From Cracker to Hagrid, larger-than-life Robbie Coltrane dominated the screen

The actor was known for his roles in TV series Cracker and as Hagrid in the Harry Potter films.

14 October 2022

Perhaps best known for his role as Rubeus Hagrid in eight Harry Potter films, Robbie Coltrane OBE was a larger-than-life character whose presence was immediately evident whenever he graced the screen.

Born Anthony Robert McMillan in Rutherglen, South Lanarkshire, on March 30 1950, Coltrane was the son of teacher and pianist Jean Ross and general practitioner Ian Baxter McMillan, and was educated at independent school Glenalmond College in Perth and Kinross.

While there, he was head of the school’s debating society and won prizes for art, which later prompted him to attend Glasgow School of Art and Moray House College of Education in Edinburgh.

Coltrane was known as
Coltrane was known as ‘Red Robbie’ in his younger years (PA)

Despite attending a private school, he called for them to be banned and gained the nickname “Red Robbie” because of his involvement with the Labour Party and for his anti-conservative views, which were opposite to his upbringing.

One of three siblings, who include an older sister Annie and younger sister Jane, the death of his father when he was 19 had a huge impact on his life.

It was not until he was in his 20s that he moved into acting, which prompted him to take the stage name Coltrane, a tribute to jazz saxophonist John Coltrane.

After working in theatre and comedy, he secured a role in BBC comedy series A Kick Up The Eighties, which brought him further roles in The Comic Strip Presents movies The Supergrass (1985) and The Pope Must Die (1991), and a series of comedy sketch shows.

He also memorably appeared as dictionary creator Samuel Johnson in Blackadder The Third in 1987 before reuniting with the cast for the 1988 special Blackadder’s Christmas Carol.

Robbie Coltrane starred as Dr Eddie
Robbie Coltrane starred as Dr Eddie “Fitz” Fitzgerald in Cracker (PA)

Coltrane also appeared in eight films with a former member of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

Eric Idle was his opposite number in Nuns On The Run (1990) and National Lampoon’s European Vacation (1985).

He also played Big Jazza in the TV mini series Tutti Frutti, where he appeared in six episodes.

In 1988, he met sculptor Rhona Gemmell in a pub and they were married in 1999.

The birth of their son Spencer happened in 1992 before their daughter, Alice, arrived in 1998. The actor, who lived in Killearn, in the Stirling Council area, and his wife had separated.

One of his highest-profile TV roles was in the 1990s playing Dr Eddie “Fitz” Fitzgerald, a forensic psychologist in the TV series Cracker (1993).

It was not until his performance as KGB man Valentin Zukovsky in Bond film Goldeneye (1995) that he became internationally-known, revisiting the same character in The World Is Not Enough.

It led to him securing a role in the lucrative Harry Potter franchise for which he was personally selected by author JK Rowling, which led to appearances as Rubeus Hagrid in all the eight films.

The 6ft 1ins actor is said to have only taken the role of the giant after his children urged him to.

Coltrane at the UK premiere of Harry Potter And The Prisoner of Azkaban (Ian West/PA)
Coltrane at the UK premiere of Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban (Ian West/PA)

Coltrane’s collection of accolades culminated with an OBE award from the Queen in 2006 for services to drama.

He then said: “Once you’ve been doing anything for 25 years people start to notice you.

“What was really nice about the OBE is that it’s the first award where I didn’t have to make a speech and I didn’t have to sit there waiting to see if I’d won, I knew I was going to get it.”

The comedian and actor, who studied painting at Glasgow School of Art between 1968 and 1972, returned to open its new Reid building in April 2014.

He then said his old tutors would be “turning in their graves” if they knew he was opening the facility and admitted they would be “embarrassed” if any of them could see the work he produced as a “cheeky” student.

In the same interview with The Scotsman in April 2014, Coltrane also revealed he was writing his own memoirs after reaching a reflective stage in his life.

He said: “I’m writing my biography at the moment.

“I just think I’ve lived such an interesting life. I’ve written three books, I’ve made more than 700 hours of television, I’ve made 78 movies, I’ve made a lot.

“I’ve lived in New York, I was in Britain when alternative comedy happened, I was in Tutti Frutti, I was in Cracker, I’ve been fortunate enough to be connected with a lot of really important moments in drama, and then there is Harry Potter, obviously.”

Robbie Coltrane was given an OBE in 2006 (Andrew Parsons/PA)
Robbie Coltrane was given an OBE in 2006 (Andrew Parsons/PA)

Coltrane won three Baftas for his work in Cracker and also won an outstanding achievement award from Bafta Scotland in 2011.

Apart from acting and comedy, his talents also extended to voicing characters for animated films such as Brave in 2012 where his voice was used to bring colour to the character Lord Dingwall. He was also the voice of the Gruffalo in the 2009 TV film.

In some of the many TV and film productions in which he was featured, he also brought his musical skills to the soundtrack.

His work on Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince, according to IMDB, described him as the “uncredited” performer in the “Odo the Hero” in 2009.

He also performed in three episodes of Cracker and in two episodes of Alfresco TV series between 1983 and 1984.

In January 2015, he was taken to a Florida hospital after experiencing flu-like symptoms on a transatlantic flight.

He had been travelling to Orlando for a Harry Potter celebration event at the home of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme park.

Universal Studios said he was kept in hospital overnight and his agent Belinda Wright said: “The prognosis is that he’s going to be fine.”

After a break from television, he returned to the small screen in 2016 for the Channel 4 drama National Treasure, where he played a comedian accused of raping a 15-year-old girl several years earlier.

Based on Operation Yewtree, Coltrane worked alongside Dame Julie Walters in the topical series which was broadcast in autumn 2016.

In interviews about his appearance in the programmes, he said he was “appalled” by allegations of historical abuse which emerged about public figures during the police operation.

In his later years, he appeared less frequently in film and television, but returned to be interviewed for HBO’s Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return To Hogwarts – where he spoke of how his legacy as Hagrid would live long beyond him.

Speaking on the special, he said: “The legacy of the movies is that my children’s generation will show it to their children, so you could be watching it in 50 years’ time easy.

“I’ll not be here sadly…but Hagrid will.”

More from Perspective

Get a free copy of our print edition


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Fill out this field
Fill out this field
Please enter a valid email address.
You need to agree with the terms to proceed

Your email address will not be published. The views expressed in the comments below are not those of Perspective. We encourage healthy debate, but racist, misogynistic, homophobic and other types of hateful comments will not be published.