By David Hudson
“Richard Griffiths, one of Britain’s most celebrated character actors, has died from complications following heart surgery,” reports the Guardian. “The stage and screen star, who played Uncle Vernon Dursley in the Harry Potter films and Uncle Monty in the cult classic Withnail and I, was 65.”
The AP notes that Griffiths also played “the charismatic teacher Hector in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys. In 2007 he appeared onstage in Equus alongside his Harry Potter co-star Daniel Radcliffe…. ‘Richard was by my side during two of the most important moments of my career,’ Radcliffe said, his first scene as the boy wizard and his stage debut. Radcliffe said Griffiths’s ‘encouragement, tutelage and humor made it a joy.'”
The awards mentioned in the Wikipedia entry make for an impressive list. For his performance in The History Boys alone, he won “the 2005 Laurence Olivier Award for Best Actor. During the play’s subsequent United States run, he added a Drama Desk Award, an Outer Critics Circle Award, and a Tony Award. He reprised his role in the film version which was released in October 2006.” In the UK, Griffiths may be best known “as Inspector Henry Crabbe, disillusioned policeman and pie chef extraordinaire, in the British detective drama Pie in the Sky, a role which was created specifically for him.”
In one of his last onscreen performances, Griffiths played Monsieur Frick in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo.
Listening (45’00”). Griffiths talks us through his Desert Island Discs.
Updates: In 2006, Louise Jury reported for the Independent: “When mobile phone calls disrupted Wednesday’s matinee of The History Boys for the third time, the actor known for his roles in the films Harry Potter and Withnail and I threatened to quit the stage…. ‘You should be ashamed of yourselves,’ he told the audience. ‘I am not going to compete with these electronic devices. You were told to turn them off by the stage manager, you were told it was against the law.’ He is reported to have added: ‘We’re going to start this scene again. If we hear one more phone go off, we’ll… quit this afternoon’s performance. You have been warned.'”
“[F]irst and foremost Griffiths was a great stage actor,” writes Lyn Gardner. “Director Jonathan Kent, who cast Griffiths both in Pirandello’s The Rules of the Game and Brecht’s The Life of Galileo at the Almeida in the 90s, said that he had ‘an unequal ability to make abstract ideas human and personal.’ Griffiths may have been physically large, but his performances were never larger than life. In fact, what marked him out as a great actor—not just a great character actor—was the sheer delicacy he brought to roles, whether he was playing Volpone or Henry VIII for the RSC in the mid-80s, or a Captain Shotover who sees through the illusions of others in Shaw’s Heartbreak House in 1992.”
Also in the Guardian, Peter Bradshaw writes that “his Uncle Monty was a study of loneliness—his own loneliness, and the feared future loneliness of the failing actor Withnail, and all men, particularly a certain type of middle- and upper-middle-class Englishman, for whom women are an alien species. (Withnail is one of the most male films in cinema history.) And yet there is something heroic and defiant in Monty’s recognition of his physical ruin: ‘There can be no true beauty without decay.’ Richard Griffiths, that superb comic actor, found the role of a lifetime, grabbed it with both hands—a figure who combined Sir Toby Belch and Andrew Aguecheek with a tiny cantankerous touch of Morrissey. We will all be grateful to him for creating this masterpiece.”
And the Guardian‘s posted its photo gallery.
Updates, 3/30: “With his Falstaffian girth—he actually played Falstaff for a BBC production of The Merry Wives of Windsor—Mr. Griffiths was an object of audience fascination as much for his striking profile as for his talent,” writes Bruce Weber in the New York Times. “He became a familiar screen presence to Americans in the 1980s, when he appeared in supporting roles in films including Ragtime, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Gandhi, Chariots of Fire, Gorky Park, and Greystoke, the Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes.” Then came Withnail and I. “The film became a cult favorite, and for years afterward, Mr. Griffiths said, fans would accost him in public with an obscene greeting that is one of the film’s signature lines. ‘And now I shout it back,’ he told The Observer of London in 2005.”
“Physically, Griffiths was all wrong to play W.H. Auden in Bennett’s The Habit of Art,” writes Los Angeles Times theater critic Charles McNulty. “But spiritually he was just right. His eloquence—it must have been hard-earned, as he was raised by deaf-mute parents and pieced together an education under challenging circumstances—was a triumph of mind over fickle fortune.”
“His performances continually wrong-footed audiences,” writes Geoffrey Macnab in the Independent. “They expected broad, pantomime-style mugging. After all, Griffiths was a big man who used big gestures and often seemed as if he had just walked out of a Charles Dickens novel. However, there was invariably delicacy and subtlety in his work too-a sense of yearning and melancholy that took you by surprise.”
Playwright David Hare: “Here was one of those rare actors who could convincingly play intellectuals, and who therefore might have a chance of following in Michael Gambon and Charles Laughton’s huge footsteps in Brecht’s Galileo. Richard could play great cleverness because he was greatly clever.” More in the Guardian from James Corden and Michael Billington.