Richard Griffiths, who has died after heart surgery, came from an impoverished Yorkshire background, was overweight and bullied at school, left at 15 and worked as a porter, before deciding to give acting a go.
One wonders, when he came to the Edinburgh Fringe in 1969 as part of a group from the Manchester College of Art and Design’s drama department, if anyone might have predicted that the portly young man would go on to become one of cinema’s most recognisable character actors.
There can hardly be anyone who would not now recognise the jowly face, with its lopsided grin, as that of Harry Potter’s nasty Uncle Vernon.
That recurring role came comparatively late in life, but Griffiths was no one-hit wonder. He played King George II in the last Pirates of the Caribbean film. And he won just about every award it was possible to win in the West End and Broadway for his performance as the teacher in Alan Bennett’s play The History Boys, a role he reprised on film.
Griffiths is lionised by an older audience as the unsettling Uncle Monty in the cult 1987 movie Withnail and I. And he starred in several television series, even before Withnail and I, including the domestic sitcoms Nobody’s Perfect and A Kind of Living.
He was the everyman hero in the conspiracy thriller Bird of Prey and had a starring role in the BBC historical drama series The Cleopatras, as the Pharaoh Ptolemy VIII, known as Physcon or Pot Belly.
Griffiths was nobody’s idea of a romantic lead, but his physical characteristics became his defining feature. And when he got round to playing a television detective – as many successful screen actors do – it was a detective whose personality quirk was an addiction not to alcohol or drugs, but to pies. When Inspector Henry Crabbe was not solving murders he was running a restaurant. Pie in the Sky ran for five series in the 1990s.
Born in Thornaby-on-Tees, North Yorkshire, in 1947, Griffiths described his background as “Dickensian”. His father was a steelworker and both his parents were deaf, so he learned sign language as a boy.
Griffiths was apparently underweight as a child and received treatment to stimulate the growth process, which he subsequently blamed for his long-term obesity problem – though his bulk undeniably afforded an extra element to his work as an actor.
He ran away from home and absented himself from school, worked as a porter, and eventually wound up attending drama classes at college in Stockton and then Manchester. He appeared in several college productions at the Cranston Street Hall at the 1969 Edinburgh Fringe.
Subsequently, he worked in theatre, radio and television. In the mid-1970s he joined the Royal Shakespeare Company, making his home in Stratford-upon-Avon and establishing his stage reputation over the course of a decade in some of Shakespeare’s classic comic roles, including Falstaff. By 1980, he had a starring role in the London Weekend Television sitcom Nobody’s Perfect, with the older American actress Elaine Stritch as his wife. Griffiths was also beginning to get some notable supporting roles in films as well, appearing in Chariots of Fire, as the head porter at Caius College, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Gandhi, and Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan.
Director Bruce Robinson cast him in Withnail and I after seeing him in the Michael Palin comedy A Private Function. His performance as Uncle Monty raised his profile to new heights, though it was not a huge hit on initial release. Its status as a classic was acquired gradually over the years, through late-night student screenings, video and a cinema re-release in the 1990s.
Griffiths played the rather sleazy, aesthete, older man who lets Richard E Grant and Paul McGann use his holiday house in the Lake District, then turns up, looking for payment in kind.
Latterly Griffiths found fans could quote whole chunks of dialogue to him, dialogue they had learned by heart, but which he had long forgotten, or so he said. He complained that people seemed to have great difficulty in differentiating between the actor and the man.
He had married in 1980, to Heather Gibson, an actress he had met during a stage production of Lady Windermere’s Fan. But he said he was approached to serve as a celebrity representative for various gay causes, though he had only ever played “two screaming queens”, as he put it, in Withnail and The History Boys, two decades apart.
The role of Vernon Dursley in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone took him to a new and devoted audience. It was the first of five Harry Potter films in which he would appear. Vernon is Harry’s uncle, a mere Muggle, who has grudgingly taken in Harry after the death of his parents, though he misses no opportunity to remind Harry that he is not really wanted.
The story begins with Harry living with Vernon, his wife Petunia (Fiona Shaw) and their spoilt son Dudley at Number 4 Privet Drive, Little Whinging, in Surrey, before Harry learns of his magical powers and goes off to Hogwarts, though he regularly returns “home” during school holidays.
Latterly Griffiths could pick and choose his roles and he spent much of his time on stage. On more than one occasion he brought plays to a sudden halt when a mobile phone rang and he ordered the culprit from the theatre.
He was reunited with his Harry Potter co-star Daniel Radcliffe in a revival of Peter Shaffer’s Equus in the West End in 2007 and subsequently on Broadway. It generated extensive media coverage as it represented Radcliffe’s break with the boy wizard role and included a nude scene.
Griffiths also starred in a West End revival of Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys last year, with Danny DeVito. He was made an OBE in the 2008 New Year honours. He is survived by his wife Heather. They did not have children.