by Oliver Lyttelton
March 29, 2013 7:01 AM 8 Comments
Good Friday just became significantly worse, with the news that veteran British character actor Richard Griffiths has passed away at the age of 65, due to complications from heart surgery. A star of stage and screen for close to forty years, the actor was best known for playing a pair of uncles -- Uncle Monty in "Withnail & I," and Vernon Dursley in the "Harry Potter" franchise, but was behind dozens of memorable roles that stretch far beyond those two.
Born in Yorkshire in 1947 (both his parents were deaf, and he had to learn sign language at young age to communicate with them), Griffiths trained at Manchester Polytechnic School Of Drama, before starting off his career in radio drama and rep theater, before coming to the attention of the Royal Shakespeare Company. at the start of the 1980s, he started to land small roles in high-profile films like "Superman II," "Chariots Of Fire," "Gandhi" and "The French Lieutenant's Woman," before taking the lead in BBC conspiracy series "Bird of Prey" and its sequel.
The movie roles got bigger, with notable parts in "Gorky Park," "Greystoke," "A Private Function" and "Shanghai Surprise," before one of the roles that defined his career; Monty, the uncle of one of the title characters who vows to have Paul McGann "even if it must be burglary" in Bruce Robinson's cult comedy "Withnail & I." This saw him come to the attention of Hollywood, with a villainous dual role in "The Naked Gun 2 1/2," along with supporting parts in "King Ralph" and "Guarding Tess." He spent much of the 1990s starring in British series "Pie in the Sky," about a policeman who doubles as a chef, which ran for five series between 1994 and 1997.
But as the 1990s ended, he became more in demand than ever; he starred in Tim Burton's "Sleepy Hollow," and two years later, played Harry Potter's bullying uncle Vernon in "Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone," reprising the part in four of the seven subsequent sequels. This kept him firmly in demand, with other roles in between Potter films including "Venus," "Bedtime Stories," King George in "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" and reuniting with his long-time co-star Frances De La Tour for Martin Scorsese's "Hugo." His last big screen role was in "Private Peaceful," released in the UK last year, while he also appeared on TV in 2012 as the Duke of Burgundy in "The Hollow Crown," opposite Tom Hiddleston's Henry V.
But perhaps his greatest role came in 2004, playing the inspirational, eccentric, deeply flawed teacher Hector in Alan Bennett's play "The History Boys." The show was a giant hit both at the National Theatre in London and on Broadway, and Griffiths won both the Olivier and Tony Awards for Best Actor, before reprising the role in the 2006 film version. It made Griffiths a bigger stage star than ever, with future hits including "Equus," co-starring Daniel Radcliffe, Bennett's follow-up "The Habit Of Art," and, only last year, a West End revival of Neil Simon's "The Sunshine Boys" co-starring Danny DeVito.
It's a career positively stuffed with great performances, and Griffiths, who's survived by his wife Heather Gibson, will be sorely missed. His "History Boys" co-star Jamie Parkertweeted earlier that he'd been told by Griffiths in the dressing room one night "We're all in this boat heading over to the lighthouse, and there's none of us coming back for tea. Trick is to to enjoy the trip while you can." And like Parker, we can't think of a better epitaph for the man. Except maybe this one: