Vincent Friell

Born: January 7, 1960;

Died: April 14, 2024

WHEN the actor Vincent Friell learned his first film, Restless Natives, was to feature repeated scenes of him on a motorbike, he was, to say the least, nonplussed. “The funny thing for me is, I don’t drive, and I have an aversion to any form of speed”,

he admitted in a filmed interview, some two decades later. “Even a train going fast can scare me. When I realised I had to be on a bike I was pretty scared.”

Before filming had even begun, an attempt by his co-star, Joe Mullaney, to rev the motorbike nearly ended in an accident; thereafter, the two actors did not actually appear on camera while on the bike.

“The insurance people just said no,” Friell said in a Daily Record interview. “And that’s why they got a tall stuntman and a small stuntman and put them in masks. And people, still to this day, say to me, ‘That was amazing when you stood on the bike’, and occasionally I say, ‘I know it was’, but most times I say, ‘No, actually it wasn’t me’.”

Director Michael Hoffman’s 1985 film pitched Friell and Mullaney as two penniless, imaginative Edinburgh youths who hit on the idea of donning wolf and clown masks and politely robbing Highland coachloads of visiting American tourists. Among the tourists is a vacationing CIA agent, played by Ned Beatty. The strong cast also features Teri Lally, Bernard Hill, Iain McColl and Mel Smith.

The two youths – Will (Friell) and Ronnie (Mullaney) – became national heroes for their exploits. The film, with a captivating soundtrack by the Scottish band Big Country, won admiring reviews and today remains a cult hit. The Los Angeles Times film critic in her review referred to “sweet, storklike Will (Friell) and stubby, parentless Ronnie ... forever pushing his Scotch-taped glasses back on his nose”. James McAvoy was later said to have taken a role in Hoffman’s film The Last Station (2009) because he had been so taken with Restless Natives as a child.

In the Restless Natives DVD interview, filmed by BBC Four, Glasgow-born Mr Friell recalled how he had landed the part: his phone had rung early one Sunday morning. On the other end was the American director, Hoffman.

“When I picked up the phone the first thing he said was, ‘Vince, you are the wolfman’. I was kind of like, what? And he said, ‘I want you to be in the film, Vince’”.

Glasgow-born Vincent Friell, who has died unexpectedly in hospital at the age of 64, was a notable stage, screen and film actor, whose roles extended far beyond that film. His projects included Trainspotting, Taggart, Rab C. Nesbitt, Still Game and the Ken Loach film, The Angel’s Share.

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He was one of five children born to Charlie Friell, an active Labour party member, trade unionist, and amateur actor, and his wife, Mary. Mr Friell snr’s siblings included the well-known novelist George Friel (who dropped the second L from the family surname) and Jim, a political cartoonist who worked under the pen-name of Gabriel at the Daily Worker from 1936 to 1956. Mr Friell snr died, aged 88, in 2012. Mary died of cancer in 1979, aged 47.

As Vincent Friell’s agency, Glasgow-based Brennan Artists, has noted this week, he was a favourite of the late Scottish playwright John Byrne, performing in several productions of the Slab Boys and appearing alongside Robert Carlyle and Alan Cumming at Dundee Rep in 1987.

He was in the cast of Liz Lochhead’s Perfect Days, which in the late 1990s made the successful switch from Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre to London’s West End. Mr Friell was also a regular with such well-known Scottish theatres and theatre companies as Borderline, Glasgow’s Arches, and Oran Mor’s lunchtime drama series A Play, A Pie and A Pint.

The Glasgow actor Raymond Burke, author of a book about the early years of the pioneering Arches Theatre, said this week: “I remember meeting Vince when he first came to work at the Arches. I had always loved the film Restless Natives and was so chuffed to finally meet him.”

He recalled standing backstage in the Arches during a performance of David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow “whilst at the other side of the door some drunk was peeing and Vince ended up waiting for his cue in a lovely suit, standing in a puddle of pee.

“He was an immense talent, professional in his work and also great fun; his passing is a great loss to the Scottish arts community,” Mr Burke added.

Mr Friell won plaudits for his role in another Mamet play staged at the Arches, Glengarry Glen Ross, in which he showed his considerable talents playing Richard Roma, the role taken on by Al Pacino in the film version.

Among his other stage performances that drew critical praise was his role in Alma Cullen’s play, Death Story, at Oran Mor in May 2008. In it, he played the first husband of a deceased fashion journalist. “A poet whose early acclaim has given way to a life of idleness,” the Herald reviewer said of the character; Mr Friell himself was “leather-jacketed and slightly wasted”.

At the same West End venue in September 2017, Mr Friell starred alongside Barbara Rafferty and Neil Leiper in Simon Macallum’s three-hander, Late Sleeper.

The drama, wrote the Herald critic, Mary Brennan, “hinges on the fact that George (Vincent Friell) writes gritty thrillers, supposedly based on his own connections with real-life criminals in his native Bridgeton.

“In fact, George, now a denizen of Crouch End, is a poseur and a wuss, and Friell is highly entertaining as he sheds layer of bluster under [Leiper’s character’s] conniving mix of misinformation and genuine vendetta”.

Vincent Friell is survived by his wife, Alana, and their children Connie and Jude.