“I believe that men are here to grow themselves into the best good that they can be,” the iconic saxophonist John Coltrane once said. Anthony Robert McMillan chose his stage name as a homage to the jazz great and, as the actor Robbie Coltrane, went on to grow into the best good that he could be. Both Coltranes possessed notes that had a unique flavour and could be delivered with singular skill.
Robbie Coltrane, who died on October 14, leaves behind a rich stage and screen legacy that audiences will continue to admire and enjoy for decades to come. Much of the world will remember him for his performance was as Rubeus Hagrid, full of warmth and humour as the benevolent groundskeeper at Hogwarts in the Harry Potter films.
Being half-giant exposed Hagrid to prejudice, but he vowed to “never be ashamed” of his heritage and advised Harry: “You’ll be just fine. Just be yourself.”
That seems to be the mantra Coltrane embodied throughout his own lengthy career. He wasn’t afraid to be himself.
On graduating from Glasgow School of Art, he connected with fellow artist and GSA graduate John Byrne in the comedy play ‘The Slab Boys’, based on Byrne’s experiences working in a Paisley carpet factory in the 1950s. Both had strayed from their brushes into drama, but in Coltrane’s case, it would lead to a permanent separation as he launched headlong into the heady world of theatre, film and television.
Finding his comedy feet
His first film was Bernard Tavernier’s Death Watch. A bleak prophetic 1980 Glasgow-set sci-fi starring Harvey Keitel, this was a typically unusual debut, where his scene-stealing turn in a run-down flea market searching for Romy Schneider was the start of a varied and never predictable career.
Coltrane then embraced the ascendant left-wing “alternative comedy” scene in London that was boisterously sweeping away the well-worn tropes of predominantly male post-war British comedy that was often sexist and racist. Coltrane cut his TV comedy teeth on a variety of shows, most notably The Young Ones, The Comic Strip Presents …, Alfresco and Blackadder. In this series, Coltrane’s Samuel Johnson is one of many memorable larger-than-life comedy characters Coltrane is associated with.
Tutti Frutti, John Byrne’s comedy about a second-rate band on the road in Scotland, was a departure for Coltrane. It returned to the rock’n’roll-inspired Glasgow of the Slab Boys, but this time in the 1980s, with the actor clearly enjoying himself as big loud rock’n’roller Danny McGlone.
With Emma Thompson as his love interest Suzi Kettles, it was exuberant and wildly funny. But at the edges it was painted black, with an air of menace suffusing the character of McGlone.
Coltrane moved on from comedy in Cracker, where the dark notes he captured in Danny McGlone deepened and extended in his portrayal of the physician who could not heal himself. Writer Jimmy McGovern consulted Coltrane as he was writing the character of Fitz. Coltrane spoke about drawing on the atmosphere that pervaded his youth in Glasgow to create the intoxicating rhythms of a man of vices, frailties and a genius for criminal profiling.
Coltrane seemed to instinctively recognise this troubled dark edge in Fitz, and indeed his the actor’s own reputation for drinking was legendary. But British audiences really connected with Coltrane’s performance as a criminal psychologist and he won three consecutive Baftas for the role.
Exploring his passions
Throughout his career he had a chance to freestyle like his namesake, to improvise from nobody’s script but his own. He presented a number of factual series that indulged his passion for cars and engineering including Coltranes, Planes and Automobiles. Robbie Coltrane’s B Road Britain saw him take an appropriately unconventional route around the UK via back roads in a jaunty red Jaguar XK150, and ended with a paean to his beloved city of Glasgow.
There was also an American road-trip travelogue, Coltrane in a Cadillac, where he crossed the country from LA to New York in a 1951 convertible model of the iconic car. His warm personality shone through with his constant witty quips, and a natural ease with people everywhere he went.
This warmth was clear in his portrayal of Hagrid, which brought him the global fame any actor dreams of. It was a fame, he reflected, that was difficult at times to negotiate as someone so used to playing interesting roles for select audiences, but he made his peace with it. He seemed to recognise that immortality doesn’t always depend on your most challenging solos:
The legacy of the movies is that my children’s generation will show them to their children. So you could be watching it in 50 years time, easy. I’ll not be here, sadly. But Hagrid will, yes.
When Coltrane’s death was announced it felt like a real loss to Scotland, and clearly to the world of comedy, which inundated the media with affectionate remembrances. Such warm regard says a lot about the man, his talent and the way he embodied and humorously reflected Scottishness for a wider world.
I will always remember him as a master of many morally ambiguous roles, but most fondly as Victor Hazell, the larger than life villain in the TV adaptation of Roald Dahl’s book Danny Champion of the World. He was so suitably menacing that my siblings and I would shout at the screen to warn Danny of his approach, little knowing that I was witnessing an artist at work, making his noise, the best noise it could be.
Featured image: Reuters/David Manning