Rony Bridges was running an antiques shop in Glasgow when a set designer came in looking for props for a film. However it was not the antiques, but the antique shop owner who ended up in Peter Capaldi’s Strictly Sinatra (2001) after the set designer recommended him for a part as a gangster.
So, in his fifties, Bridges began a film and TV career that would ultimately include appearances as a Viking in Valhalla Rising (2009), an admiral in Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2011) and a Highland clan chief in Outlander (2017).
Acting was just the latest in a colourful list of jobs that began when Bridges was a young boy and worked as a runner for a local bookie in the Springburn area of Glasgow, where he grew up. By the age of 11 he was wheeling and dealing, trading comics and cigarettes, business skills that no doubt served him well in his later antiques business. He also had an art gallery and a design company for a while.
He was born in Glasgow in 1946. Contrary to his résumé on at least one casting directory site, he did not study advertising and marketing at Glasgow University – his formal education ended the day he left Albert Secondary School and his marketing skills were acquired on the streets.
He did serve an apprenticeship as a printer with Blackie and Son in Bishopbriggs. Around this time he was almost killed in a scooter accident. He lost both kneecaps and was told he would never walk again. It was not the last time he would prove the doctors wrong.
He opened an antiques shop in Glasgow’s West End and another in London. In the 1960s he lived in the Edith Grove area of Chelsea, near the Rolling Stones, who he got to know. He was a regular at their early gigs and saw them at Murrayfield as recently as last year.
“I used to have an antiques store and I supplied props for films like Trainspotting,” said Bridges, a tall, lean figure, with long silver hair. “A set designer asked to take my photograph one day. She didn’t tell me why. That evening I got a call to be on Peter Capaldi’s film.”
His other films include Young Adam (2003), with Ewan McGregor and Tilda Swinton, Dear Frankie (2004), with Gerry Butler, and The Decoy Bride (2011), with David Tennant. On television he played a detective in several episodes of Rebus early in his career. Bridges was not finished. Not satisfied with rubbing shoulders with the likes of Ewan McGregor and Gerard Butler on set, he went off to Sri Lanka with another famous Scottish actor, David Hayman, to help with his charity’s humanitarian work there after the terrible Boxing Day tsunami of 2004.
Night after night Bridges regaled Hayman with colourful stories about growing up in Springburn in the 1950s until finally Hayman suggested that Bridges write them down in the form of a play.
So he did, producing the darkly humorous one-man play Six and a Tanner. It debuted in 2006 at Glasgow’s Oran Mor, where Bridges was co-producer of their famous A Play, A Pie and A Pint lunchtime theatre events. It went on a national tour and attracted glowing reviews at the 2012 Edinburgh Fringe, with Hayman as the protagonist caught up in a one-sided conversation with the corpse of his dead father, in a coffin on stage.
The play begins with the character recalling how his father told him there was no Santa Claus when he was just four years old, having previously branded Santa a cheap bastard for giving the boy a toy plane that was made out of clothes pegs and fell to bits. On another occasion the father brought home a kitten that turned out to be a panther cub stolen from Calderpark Zoo.
The father was based on Bridges’s own father. He admitted to a little artistic licence, but insisted most of the stories were true. There was a sequel, based on his relationship with his mother. The title 23756 was the family’s Co-op membership dividend number.
Bridges wound up as playwright-in-residence at Barlinnie Prison – though not literally. His familiarity with both the art world and the criminal world led to a self-published novel Rogues Gallery in 2013.
Four years ago Bridges received the devastating news that he had only two months to live after being diagnosed with lung cancer. He gave one doctor a lightsabre in a glass case with the instruction: “In case of emergency break glass”.
But Bridges was never one to unquestioningly accept anyone else’s word on anything and he was to live for another four years. He continued working in films and television and was also heavily involved in his partner Michaela Foster Marsh’s charity Starchild.
Starchild works with vulnerable children and women in Uganda and built a school for creative arts there. Bridges organised Art for Africa, with artists donating work for auction. The charity is currently raising money for a Sunflower Sanctuary for autistic children in Uganda in Bridges’s memory.
He is survived by his partner, who is a singer. They met in 2003 at Oran Mor when she did a gig there. They were engaged but never married. He is also survived by a son Oliver from an earlier marriage that ended in divorce and a sister Sandie Gilchrist. A celebration of life service will be held at Netherlee Parish Church, Glasgow, on July 30.