Few are the actors whose passing is marked by the dimming of lights in the West End. Richard Griffiths was one of those, the tribute placing him in a select pantheon whose numbers include Olivier, Gielgud and Richardson. But fewer still are those actors who are spoken of with equal and unfeigned admiration and affection by their peers. Richard Griffiths, again, was one of those.
With a personality that matched his substantial physical appearance, Griffiths’ ability to imbue his characters with a redeeming vulnerability even when they were monstrous in attitude or ambition earned him the respect of writers, directors, audiences and his fellow actors for being considerably more than the understated compliment of ‘character actor’ allows.
The son of a steelworker and amateur pugilist father, Griffiths was born in Thornaby-on-Tees, Yorkshire into what he later described as “Dickensian” poverty.
His childhood was punctuated by attempts to flee the family home even as he took on the role of caring for and being the conduit between his deaf-mute parents and the world outside. On leaving school at 15, he took drama classes and enrolled in Manchester Polytechnic’s drama school, keeping his acting ambitions a secret from his disapproving father.
Already overweight – the result of an operation on his pituitary gland at the age of eight – his first break came when an academic prize secured him a contract with the BBC’s radio drama department.
He made his professional stage debut with the Orchard Theatre Company in North Devon in 1971 and stayed for two seasons, where his roles included Captain Keller in The Miracle Worker and the poet Coleridge in High on Exmoor, as well as parts in Mother Courage, Lorna Doone and community and theatre in education projects.
Small television roles followed – his first on Crown Court and ITV Playhouse in 1974, followed by appearances in When the Boat Comes In (1976), Second City Firsts (1977) and The Sweeney (1978).
Spotted by Trevor Nunn, he was invited to join the Royal Shakespeare Company, where he made his mark in clown roles in The Comedy of Errors (1976), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1977) and Antony and Cleopatra (1978) before quickly progressing to larger roles in the John Barton-directed Love’s Labour’s Lost (1978) and Kaufman and Hart’s Hollywood musical Once in a Lifetime, transferring with the show to the West End (Aldwych Theatre, 1979; Piccadilly Theatre, 1980). When he returned to the RSC in 1983, it was to take the title roles in Ben Jonson’s Volpone and Shakespeare’s Henry VIII.
Television success came with the lead in two series of the BBC’s computer-conspiracy drama Bird of Prey (1982-84) and 15 episodes of A Kind of Living (1988-90), capped by the long-running comedy drama Pie in the Sky (1994-97), in which he played an idealistic but disillusioned policeman with a passion for food.
Griffiths made his first foray into film in It Shouldn’t Happen to a Vet (1977), and other early appearances included Chariots of Fire and The French Lieutenant’s Woman (both 1981), Gandhi (1982) and Alan Bennett’s A Private Function (1984).
Two very different roles as uncles on film gave him cult status with adults and children alike. As the predatory Uncle Monty with a penchant for fine living and a lascivious appetite in Bruce Robinson’s 1987 film Withnail and I, he subtly dominated every scene he was in with a performance that managed to be simultaneously monstrous and pathetic. As the child-wizard Harry Potter’s mean-spirited Uncle Vernon, he appeared in five films in the blockbuster franchise.
His later film credits included the Hanif Kureshi-scripted Venus (2006) alongside Peter O’Toole, Pirates of the Caribbean – On Stranger Tides and Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (both 2011). In 2006, he reprised the role of the charismatic and tactile teacher Hector in the film version of Bennett’s The History Boys – a performance that had won him a mantlepiece-filling clutch of trophies, including Olivier and Tony awards, on stage in the West End and on Broadway.
Recent theatre appearances included Equus with Daniel Radcliffe in London and New York (2007), the dual roles of Fitz and WH Auden in another Bennett play, The Habit of Art, at the National Theatre (2009) and sparring with Hollywood star Danny DeVito in a revival of Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys at the Savoy Theatre last year.
Though rarely seen in public, the temper Griffiths claimed to have inherited from his father was triggered on several occasions by his abhorrence for mobile phones interrupting performances – events that prompted him to stop onstage proceedings to deliver stinging rebukes to offenders in the auditorium.
Richard Griffiths was appointed an OBE in 2008. He was born on July 31, 1947, and died, aged 65, on March 29 at the University Hospital in Coventry, following complications arising from heart surgery. He is survived by his wife.
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