Robbie Coltrane’s death at 72 is a miserable blow for his many fans. And it has fallen harder still on friends who worked with the Scottish actor. Fond references to his grand stature have flowed freely this weekend, whether measured in stones and pounds, or in degrees of sheer charisma.
The director and comic actor Peter Richardson, a leading creative force behind the Comic Strip films in which Coltrane first appeared, praised the range of his late friend’s talent: “Everything was big about Robbie. He was so funny, but he could do everything.
“We came up together in the industry and I gave him two roles in our first Comic Strip film, Five Go Mad in Dorset. He played the village shopkeeper and a seedy gypsy and he became a fixture because of his energy and personality.
“In another film we made, The Pope Must Die, he played a rather innocent character, who was so self-effacing and different to his other characters. I also loved him in our 1984 film, Gino, where he played Max, a guy who was having a breakdown while driving around in his jaguar and drinking. It was based on someone I’d met in the music industry, but Robbie absolutely got it.
“He was also very good much later, as the inspector in The Hunt for Tony Blair, when he had to interrogate Peter Mandelson, played by Nigel Planer.”
By the mid-1980s Richardson had built up a small repertory company featuring Coltrane and other stars of alternative comedy, including Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, Adrian Edmondson and Rik Mayall. And he enjoyed “wonderful times” with Coltrane off-screen.
“I remember sleeping on the beach together in France, and then I went on holiday to Spain with Robbie and Keith Allen. We had a great time while we were writing what would have been a sequel to our film The Bullshitters. It never got made.”
Coltrane’s prowess as a serious actor was established in 1993 in ITV’s Cracker. He played Fitz, a baleful criminal psychologist, in the award-winning series written by Jimmy McGovern. This weekend, the show’s producer, Gub Neal, has been gratified to see several tributes to Coltrane pick out Fitz as his best performance.
“Robbie was an amazingly intriguing character, but occasionally moronic too,” said Neal. “He was deeply intelligent and deeply troubled. And he was courageous enough to bring it all to the screen.”
Neal had the idea for Cracker and secured McGovern to write the series, although initially no one was enthusiastic: “I remember I took Robbie to meet Jimmy, who was not very keen. Jimmy simply said to him: “I see this character as a very thin man.” Robbie roared with laughter, which really defused the tension.”
Once Coltrane had landed the role, despite preferred early candidates such as Robert Lindsay and Keith Allen, audiences got the fresh alternative to the hit detective series Inspector Morse the channel had been looking for.
“Robbie had a 1940s film noir thing that really worked,” said Neal. “He brought this sculpted weight to the part. He just had scale and so brought Fitz to life in a way that was titanic.
Neal also paid tribute to an underrated Coltrane skillset: car maintenance. “He was a great mechanic too and I wouldn’t like that side of him to be forgotten,” he said. “I clearly remember when I went to talk to him about playing Fitz and all the while he talked to me he was taking a carburettor apart. It was wonderful to watch because I love cars, as he did.
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“He had a vast collection of vehicles and later did those TV shows later where he was driving around in a Cadillac. Mechanics was linked to his capacity to try to understand things in his acting. He loved to know how things worked and took great comfort in it. He knew so much about all the intricacies. It was a dimension to him that I revelled in.”
“He really was a polymath. Just look at the span of his appeal, filling the role of Hagrid in the Harry Potter films too. My heart is welling up. I loved the man.”