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Robbie Coltrane - Biography

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Robbie Coltrane

Personal details

Name: Robbie Coltrane
Born: 30 March 1950 (Age: 65)
Where: Rutherglen, Scotland
Height: 6' 1"
Awards: Won 3 BAFTAs

All about this star


Just like the stunningly good-looking, comedians find it hard to get taken seriously in cinema. Even the brightest of them - Woody Allen or Steve Martin, for example - find that their "straight" work is usually given short shrift by a laugh-starved public. The financial imperative, consequently, demands that they stay funny. How, then, did Robbie Coltrane, for years known only as that fat Glaswegian comic on the peripheries of the Comic Strip team, manage to find fame and consistent work offers in Hollywood, based entirely upon his thespian abilities? How could it be that, while his far more illustrious peers were struggling away in such trash as Bring Me The Head Of Mavis Davis, Coltrane waslarging it in not one, but two James Bond blockbusters?

He was born Robert MacMillan, on the 30th of March, 1950, in Rutherglen, on the outskirts of Glasgow. His parents were both Scottish Calvinists. His father, Ian, was a GP and extremely busy - Robbie claims he hardly spoke to him till he was 6. His mother, Jean, was a teacher. Like her husband, she was bright and curious, keeping music, films and literature high on the family's agenda. Robbie has claimed that his earliest memory is of lying beneath the piano while his mother played.

There were other early influences that would heavily mark his later career. Not only did Robbie grow to love music, painting and films, he also fell for motor vehicles, and lorries in particular. His heroes included both actors and long-distance drivers. He'd even run around pretending to BE a lorry. And, as he approached puberty, there were his dad's books. As well as running the surgery, Ian worked as a police surgeon, thus the bookshelves held some thoroughly enticing tomes on biology, pathology and murderous mayhem in general. When Robbie was 11, Ian wanted him to view some crime victims, believing our culture foolishly cowers before death. Jean refused. Nevertheless, Robbie's extra-curricular delvings into those books gave him a far-above-average insight. He wanted to know WHY people do things like that.

He would also suffer, at an early age, genuine tragedy. Ian would die from lung cancer when Robbie was still in his teens. Worse, in 1976, Robbie's younger sister, Jane, committed suicide while studying at York University. Like Robbie, she was bubbling over with life, but suffered from depression. It was Robbie who travelled down to collect her belongings. On the way home, wild with grief, he would smash up his train carriage.

After a primary education at a local state school, Robbie had been sent to the Glenalmond public school in Perthshire, known as The Eton Of Scotland. This place was deeply authoritarian, with bullying and disciplinary beatings commonplace. Due to this unhappy experience, Robbie would later call for all public schools to be banned and swear he'd never send his son to one, "Not unless I hate him". But, while there, Fat Rab (as he was then called - friends say he named himself) used comedy and natural ebullience to get him through. He was immensely popular with the other kids. He once hung the prefects' gowns from the school's clock-tower. And, for this was public school, he joined a very minor cult, known as The Curry Boys. This, as ever, was born from a need to belong, not a desire to slaughter the Christ-Child, but the initiation ceremony was still notably revolting. The Boys had buried a crow's head which, naturally, became infested with maggots. Newcomers were required to pucker up and kiss it.

As he grew, so he became more rebellious, as befits a natural artist. At one point, expulsion was considered, but the teachers feared the reaction of Robbie's fellow pupils. Besides, though not academically brilliant, when he was interested he was an achiever. By 15, he'd reached a reasonable level of fitness, and had grown to 6' 1", allowing him to play prop for the First XV, as well as tour Canada with the Scotland schoolboy side. Beyond this, he was head of the debating society, and won prizes for his art.

In his teens, Robbie's vocation was unclear. He had made his stage debut, aged 12, delivering charged rants from Henry V while wrapped in chain mail. He loved movies and believes himself to have been utterly changed by Marlon Brando's biker in The Wild One, particularly the scene where he's asked "What are you rebelling against?" and he replies "What have you got?" He would, he thought, never take gyp from others, and never do what was expected of him. But Robbie was no simple vandal, he was interested in making things, as evinced by his older sister Annie's habit of sending him pictures of Orson Welles to cheer him up.

Annie was studying graphic art in Edinburgh, and Robbie would often visit her. Noticing how he got on with her friends, he realised that he too was an artist so, when the time came, he enrolled at Glasgow Art School, to study painting. Slowly, he recognised that his work was not up to his own high standards, but he continued on to graduation, then another year at Edinburgh's Moray House College Of Education before deciding that art was not for him.

Film was to be the thing. In 1973, his 50-minute documentary, Young Mental Health (a further pointer towards his most famous role) was voted Film Of The Year by the Scottish Education Council. Robbie, who'd take the name Coltrane due to his love of jazz, began to hang out with actors in Glasgow and Edinburgh, performing on the fringes of the Edinburgh Festival, as well as working as a chauffeur, driving directors and stars around. Supporting himself with a series of low-paid jobs, throughout the Seventies he worked with the San Quentin Theatre Group, the Bush Theatre, and Edinburgh's renowned Traverse Theatre. And it was with this last group that he formed a working relationship with playwright and director John Byrne, appearing in his The Slab Boys, a trilogy about three unruly Glaswegian kids, and Cuttin' The Rug, about factory workers.

At the same time, Coltrane engaged in improvisational nightclub work, as well as the kind of stand-up comedy that had served him so well at school. His personality, and mastery of accents, made him popular with audiences and allowed him to play hundreds of very different parts. And it's this all-round ability that allows you to chart Robbie's rise in two different ways. Most popular is the notion that his alternative comedy background led him into The Comic Strip series, Alfresco (written by Ben Elton and starring Fry and Laurie and Emma Thompson), then Blackadder, with his film career growing from his appearances in the Comic Strip movies The Supergrass and The Pope Must Die.

The other notion is more accurate, and shows that Coltrane gained experience and connections via comedy, but actually undertook a far more traditional and actorly route to the top. His first role, for instance, was in Death Watch, shot in Glasgow and based on DG Compton's sci-fi novel The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe. Directed by Bertrand Tavernier and starring Harvey Keitel and Romy Schneider (in one of her final roles), it involved a man surreptitiously filming a dying woman and broadcasting to the world - and this two decades before The Truman Show and Big Brother. To balance this, he played a gay hairdresser in Mickey Dolenz's Metal Mickey, as well as various roles in the spoof travelogue Balham: Gateway to The South, also directed by Dolenz. Then there was a brief appearance in Flash Gordon, sheltering from fiery rain sent by Ming The Merciless, and then Subway Rider, where Coltrane played a detective (Fritz Langley - spot the homage) on the track of a sax-playing murderer (John Lurie). This was directed by Amos Poe, famed underground director of The Blank Generation, whom Coltrane had met in the late Seventies when hanging around New York with musicians, actors, anyone who could feed his curious mind.

Next came a small role in Lindsay Anderson's caustic Britannia Hospital, then Mai Zetterling's female prison drama, Scrubbers, featuring a young Kathy Burke and Pam St Clement (later Pat Butcher in EastEnders). This mix of big-budget and art-house movies continued. As well as appearing in Peter Yates' fantasy romp Krull, National Lampoon's European Vacation (as Man In Bathroom), and the disastrous Pacino-starring Revolution (with another EastEnder, Sid Owen), there was Ghost Dance, Chris Petit's Chinese Boxes, and the espionage thriller Defence Of The Realm.

Though Coltrane had become a well-known face via The Comic Strip and its spin-off movie, The Supergrass, it was his appearance in the Cold War drama Chinese Boxes that had the more important impact. Producer Stephen Woolley had noted Coltrane's performance and, considering him a straight actor rather than a comedian, cast him in his next two pictures - Absolute Beginners, and as Bob Hoskins' mechanic chum in Neil Jordan's superior Brit thriller Mona Lisa.

With his foot now in the door, Coltrane began to experiment wildly. There was Derek Jarman's homo-erotic Caravaggio: the John Byrne-penned TV series Tutti Frutti, where Coltrane was Big Jazza, member of Scot rock band The Majestics, torn apart by the presence of - shock! horror! - a woman (Robbie's comedy buddy Emma Thompson): he togged up as transvestite Annabelle in The Fruit Machine: and he played the villainous landowner Victor Hazell, persecuting Jeremy Irons in Roald Dahl's Danny, The Champion Of The World.

As a big, rough-looking fellow, Coltrane knew he was hard to cast, but never let up. He was hilarious as Dr Johnson in Blackadder, arrogantly brandishing the dictionary he's compiled while Rowan Atkinson tortures him with preposterous, made-up words: there was Slipstream, a sci-fi oddity from the producer of Star Wars starring Luke Skywalker himself, Mark Hamill: he stood out in the Richard Dreyfuss gambling comedy Let It Ride, then as Falstaff in Kenneth Branagh's Henry V (a big role for a big guy): then there was Bert Rigby, You're A Fool where, as compere Sid Trample, Coltrane hosted a talent contest in a poor mining community and persuaded Robert Lindsay to embark on a misguided career as a comedian.

Coltrane's parallel careers, as a comedian and an actor, entered their final conflict in the early Nineties. The comedy got its ass kicked, big time. Coltrane suffered failure in both his movie efforts - Eric Idle's Nuns On The Run, and the Comic Strip's The Pope Must Die. In the meantime, though, he starred in his comic peer Lenny Henry's first serious effort, Alive And Kicking, playing a tough social worker threatening and cajoling a junkie (played by Henry himself) back onto the straight and narrow.

Now everything came together. Coltrane had been an excessive man. He loved his food, and had trouble with his weight, in 1986 actually flying to a clinic in Mexico to do something about it. He loved flash cars, even making documentaries about them. He'd been a big drinker ("a bottle of whiskey a day man, or nothing"), the main cause of his weight gains. And, even though he'd spent 15 years in an on-off relationship with artist Robin Paine, who he'd met at art school, he'd also reportedly been something of a womaniser. (Paine left him for good in 1987, now teaching at a school attached to the Boston Museum of Fine Art. Her portrait still hangs in Coltrane's converted barn).

So Coltrane understood excess and obsession. He also had that background in pathology. He was clearly perfect for the role of Eddie Fitzgerald, the self-indulgent forensic psychologist in Jimmy McGovern's new series, Cracker. Why, he'd even invented a prototype in Alive And Kicking. So, naturally, the producers tried for Robert Lindsay, who LOOKED more like the John Cassavetes type in McGovern's imagination. Thankfully, Lindsay was committed to a production of Beckett, then Cyrano de Bergerac. Coltrane was in and, as TV history has shown, made an almighty contribution to one of the greatest shows ever made, winning three consecutive BAFTAs for his efforts. "I smoke too much, I drink too much, I gamble too much, I AM too much" - aside from the gambling, he WAS Fitz.

At last Coltrane had found professional success to match his personal victories. He'd beaten the bottle and found love again. On Christmas Eve, 1988, he'd met 18-year-old Rhona Gemmell in a pub, and asked her to a Hogmanay party, picking her up in a flashy red Caddy. They got married and produced a son, Spencer (named after Spencer Tracy) and a daughter, Alice. Rhona would become a sculptress. Success furthermore gave Coltrane a chance to exhibit artistic loyalty - he'd continue to involve himself in the projects both of John Byrne and Amos Poe. Sadly, after 15 years together, he and Rhona would split up in 2003, amidst tabloid rumours that she'd had an affair with a TV executive. Coltrane would take the break-up very badly and his problems with alcohol, depression and his weight would violently resurface, causing him to book into the Priory clinic.

Work-wise, since Cracker, it's all gone right. So good was Coltrane in the Bond flick Goldeneye (as Valentin Zukovsky, KGB man turned St Petersburg crime lord) that they called him back for The World Is Not Enough, featuring fellow Scot Robert Carlyle. Returning to the Bond set, he was immediately involved in a fight scene with Pierce Brosnan, who delivered a perfectly deadpan "God, it's been ages since I strangled you, Coltrane". There was also Kevin Costner's Message In A Bottle, where Robin Wright-Penn, a researcher on the Chicago Tribune, finds a love note in a washed-up bottle. Columnist Coltrane steals her idea for a story and inadvertently turns up several other similar messages. He has them analysed and this leads Penn to the Carolinas and the arms of boat-builder Costner. Following this was an all-star Alice In Wonderland, with Robbie as Tweedledum to George Wendt's Tweedledee. Then there was Johnny Depp's Jack The Ripper shocker From Hell, where Depp played the psychic and opium-addicted Inspector Abberline and Coltrane acted as his Watson, keeping him from harm in a corrupt, seedy and dangerous Victorian milieu.

Next there'd be the Dublin-set screwball comedy On The Nose where Robbie ran a med school morgue and tried to keep a gambling problem under control. Then he found a 200-year-old Aborigine head that magically gave him winners, his success quickly coming to the attention of dean Dan Aykroyd and then local gangsters.

And, most famously of all, Coltrane came to be the weird giant Rubeus Hagrid, unable to keep his mouth shut in Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone. It's said that, along with Maggie Smith, Coltrane was the only cast member personally requested by authoress JK Rowling. He would be called back for the sequels, The Chamber Of Secrets, The Prisoner Of Azkaban and The Goblet Of Fire.

Having popped up alongside Anthony LaPaglia and Richard E Grant as one of Daphne Moon's disreputable brothers in Frasier, causing chaos by misfiring a cannon at a wedding, he moved on to Ocean's Twelve. Here George Clooney and his good-looking gang had to repay the $200 million they nicked in Ocean's Eleven and turned to shifty Robbie to provide the information and resources to plot a string of heists in Europe. But shifty Robbie was also working with a rival thief.

Come 2006 there'd be the hard-hitting Provoked, a true story wherein Aishwarya Rai played Kiranjit Ahluwalia, a Punjabi woman jailed in London for murdering her abusive husband. Miranda Richardson, Coltrane's co-star in Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire, would play Rai's cellmate who puts her in touch with her estranged step-brother, Robbie, a QC who takes on her case and helps change the law in favour of battered wives. Following this would come Stormbreaker, based on the first of Anthony Horowitz's Alex Rider novels, where the titular 14-year-old hero becomes embroiled in a plot involving mad millionaires and computers in schools and is taken on as a mini-agent by the British government, Coltrane playing the Prime Minister. It was another lucrative franchise in the making.

2006 would also see Coltrane reprise the role of Fitz for the first time in a decade when he starred in a one-off episode of Cracker. Here Fitz would return to Blighty for his daughter's wedding having spent 10 years in Australia. Once back, though, he gets caught up in a case where a British soldier, traumatised by his experiences in Northern Ireland and enraged by America's change of heart over terrorism post 9/11, kills an American comedian. Writer Jimmy McGovern clearly had plenty to say about US foreign policy, sadly to the detriment of Cracker. Nevertheless, Coltrane was still viewed with enormous affection by the Brits. Having been awarded an OBE in the New Year's honours list at the start of 2006, he'd then be asked to seek out the true heart of his nation, criss-crossing the country in a classic 1950s car in the series Robbie Coltrane's Incredible Britain. With the Harry Potter franchise still a huge ongoing concern, he was perhaps at the peak of his popularity, even joining the likes of Dustin Hoffman, Sigourney Weaver and Kevin Kline for the animated Tale Of Despereaux, where a mouse and a rat battle to save a princess, Coltrane providing the voice of a soft-hearted jailer who engineers a day-saving escape.

Bolstered by his personal gifts and a far wider experience than most actors possess, Robbie Coltrane is set for still greater successes. And when his chances come - given his natural curiosity and innate ability to focus heavily on whatever interests him - he will surely seize upon them ravenously. He remains an excessive man, capable of excessively good work. There's plenty more to come.

Dominic Wills


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