Robbie Coltrane, star of Cracker and Harry Potter, dies aged 72

<span>Photograph: ITV/REX/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: ITV/REX/Shutterstock

Robbie Coltrane, whose acting career spanned everything from Bond films to Cracker to Harry Potter, has died aged 72.

The news was confirmed by his agent on Friday.

Born Anthony Robert McMillan in the prosperous Glaswegian suburb of Rutherglen, Coltrane was educated at Glenalmond College, an independent boarding school whose corporal punishment he described as “legalised violence”, before going to the Glasgow School of Art. He had second thoughts about his ability as a painter, and switched to live performance, acting in radical theatre companies (including a troupe from San Quentin State prison) and doing standup, taking the pseudonym Coltrane as homage to celebrated jazz musician John Coltrane.

Related: Robbie Coltrane: a totally singular talent from Cracker to Harry Potter – cerebral, physical and unforgettable

His first screen credit was Waterloo Sunset, the Richard Eyre-directed Play for Today in 1979, in which he played opposite Queenie Watts’s care-home escapee. Thereafter, he had small appearances in films and TV shows, including Flash Gordon, Are You Being Served?, Krull and Britannia Hospital, his distinctive appearance and sheer size helping him stand out from the crowd.

Coltrane’s comedy skills began to take precedence, as he found success in the early 1980s in TV sketch shows such as Alfresco and A Kick Up the Eighties. These placed him firmly in the school of 80s alternative comedy alongside Ben Elton, Emma Thompson and Rik Mayall – an identity reinforced by his regular participation in Comic Strip Presents films including such key entries as Five Go Mad in Dorset, The Beat Generation and The Bullshitters.

Related: Robbie Coltrane: ‘I take no nonsense’

However, Coltrane’s abilities as an actor were increasingly in evidence, and he had considerable success in 1987 with Tutti Frutti, the John Byrne-scripted, Bafta-winning TV series about a washed-up Scottish rock’n’roll band. Coltrane found himself increasingly sought after for bigger roles in higher-profile projects, from Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio (in which he played a cardinal) to Falstaff in Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V. But it was two religious-themed comedy films – Nuns on the Run and The Pope Must Die – that propelled Coltrane to leading-man status, and put him on the map in the US.

Coltrane’s raised status was confirmed by his casting as the criminal psychologist “Fitz” Fitzgerald in Jimmy McGovern’s TV series Cracker, which first aired in 1993. A defiantly non-comic role, Fitzgerald was a groundbreaking creation: brilliant at his job but a mess in his personal life. Coltrane won the best TV actor Bafta in 1994, 1995 and 1996 for the role. Fitzgerald’s addictive lifestyle also reflected the actor’s: Coltrane admitted to being a heavy drinker in the 1980s, and remained famously combative, once threatening to beat up Piers Morgan in a London restaurant. He then found himself cast in two Bond films, GoldenEye and The World Is Not Enough, as morally ambiguous KGB agent Valentin Dmitrovich Zukovsky.

Related: Robbie Coltrane – a life in pictures

Coltrane settled into a mid-period career of alternating roles in plush Hollywood productions (Message in a Bottle, From Hell, Ocean’s Twelve) with easygoing TV appearances (Alice in Wonderland, The Gruffalo). He also indulged his interest in vintage cars in the 1997 series Coltrane’s Planes and Automobiles. However, he found himself at the top of the list for the casting of Hogwarts’ school caretaker Rubeus Hagrid in the film adaptation of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series – a role he is said to have only taken on after his children urged him to.

The first in the series, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, was released in 2001, and gained Coltrane a new audience of younger fans, and helped re-energise his career, particularly on British TV. In 2009, he played investigating detective DI Hain in David Pirie’s Murderland, and his performance as a TV star accused of sexual abuse in the 2016 Channel 4 show National Treasure was greeted with acclaim.

Tributes began pouring in for the late actor on social media. Stephen Fry, with whom he starred in the comedy series Alfresco, said: “I first met Robbie Coltrane almost exactly 40 years ago. I was awe/terror/love struck all at the same time.

“Such depth, power & talent: funny enough to cause helpless hiccups & honking as we made our first TV show, ‘Alfresco’. Farewell, old fellow. You’ll be so dreadfully missed.”

JK Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books, paid tribute to “an incredible talent”. “I’ll never know anyone remotely like Robbie again,” Rowling wrote, accompanied with a picture of the pair. “He was a complete one off, and I was beyond fortunate to know him, work with him and laugh my head off with him.”

Daniel Radcliffe, who starred as the titular wizard in the films, shared fond memories from their time on set together as he paid tribute to Coltrane. He said: “Robbie was one of the funniest people I’ve met and used to keep us laughing constantly as kids on the set.

“I’ve especially fond memories of him keeping our spirits up on Prisoner Of Azkaban, when we were all hiding from the torrential rain for hours in Hagrid’s hut and he was telling stories and cracking jokes to keep morale up.

“I feel incredibly lucky that I got to meet and work with him and very sad that he’s passed. He was an incredible actor and a lovely man.”

The first minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, said Coltrane had “such range and depth as an actor, from brilliant comedy to hard-edged drama”.

The actor Robert Lindsay said he was “in shock at the death of my dear pal Robbie Coltrane. We shared a Hollywood journey that will live with me forever. Another great star to light the heavens.”

Coltrane married the sculptor Rhona Gemmell in 1999, but they separated in 2003. They had two children. The actor was made an OBE in the 2006 New Year’s honours list for his services to drama and he was awarded the Bafta Scotland Award for outstanding contribution to film in 2011.

In his later years, he appeared less frequently in film and television, but returned to be interviewed for HBO’s Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return To Hogwarts – where he spoke of how his legacy as Hagrid would live long beyond him.

Coltrane’s agent of 40 years Belinda Wright on Friday thanked the medical staff at Forth Valley Royal Hospital in Larbert, near Falkirk for their “care and diplomacy”.

In a statement, she added: “Robbie was a unique talent, sharing the Guinness Book of Records’ Award for winning three consecutive Best Actor Baftas for his portrayal of Fitz in Granada TV’s series Cracker in 1994/1995/and 1996 with Sir Michael Gambon.

“He will probably be best remembered for decades to come as Hagrid in the Harry Potter films. A role which brought joy to children and adults alike all over the world prompting a stream of fan letters every week for over 20 years.

“James Bond fans write too to applaud his role in GoldenEye and The World Is Not Enough. For me personally, I shall remember him as an abidingly loyal client as well as being a wonderful actor, he was forensically intelligent, brilliantly witty and after 40 years of being proud to be to called his agent, I shall miss him.”