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The Giant Jester

Updated: Oct 17, 2022

Anthony Robert McMillan OBE (30 March 1950 - 14 October 2022)

Known by his professional name Robbie Coltrane, McMillan was an actor who became respected and loved for his diverse and complex roles. As well as his devastating wit and warmth he was a man of complicated contrasts. An uneasy relationship with the press but a place in the heart of millions world wide, for the various characters he brought to life. Some loveable, some fragile, some vulnerable and some deeply flawed. His craft made all look effortless.

Born Anthony Robert McMillan in the Glasgow suburb of Rutherglen, son of Jean Ross Howie, a teacher and pianist, and Ian Baxter McMillan, a GP and police forensic surgeon. He was the middle of three children with an older and younger sister, Annie and Jane.

He attended Belmont House School in Newton Mearns and then Glenalmond College, an independent school in Perthshire. Later in life he would say he was deeply unhappy there, also describing their corporal punishment regime as "legalised violence", but he managed to play rugby in the First XV, became head of the debating society and won prizes for his art. It was the latter that he pursued with vigour, gaining a place at the prestigious Glasgow School of Art. While there he was mocked for his accent, apparently being compared to Prince Charles. He developed the nickname Red Robbie as he campaigned for radical causes. In 1971 he supported the campaign to keep Glasgow shipyards open. "I showed a pornographic movie and charged people five shillings...and gave the money to Upper Clyde shipbuilders" he would recall. It was a great regret of his that he never found the ability to express himself on the canvass in the way that he desired. He was invited back to the art school in 2014 to open a building and he mused forlornly : "I wanted to paint like the painters who really moved me, who made me want to weep about humanity. Titian, Rembrandt. But I looked at my diploma show and felt a terrible disappointment when I realised all the things that were in my head were not on the canvas. I felt there was something wrong with my hands. That was a heartbreaking day.” He started acting while still at the art school and he moved to Moray House College of Education in Edinburgh to continue his studies into art but his talents as an actor were irresistible. “One day, [the renowned Scottish actors] Bill Paterson and Alex Norton came to me and said ‘Are you just going to carry on showing off in pubs, or are you going to take this seriously?’ and they sent me to the Traverse theatre”.

He took the stage name Coltrane, as a tribute to the jazz saxophonist John Coltrane, and his first stage production was John Byrnes The Slab Boys (1978). His time as a theatre performer was short lived though, with one further credit to his name in Threads (1980) as he was whisked into television and film at breakneck speed. Appearing in Play for Today "Waterloo Sunset" in 1979 on television and then collecting several small roles in well known film and TV productions, including Flash Gordon (1980), Metal Mickey (1981), The Young Ones (1982/4), Are you Being Served (1983), Krull (1983) and National Lampoon's European Vacation (1985). Very little of this was to be witnessed by is father who died when Coltrane was just 19. When asked about his father Coltrane once responded "My dad? He died when I was 19, which is a bad time for your dad to die, because there's an awful lot of things you have to resolve with your parents past your teens if you've been a difficult teenager."

He cut his comedy teeth on TV sketch shows such as Alfresco (1983), A Kick Up The Eighties (1984) as a performer and writer and Laugh??? I Nearly Paid My Licence Fee (1984) as a writer. He was a stalwart on The Comic Strip Presents (1982-2012) and even wrote and directed the episode "Jealousy" in 1993.

What started to emerge was a fascinating parallel career track. His acting talents became increasingly recognised in bigger and more complex film roles such as Cardinal Scipione in Derek Jarman's Caravaggio (1986) and a dream piece of casting, if ever so fleeting (as Shakespeare had always written it to be) as Falstaff in Kenneth Brannagh's Henry V (1989). Meanwhile on the domestic small screen he was admired as a bombastic comedy performer with stellar turns in Saturday Night Live (1985-86), Blackadder (1987 & 1988) as Dr. Johnson and the Spirit of Christmas and Friday Night Live (1989). He garnered his first BAFTA nomination for Best Actor for his performance as Danny McGlone in Tutti Frutti (1987) about a faded Scottish rock band and then his comic abilities saw his fame reach the USA with mainstream comedy hit films Nuns on the Run (1990) and The Pope Must Die (1991). It was in the late eighties that he met the sculptor Rhona Gemmell who was to become his wife in 1999. The pair had their first child, Spencer McMillan, in 1992.

By this point he already had iconic roles under his belt which won him fans across the world, but in 1993 his greatest role emerged. Cracker (1993-2006) a TV series about a brilliant but flawed criminal psychologist. On the face of it, a seemingly stereotypical TV trope of an alcoholic detective is not something that would garner lavish praise, but the scripts from Jimmy McGovern and the outstanding performance from Coltrane were a smash combination. It provided Coltrane with a record breaking three consecutive Best Actor BAFTA awards and a Royal Television Society Award and Broadcasting Press Guild Award as Best actor as well. Coltrane spoke of the demons of alcoholism shared by his character and himself. One line from Fitz, his Cracker character, seemed to encapsulate much of that flaw. "I drink too much, I smoke too much, I gamble too much. I am too much." Coltrane did not gamble or smoke but confessed "Booze is my undoing." He infamously admitted that he would drink a bottle of whisky a day. His friend the actor John Sessions once said that Coltrane had a “strong self-destructive streak … a deep, driving melancholy”. He could be foul mouthed, aggressive and manic. He once threatened to beat up Piers Morgan in swanky London eatery The Ivy. This dark side seems so difficult to imagine when we think of Coltrane, as the loveable, affable, giant jester. But as is so often the case, comic genius is a funny bone forged in a fire of despair.

Coltrane was also an avid fan of classic cars and got to drive a convertible Cadillac from Los Angeles to New York in four part documentary Coltrane in a Cadillac (1993) and repeated the theme in Robbie Coltrane's B-Road Britain (1997) driving an open-top Jaguar from London to Glasgow. He also demonstrated his mechanical prowess, not just knowledge and enthusiasm, in his series Coltrane's Planes and automobiles (1997) when he dismantled and rebuilt several engines and even removed the engine from a Trabant in 23 minutes. It was during the 90s that he became a much loved part of the James Bond franchise, his popular morally dubious KGB agent Valentin Dmitrovich Zukovsky featured in GoldenEye (1995) and The World is Not Enough (1999). His daughter Alice McMillan was born in 1998 and he married Rhona in 1999.

The turn of the century saw Coltrane secure another generation of eternal fans as he was cast as Rubeus Hagrid in the Harry Potter franchise, reportedly, it was Potter author J.K. Rowling who insisted on him for the role and his own children's enthusiasm to see him do it that meant he accepted the job. Becoming adored by children world wide was something that struck Coltrane as an awesome responsibility, even as his own marriage dissolved in 2003. His child co-stars would speak with great warmth of his nature and wit even while the press could be eviscerated by the same tongue.

He mused when on set filming Oceans 12 (2004) that he was sat with Brad Pitt, Matt Damon and George Clooney "...the three most successful, most beautiful actors in the world...And here am I. A fat boy from Rutherglen...What the fuck am I doing here?" After completing the Harry Potter series he appeared less on the screen although more voice roles were to come his way and his delightful tones gave voice to the Gruffalo in the short animated films of the same name. In 2006 he was awarded an OBE in the New Year Honours.

A further flurry of awards and critical acclaim would come his way after his role as Paul Finchley in National Treasure (2016), seeing him collect a BAFTA Best Actor nomination but winning the Royal Television Society Award, Monte-Carlo Television Festival and Broadcasting Press Guild Award for the role.

His last screen appearance was in the Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return to Hogwarts (2022) on HBO. He had been suffering from debilitating osteoarthritis. In 2016 he confessed he was in "constant pain all day" and from 2019 onwards he used a wheelchair. In an emotional and painfully poignant epitaph, with watery eyes he spoke of the legacy of his role as the half giant gamekeeper. "The legacy of the movies is that my children's generation will show them to their children, so you could be watching it in fifty years time...I won't be here, sadly, but Hagrid will, yes!"

Coltrane passed away at Forth Valley Royal Hospital in Larbert, 14th October 2022. He was 72.

His agent of forty years standing, Belinda Wright thanked the medical staff for their “care and diplomacy”. Her statement spoke of the lasting legacy of his great roles and the impact his talent had on generations of fans, but her statement finished on what he meant to her: "I shall remember him as an abidingly loyal client as well as being a wonderful actor, he was forensically intelligent, brilliantly witty and after 40 years of being proud to be to called his agent, I shall miss him.”

The tributes came from across the world of drama, the arts and beyond. All spoke of his warmth and wit. Stephen Fry first met Coltrane on the comedy series Alfresco. "I first met Robbie Coltrane almost exactly 40 years ago. I was awe/terror/love struck all at the same time...Such depth, power & talent: funny enough to cause helpless hiccups & honking...Farewell, old fellow. You’ll be so dreadfully missed.”

J.K. Rowling wrote "I'll never know anyone remotely like Robbie again. He was an incredible talent, a complete one off, and I was beyond fortunate to know him, work with him and laugh my head off with him. I send my love and deepest condolences to his family, above all his children."

The child stars of the Harry Potter franchise all spoke of a warm and gentle giant who took great care of his juvenile co-stars. He educated and entertained them or kept their spirits up through the slow progress of film making.

Hugh Laurie who also knew Coltrane from Alfresco and then Blackadder spoke of fond memories in a rather similar style: "I used to ride with Robbie Coltrane between Manchester and London in his sort-of-restored MGA. I’d roll him cigarettes while he discoursed on the ways of the world, and I don’t think I’ve ever laughed or learned so much in my life."

Coltrane once glibly played down his ability and success, opining that "...once you've been doing anything for twenty-five years people start to notice you." when asked about his OBE. Well, we all noticed you Robbie. And not one of us would ever say it took twenty five years. Whether it was Blackadder, Cracker, James Bond, Harry Potter or even just when you played a background role in a crowd. You were irrepressible, magnetic and a joy to behold. You will be greatly missed and fondly remembered.

He is survived by his sister Annie Rae, his children Spencer and Alice and their mother Rhona Gemmell.


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