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".