In may be counterintuitive to say of an actor of Falstaffian girth that his style was light and subtle. Or at least could be. But this was certainly true of the English actor Richard Griffiths, who died Friday in Coventry from complications after heart surgery at 65.
Younger viewers, who know Griffiths only as the bombastic and sadistic Uncle Vernon in the Harry Potter movies, may believe I’ve gone a bit off the latch, as the Brits say. But this role, which I’m convinced Griffiths took just for the payday, hardly called for his considerable versatility. Plenty of other actors could have played Uncle Vernon.
To see intelligent, subtle, and comic in the same role, TAS readers are directed to the utterly delightful TV series Pie in the Sky (1994-97), where Griffiths plays Inspector Henry Crabbe, one of the most unlikely and engaging cops you’ll ever see on the small or large screen. It’s as difficult to imagine any other actor bringing Henry Crabbe to life as it is to imagine someone other than the late Leo McKern as Horace Rumpole.
When Crabbe is not chasing bad guys, a vocation he is eager to retire from, he’s a gourmet chef in the restaurant called Pie in the Sky and owned by his accountant wife, played by Maggie Steed. Crabbe solves his cases through intelligence and a gentle approach, usually in spite of interference from the climbers and bureaucrats he must work with in the local police force, especially his nemesis, Assistant Chief Constable Freddie Fisher, played by Malcolm Sinclair.
Perhaps the greatest triumph in the Griffiths career was The History Boys. Griffiths played the English teacher character, Hector, in the 2006 movie and in the play, which ran both in London and on Broadway before taking a world tour, which brought Griffiths’ name and talent to the attention of many beyond his small, happy band of fans who had always appreciated his work.
Hector is the intelligent and witty teacher, dedicated to his students and to education for its own sake, to the idea of how knowledge and aesthetic response broaden the soul. He’s contrasted with another teacher, and the school’s head, who take a more utilitarian and cynical view of education as only worth what it fetches from the material world. Hector’s rivals for his student’s attention at the north England school seem to measure educational success solely on how many boys from the school are accepted to Oxford or Cambridge.
But for all his intellectual nobility, Hector has his flaws, which include taking the occasional ineffectual grope at his boy students. In the hands of a less talented actor, Hector could have come off as a smarmy, repellant perv. Griffiths gives us a complex but lonely character who gains our sympathy if not a pass for his sexual acting out. (Griffiths himself was happily hetero, and is survived by his wife Heather, to whom he was married for 30 years.)
Here’s how Nicholas Hytner, who directed Griffiths in History Boys, put it: “He was an extraordinary actor, as very great actor, I think. He had this amazing ability to take you into oceans of desolation. He was able to be funny, sometime hilariously funny, and desperately tragic sad, at the same time. Very few actors have that.”
The loneliness and desolation of Hector, and some of Griffith’s other poignant characters, likely have some connection to Griffith’s less than cheery childhood in northern England as the son of parents who were both deaf and, Griffiths says, “angry and brutal.” Griffiths describes his father as “a terrifying man.” If this weren’t enough for a youngster, Griffiths received radiation treatments at age 8 for a childhood illness. These treatments pushed his pituitary gland off plumb, which led to his lifetime losing battle with obesity. He said many times that he disliked the way he looked, though his many fans didn’t seem to mind, in fact, found his screen presence most soothing.
Thanks to his bulk, Griffiths was never destined for leading man parts. But he shined in small roles on the silver screen in such as Gandhi, Chariots of Fire, Guarding Tess, Gorky Park, Hugo, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, and others. On the small screen Griffiths’ credits run from Shakespeare and Dickens to cop shows. He even caught a gig as Santa Claus in A Muppets Christmas. A couple of my favorites are the polymorphous perverse but amusing COE bishop in the Vicar of Dibley (the episode is entitled “Spring”), and a more serious COE clergyman in the Inspector Morse episode “The Day of the Devil.”
Unlike so many actors, who are utter boneheads without a script to keep them coloring within the lines, Griffiths was intelligent and articulate and had a reputation as a fine raconteur and storyteller. His work, and as far as I can determine most of his private life, was apolitical. He didn’t retail the usual leftist bien pensant nonsense so many actors can’t seem to get through the day without.
Here’s how Daniel Radcliffe, the actor who played Harry Potter, put it: “Any room he walked into was made twice as funny and twice as clever just by his presence.”
Griffiths was a giant in more ways than one. It’s sad there will be no more roles for one of the best actors to come out of a small island nation that seems to produce excellent actors by the score. But thank goodness for DVDs, which make it possible for us to watch and re-watch the fine work of one the best.
RIP Richard Griffiths.