Robbie Coltrane’s death at 72 is a blow to his many fans. And it’s even harder for the friends who worked with the Scottish actor. Affectionate references to his great stature flowed freely this weekend, whether measured in stones and pounds, or degrees of pure charisma.
Director and comic actor Peter Richardson, one of the main creative forces behind the comic book films in which Coltrane first appeared, praised the extent of his late friend’s talent: “Everything was great about Robbie. He was so funny, but he could do anything.
“We came into the industry together and I gave him two roles in our first comic book movie, Five go crazy in Dorset. He played the village shopkeeper and a seedy gypsy and he became a fixture due to his energy and personality.
“In another movie we did, The pope must die, he played a rather innocent character, who was so self-effacing and different from his other characters. I also loved him in our 1984 movie, Gino, where he played Max, a guy who had a breakdown while driving his jaguar and drinking. It was based on someone I had met in the music industry, but Robbie had it all figured out.
“He was also very good much later, like the inspector of Hunt for Tony Blairwhen he had to interrogate Peter Mandelson, played by Nigel Planer.
By the mid-1980s, Richardson had established a small repertoire company featuring Coltrane and other alternative comedy stars, including Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, Adrian Edmondson and Rik Mayall. And he had “wonderful times” with Coltrane off-screen.
“I remember sleeping together on the beach in France and then going on vacation to Spain with Robbie and Keith Allen. We had a great time while we were writing what would have been a sequel to our movie. Bullshit. It was never done.
Coltrane’s prowess as a serious actor was established in 1993 on ITV Cracker. He played Fitz, an evil criminal psychologist, on the award-winning series written by Jimmy McGovern. This weekend, the show’s producer, Gub Neal, was delighted to see several Coltrane tributes pick Fitz as his best performance.
“Robbie was an incredibly intriguing character, but also a silly one at times,” Neal said. “He was deeply intelligent and deeply troubled. And he had the courage to bring it all to the screen.
Neal came up with the idea of Cracker and got McGovern to write the show, although at first no one was enthusiastic: “I remember I took Robbie to meet Jimmy, who wasn’t very enthusiastic. Jimmy simply told him, “I see this character as a very skinny guy.” Robbie burst out laughing, which really defused the tension.
Once Coltrane landed the role, despite favorite early contestants such as Robert Lindsay and Keith Allen, audiences had the new alternative to the hit cop show. Inspector Morse the channel was looking for.
“Robbie had a 1940s film noir thing that really worked,” Neal said. “He brought that sculpted weight to the piece. He just had a ladder and thus brought Fitz to life in a titanic way.
Neal also paid tribute to an underrated Coltrane skill: car maintenance. “He was also a great mechanic and I wouldn’t want that side of him to be forgotten,” he said. “I clearly remember when I went to talk to him about playing Fitz and while he was talking to me he was dismantling a carburettor. It was wonderful to watch because I love cars, like him.
“He had a huge collection of vehicles and later he did these TV shows where he was driving a Cadillac. The mechanics had to do with his ability to try to figure things out in his game. He liked to know how things worked and I took great comfort in it. He knew so much about all the subtleties. It was a dimension for him in which I reveled.
“He was truly a polymath. Just look at the extent of his appeal, also filling the role of Hagrid in the Harry Potter films. My heart races. I loved the man.