Richard Griffiths, who has died aged 65, was one of Britain’s most recognisable actors, deploying his girth and equally sizeable talent to great effect on television, on stage, and on the big screen.
He was memorable in a host of different genres, with a range and subtlety that belied his giant physique. A natural in Shakespeare’s comic roles, notably Falstaff, he later captured the imagination of young filmgoers with his performances as the hideous Uncle Vernon in the Harry Potter series. But it was, perhaps oddly, for his portrayal of two sexual predators that he was best-loved.
As Uncle Monty in Withnail and I (1987) he erupted, cheeks lightly rouged, into the bedroom of his nephew’s terrified flatmate, declaring that “I mean to have you, boy, even if it must be burglary.” Like the film’s other stars, Paul McGann and Richard E Grant, Griffiths would have such memorable snippets of dialogue quoted at him by legions of fans for the rest of his career. (“They’re all a bit silly about it, and they quote stuff and expect me to know it. I find that very odd.”)
Almost two decades later he played Hector, an inspirational teacher who fondles his pupils while giving them lifts home on his motorcycle, in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys (2004). The play was a smash hit in London, and went on to repeat the success on Broadway. Like Withnail it contained some lines that left audiences helpless with laughter (notably when one boy sighs: “I’m a Jew ... I’m small ... I’m homosexual ... and I live in Sheffield ... I’m f---ed.”) A large part of its appeal, however was what its director Nicholas Hytner called Griffiths’s “masterpiece of wit, delicacy, mischief and desolation”.
Griffiths was always at pains to insist that Hector is not a paedophile – the boys in the play are all over 18. “I’d feed all paedophiles into a tree-shredder,” he told interviewers. “One minute with a tree shredder. Anything left the police can have.” And he was almost as intemperate with audience members who forgot to turn off their mobile phones. At least three times he interrupted the play in mid-performance, threatening to walk off.
Griffiths became so associated with gay roles that many assumed he was gay himself. “Look, I’m just acting,” he said. In fact he was married and declared a pronounced preference for women of a fuller figure. “I could never understand the attraction of Bette Davis. I always preferred Jane Russell.” Moreover, not only was he not gay, it turned out that he had started life so skinny that he required medical treatment.
Richard Griffiths was born on July 31 1947 in Thornaby-on-Tees, North Yorkshire. His father, Thomas, was a steelworker who also fought for money in pubs and, like his mother, the former Jane Denmark, was deaf-mute. Only two of the couple’s five children survived: two were stillborn and one, a longed-for daughter, died days after birth. The poverty, Griffiths said later, was “Dickensian”, with the unusual twist that, as he communicated with his parents by sign language, and the family had no television or radio, Richard’s childhood home was largely silent.
He ran away frequently but always came back to his parents because “I was sort of responsible for them. From the age of four I would help with the shopping. They would sign and I would translate to the shopkeeper.” As a result, he complained, “I have a lifelong loathing of shopping.”
He was also skinny as a boy, so skinny in fact that aged eight he was given treatment on his pituitary gland. His metabolism slowed and he gained 60 per cent of his body weight within a year. He was picked on at school but, owing to his new-found heft, coupled with a temper that he retained throughout his life (“I think I get it from my father. He was a very aggressive man”), he was more than able to hold his own. “I was the biggest. I once attacked two kids because they threw an apple core at me and it hit me in the face and everyone laughed – and that was what really made me angry, being laughed at. So I pursued them round the school and beat them up. I was so angry. It was the best fight I ever had.”
He left St Bede’s school at 15 and applied for “a poxy job in a warehouse” only to find himself one of 300 hopefuls; so he returned to full-time education at Stockton and Billingham College. Taken by a teacher to see his first professional theatre production at 17, when he was in the audience of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Griffiths found himself spellbound.
He applied to do a drama course at the Northern College of Music in Manchester, which did not go down well at home. “In Teesside at the time ... if you said you wanted to be an actor it meant you had to be put to death. I had to keep the acting secret from my Dad. He raged at its pooffery when he found out.”
His first major role was in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible at the college’s drama society. When the student playing the governor of Massachusetts fell ill, Griffiths, promoted from a minor role, found himself overawed. “But I learnt it and did it.”
Like the principal characters in Withnail and I, Griffiths’s years as an aspiring actor were hard. But he soon realised that the weight he struggled with was a theatrical asset. Early in his career he was playing the Griffin in Alice in Wonderland when the actor playing the Mock Turtle turned to him and said: “Now listen to me, lad, you are very, very useful. You’ll never be out of a job.”
In the mid-1970s Griffiths was spotted by Trevor Nunn, then the Royal Shakespeare Company’s artistic director, and moved to live in Stratford. He rose through the roster of roles, eventually playing Bottom and Trinculo as well as Volpone and Henry VIII.
Still, it was a precarious life, and the best financial rewards came from advertising. Griffiths appeared in a series of television ads for Holsten lager, then in 1979 was asked to go to America for three days to film a series of ads for BMW. But Nunn would not give him the time off from the RSC and Griffiths lost out, a blow he never forgot. “That would have meant never having to worry about overheads again, and I could have devoted my life to interesting theatrical projects.” Instead, he would have wait until the Harry Potter films (from 2001) to achieve real financial security – despite its subsequent success, Withnail and I was a flop at the box office.
Griffiths appeared in many other films, from Gandhi (1982) to Naked Gun 2 1/2 (1991), and also became well known to viewers of Pie in the Sky as Detective Inspector Henry Crabbe, a food-loving policeman who longs to retire from the force and set up his own restaurant. The light-hearted drama ran for five series on BBC1 from 1994.
Despite his success, Griffiths was not averse to moaning about the lot of the actor. It was a trait, he admitted, that drove his wife, Heather Gibson, an Irish actress whom he met in 1973 in a production of Lady Windermere’s Fan, “nuts”.
His most enduring concern, however, was with his size. His bountiful proportions may have come in useful in securing work, but there were complications elsewhere. Armrests on seats were a particular bugbear. And while he felt that the business of moving about and acting provided some sort of veil to his shape, posing for still photographs left him uncomfortably exposed. “I don’t like the way I look so I don’t like being photographed. I become defensive.” Being asked to appear naked, as his co-stars were in a production of Equus (2007), was never an issue. “Thank goodness it’s not me being naked. I wouldn’t inflict my naked body on any paying audience.”
“Everybody my age should be issued with a 2lb fresh salmon,” he told an interviewer before the play opened. “If you see someone young, beautiful and happy, you should slap them as hard as you can with it. When they ask, 'Why did you do that?’, you say, 'Because, you lucky young bastard, you don’t know how fortunate you are.’ And they don’t...”
Richard Griffiths, who is survived by his wife, won an Olivier Award in Britain and a Tony Award in America, and continued to work until his death. Once asked what he would like his epitaph to be, he replied: “Richard Griffiths. Actor. Born 1947. Died 2947.”
Richard Griffiths, born July 31 1947, died March 29 2013