity of work that has characterised his career since - he made his television debut in the Play for Today 'Waterloo Sunset' (BBC, tx. 23/1/1979), in the same year as his appearances in Bertrand Tavernier's Glasgow-set sci-fi La Mort en direct (France/W. Germany) and the comic short Balham: Gateway to the South (d. Mickey Dolenz), from an idea by Peter Sellers.

He began his lengthy association with The Comic Strip Presents... (Channel 4, 1982-88; 1998-2000; BBC, 1990-93) team with 'Five Go Mad in Dorset' (tx. 11/2/1982). He would grace a further fifteen editions of the series, including one as writer/director ('Jealousy', BBC, tx. 27/5/1993), though most memorable was his appearance as Charles Bronson playing Ken Livingstone in a delirious cod-Hollywood retelling of the demise of the Greater London Council, 'GLC: The Carnage Continues' (tx. 15/2/1988). During the 1980s, he was in and out of all manner of alternative comedy vehicles, joining Ben Elton, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie and Emma Thompson in Granada's Alfresco (ITV, 1983-84); replacing Richard Stilgoe as host of A Kick Up the Eighties (BBC, 1981; 1984), and remaining for its successor, Laugh? I Nearly Paid My Licence Fee (BBC, 1984); making guest appearances in Blackadder (BBC, 1983-89) and Girls on Top (ITV, 1985-86), and turning up in Comic Strip associate Peter Richardson's two big screen outings of the decade - The Supergrass (1985) and the shambolic Eat the Rich (1987).

Meanwhile, he maintained his parallel identity as a serious actor with small roles in Lindsay Anderson's Britannia Hospital and Mai Zetterling's Scrubbers (both 1982); as a cynical hack in Defence of the Realm (d. David Drury, 1985); as Bob Hoskins' mechanic friend in Mona Lisa (d. Neil Jordan, 1986); almost typecast as Falstaff in Branagh's Henry V (1989). Alongside this relatively mainstream fare were several parts in more underground or experimental work: Subway Riders (US, d. Amos Poe, 1981); Ghost Dance (UK, W. Germany, d. Ken McMullan, 1983); Chinese Boxes (d. Chris Petit, 1984); as a Cardinal in Derek Jarman's Carravaggio (1986; the first of a surprising number of Catholic roles).

1987 reunited him with John Byrne and brought his most high profile role to date, as the chaotic rock'n'roller Danny McGlone in the beautifully-observed, tragicomic Tutti-Frutti (BBC), playing opposite his Alfresco co-star Emma Thompson. Coltrane's performance revealed a surprising tenderness that marked the big singer out from his boorish, self-destructive fellow musicians.

Following a one-off comedy showcase, The Robbie Coltrane Special (ITV, tx. 16/9/1989), he staked a further claim for virtuosity with the one-man show Mistero Buffo, Dario Fo's satire of the Passion stories, which toured Scottish theatres in early 1990, in a performance that was subsequently broadcast on BBC2 (1990). Around the same time, he opted for rather broader comedy - with another Catholic spin - with the hit films Nuns on the Run (d. Jonathan Lynn, 1990) and The Pope Must Die (d. Peter Richardson, 1991), which both enhanced his international recognition.

Despite his many serious roles, it wasn't until Cracker (ITV, 1993-97) that he was finally acknowledged by the mainstream as a 'proper' actor. As the serially-flawed psychologist-detective, Fitz (another Catholic, albeit very lapsed), Coltrane was stunning, convincingly evoking the character's ferocious intelligence, arrogance and appetite for self-destruction while allowing enough wit and humanity to shine through to render him (mostly) likeable. The result - with credit also due to the powerful writing of creator Jimmy McGovern - was one of television's most intriguing characters.

Since Cracker, his status has risen to near-stellar level, with film appearances including two Bond films - Goldeneye (d. Martin Campbell, 1995) and The World is Not Enough (d. Michael Apted, 1999) - and the phenomenally successful series kickstarted by Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (d. Chris Columbus, 2001), as the warm-hearted giant Rubeus Hagrid, in a role he says his children demanded he accept. In 2005, rumours of a return of Cracker were confirmed by ITV, with McGovern and Coltrane reunited for what the writer described as "a modern, post-9/11 story".

Mark Duguid

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Britannia Hospital (1982)Britannia Hospital (1982)

Lindsay Anderson's unhinged satire of Thatcher's Britain

Thumbnail image of Caravaggio (1986)Caravaggio (1986)

Derek Jarman's stunningly beautiful portrait of the gay Renaissance painter

Thumbnail image of Defence of the Realm (1985)Defence of the Realm (1985)

Tense 80s conspiracy thriller about a nuclear near-accident

Thumbnail image of GoldenEye (1995)GoldenEye (1995)

Pierce Brosnan's debut brought the James Bond cycle back from the dead

Thumbnail image of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)

Second outing for the fantastically popular boy wizard

Thumbnail image of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (2001)Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (2001)

The film that brought J.K. Rowling's boy wizard to the big screen

Thumbnail image of Mona Lisa (1986)Mona Lisa (1986)

Neil Jordan's unlikely romance set in a vicious world of pimps and prostitutes

Thumbnail image of Scrubbers (1982)Scrubbers (1982)

A female answer to Scum (by the same author), set in a women's borstal

Thumbnail image of Alfresco (1983-84)Alfresco (1983-84)

Alternative sketch show with Fry, Laurie, Elton, Coltrane and Thompson

Thumbnail image of Comic Strip Presents..., The (1982-2000)Comic Strip Presents..., The (1982-2000)

Long-running film showcase for the alternative comedy generation

Thumbnail image of Cracker (1993-95, 1996, 2006)Cracker (1993-95, 1996, 2006)

Robbie Coltrane stars as a brilliant but flawed psychologist-detective

Thumbnail image of Kick Up the Eighties, A (1981, 1984)Kick Up the Eighties, A (1981, 1984)

Satirical sketch show introducing Rik Mayall's Kevin Turvey

Thumbnail image of Tutti Frutti (1987)Tutti Frutti (1987)

Tragicomic story of legendary rock 'n' rollers The Majestics

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Thumbnail image of Alternative ComedyAlternative Comedy

The new broom of early '80s humour

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