Entertainment & Arts

Obituary: Richard Griffiths

Richard Griffiths
Image caption The award-winning actor was highly regarded for his stage and screen roles

Richard Griffiths, who has died at the age of 65, was one of Britain's most celebrated character actors and will perhaps be best remembered for his role as the predatory Uncle Monty in cult classic Withnail and I.

A popular stage and screen actor, he also had many starring roles on television and the West End.

Born in Thornaby-on-Tees in North Yorkshire in 1947, Griffiths attempted to run away from home many times and dropped out of school at the age of 15, working as a porter before his manager convinced him to go back to school.

He began taking drama classes at Stockton and Billingham College, later attending what is now known as the Manchester School of Theatre.

His father, a steelworker, and mother were both deaf, and he learned sign language as a young boy to be able to communicate with them.

He would go on to develop an ear for dialects which subsequently landed him several ethnic roles.

Shakespearean clowns

Following his studies, Griffiths landed a slot on BBC Radio, and also began working in small theatres, sometimes acting, sometimes managing.

He built up a reputation on the stage for playing Shakespearean clowns with the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Image caption Griffiths played Henry Crabbe in the light-hearted British police drama Pie in the Sky

Griffiths married Heather Gibson in 1980 after they met during a production of Lady Windermere's Fan in 1973.

After settling in Manchester, he was given several lead roles in plays and on television. His first film appearance was in It Shouldn't Happen To A Vet (1976), followed by roles in contemporary and period pieces such as Gorky Park in 1983.

But it was in Withnail and I, starring Richard E Grant and Paul McGann as two out-of-work actors, that Griffiths appeared in the role that many will forever associate him with.

Shot on a shoestring budget and with little plot to speak of, it was largely ignored when first released in 1987 but is now regarded as a British classic.

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Media captionRichard Griffiths described the popularity of Withnail and I on Desert Island Discs, in 2006

Speaking on BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs in 2006 Griffiths said it was the "auto-destructive, hedonistic indulgence and disregard for authority" in Withnail that struck an absolute, chiming note" with fans of the film.

Griffiths recalled how they often called out to him when they recognised him in the streets: "They know the lines, the dialogue, it's all a bit scary."

Mobile phone fury

In the 1990s drama Pie In The Sky, he played Henry Crabbe, a retired detective running his own restaurant, who was continually called upon to solve more crimes. The light-hearted British police drama was broadcast on the BBC between 1994 and 1997.

He also played the role of a chef in the BBC's adaptation of Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast, in 2000 as the grotesque Swelter.

Among Griffiths' many other TV credits were the dramas Jeffrey Archer: The Truth, in which he played Willie Whitelaw, and Hope and Glory. He also appeared in comedies such as The Vicar Of Dibley, Ted And Ralph and Lovejoy.

He was a character actor much in demand and received a host of awards for his performance as Hector, the teacher, in Alan Bennett's play The History Boys in 2004, both in the West End and on Broadway.

He won the Laurence Olivier Award for best actor, the Drama Desk Award for outstanding actor in a play, the Outer Critics Circle Award for best featured actor in a play, and a Tony Award for best performance by a leading actor in a play.

Image caption Griffiths appeared in several TV comedies, including The Vicar of Dibley

The play went on tour and, as well as returning to the National Theatre, was made into a movie in 2006, with Griffiths reprising his role.

Griffiths, was also well-known for taking a strong line against mobile phones in theatres. In 2004 he ordered a man out of the National Theatre when his phone repeatedly rang during a performance of The History Boys. The following year he stopped mid-speech during a production of Heroes at Wyndham's Theatre to scold a woman whose phone kept going off.

Away from his TV roles, he reached an entirely new audience - a much younger one - with the role of Uncle Vernon in the Harry Potter movies.

Among his other film credits are Gandhi, Chariots of Fire and Sleepy Hollow, in which he appeared alongside Johnny Depp in 1999.

He also made an extended appearance in the 2005 version of Charles Dickens's Bleak House.

In 2006, he starred with fellow Harry Potter actor Daniel Radcliffe in a stage revival of Peter Shaffer's Equus at the Gielgud Theatre in London.

Last year he starred with Hollywood actor Danny DeVito in Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys in the West End, a role he was due to reprise in September in Los Angeles.

Griffiths was awarded an OBE in the 2008 Queen's New Years Honours List for his services to drama.

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