THIS week’s Icon is routinely described as “larger than life”. Indeed, at 6ft 1’s worth of muscle and whatnot, Robbie Coltrane’s imposing stature might have limited his acting roles. But he was right versatile, straddling alternative comedy and straight dramatic roles with ease.

He’s probably most famous for playing Hagrid in the Harry Potter films, with TV’s Cracker a close second. 

He also appeared in two Bond movies, and played alongside stars such as Pierce Brosnan, George Clooney, Mark Hamill, Johnny Depp, Maggie Smith, Richard E Grant, Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry, Emma Thompson and Julie Walters.

His ridiculously impressive CV tempts the chronicler into “And then he was in” mode, the bane of actors’ biographies, but you’ll forgive me some of the same as it might mean something to somebody. But I’m going to miss out tons.

The Herald: In a poll across the UK to find the ‘most famous Scot’, Coltrane came sixth. The Loch Ness Monster came firstIn a poll across the UK to find the ‘most famous Scot’, Coltrane came sixth. The Loch Ness Monster came first (Image: free)

We do not, however, omit his birth, which took place on March 30, 1950 in Rutherglen, on the outskirts of Glasgow. In this starring role, he was Anthony Robert McMillan. 

His father Ian McMillan was a GP,  who also served as a forensic police surgeon (important future indicator alert). Father was busy and barely spoke to the boy until he was six.

However, Mr McMillan’s work at least ensured young Robbie had access to an, er, interesting library of books about biology and pathology. When Robbie was 11, dad suggested a nice day out viewing crime victims, but the boy’s mother pooh-poohed this plan.

Jean, the mother under advisement, was a teacher and pianist. Robbie’s earliest memory was of lying underneath the piano while she played. In other developments, he ran around pretending to be a lorry.

Formal education began at Belmont House School in Newton Mearns before he was shoved into Glenalmond College, a posh, private school in Perthshire. Like everybody else who attended private school, he hated the place, later calling for such unnatural institutions to be banned.

Curry favour

The rebellious boy was known as Red Robbie, or sometimes Fat Rab (a name he gave himself), but was popular with the other pupils, even being invited to join a cult called The Curry Boys, whose initiation ceremony involved kissing a maggot-infested, dead crow’s head. Character-building.

All that said, he played for the rugby First XV (touring Canada with the Scotland schoolboy team), was head of the debating society, and won prizes for art. Indeed, after leaving school, he enrolled at the Glasgow School of Art, taking a diploma in drawing, painting and film.

But art never stole his heart. Film did. In 1973, he made a documentary called Young Mental Health, named Film Of The Year by the Scottish Education Council. 

Wanting to act, he hung out with thespians at the Edinburgh Festival, where he worked as a chauffeur.

The Herald:

Working his way into theatre and comedy, the jazz-loving lad took the stage name Coltrane (after saxophonist John Coltrane) and soon, like everyone else in Scotland – so it sometimes seems – appeared in John Byrne’s The Slab Boys at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre.

Next stop, telly. Talent for comedy brought roles in eighties shows The Comic Strip Presents and Ben Elton’s Alfresco. In 1984, he appeared in and wrote for A Kick Up The Eighties and Laugh??? I Nearly Paid My Licence Fee. Then came The Young Ones, Tutti Frutti, and Blackadder The Third, where he played pompous lexicographer Dr Johnson.

And then he was in (oops!) Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V (1989), playing larger-than-etc Falstaff, and starred opposite Jeremy Irons in a TV adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Danny, The Champion Of The World.

Cast to die for
DURING this time, he’d also been forging forward in film, his first role coming in 1980 with Death Watch. Boasting a stellar cast of Harvey Keitel, Romy Schneider, Max von Sydow and Harry Dean Stanton, it involved a dying woman being paid to have her decline broadcast on TV. 

Not unnaturally, this was filmed in Glasgow, with the Necropolis, Cathedral, former Queen’s Dock and, of course, the City Chambers featuring in scenes.

It’s a short jump in a vest from Glasgow to the planet Mongo, where Robbie’s role (Man at Airfield) passed by swiftly in Flash Gordon. There followed Scrubbers (1983), Krull (1983), The Supergrass (1985), Defence Of The Realm (1985), Absolute Beginners (1986), and Mona Lisa (1986).
Enough already. Let’s cut to 1993 and a big bullet point on his CV: Jimmy McGovern’s TV series Cracker, where he played smoking, drinking forensic psychologist (remember that future indicator alert) Dr Eddie “Fitz” Fitzgerald. 

This role won him three consecutive best actor Baftas and the part of a Russian mobster in the Bond film GoldenEye, reprising the same character in The World Is Not Enough.

As if that weren’t enough, along lumbered amiable half-giant Rubeus Hagrid in the Harry Potter films. Robbie was urged to take the role not just by his eager children but by author JK Rowling who, when asked who she’d like to see play it, instantly replied: “Robbie Coltrane.”

More famous stuff: he appeared in Frasier and in Ocean’s Twelve with – ken? – George Clooney an’ that.

More mundanely, Coltrane also presented TV documentaries based on his passion for transport. Coltrane In A Cadillac saw him cross North America from Los Angeles to New York City while, in Coltrane’s Planes And Automobiles, he extolled the virtues of different types of engine. I see. Blame it on his childhood: remember, as a boy, pretending to be a lorry?

In a poll of 2,000 adults across the UK to find the “most famous Scot”, he came sixth. The Loch Ness Monster came first. He scored an OBE in the 2006 New Year’s honours list, and voiced cartoon characters in The Tale Of Despereaux, Brave, and The Gruffalo.

‘Constant pain’
ALAS, no-one in this veil of tears avoids pain. Robbie laterally suffered from osteoarthritis and, by 2016, was in “constant pain all day”. From 2019 onwards, he used a wheelchair.

He died at Forth Valley Royal Hospital, Larbert, on October 14, 2022, aged 72. Causes of death were listed as multiple organ failure complicated by sepsis, lower respiratory tract infection, and heart block.

Let the last words be his own about Hagrid: “The legacy of the movies is that my children’s generation will show them to their children so that you could be watching it in 50 years’ time. I’ll not be here, sadly. But Hagrid will. Yes!”