The Critical Eye, and the entire arts community mourns the recent passing of a truly talented actor: Richard Griffiths.
British-born Griffiths, with his Falstaff-like girth was hard to miss, in the dozens and dozens of films in which he played major roles. Sadly, as is often the case with brilliant actors, he is best known for roles which didn’t require the efforts nor the talents which he lavished on other roles.
Griffiths is probably best-known as the cruel Uncle Vernon, the non-magical relative who was charged with raising Harry Potter, when the young wizard’s parents were killed, until he was old enough to enroll at Hogwarts. Fans of independent film may remember him better as another odd uncle, the lecherous Uncle Monty, who allows the central pair of young actors in ”Withnail & I,” to live in his country house, in return for perpetually unfulfilled promises of sexual contact with the non-relative actor.
Less famous, but with considerably more effort and talent, he played most of the famed clowns in Shakespeare’s canon of plays, including Bottom in ”A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and Sir John Falstaff, whom he so much resembled, with many companies, including the Royal Shakespeare Company. He famously played England’s King Henry VIII, in many plays, including Shakespeare’s play by the same name.
Both on the London stage and the Broadway stage, he played both Hector, the beloved professor in ”The History Boys,” and Martin Dysart in the 2007 revival of Peter Shafer’s play ”Equus,” which won Daniel Radcliffe his liberty from the image of Harry Potter. He played important roles in many major films, including ”Gandhi,” ”The French Lieutenant’s Woman,” ”Ragtime,” ”Chariots of Fire” and ”Gorky Park,” among many others. In 2011, he portrayed the King of England in the most recent release in the ”Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise.
Fans of British detective television mysteries will remember him best as Inspector Crabbe, the retired policeman who tried to focus his attention on inventing and improving the menus in his gourmet restaurant, but who kept getting pulled reluctantly back into investigations by the police force, in the series ”Pie in the Sky.”
When he died last week, he had recently completed a run in London of Neil Simon’s play ”The Sunshine Boys,” opposite Danny DeVito, and was scheduled to repeat the show in May, in Los Angeles.
He died of complications, following open heart surgery, in Coventry, England. He is survived by his wife of 33 years, Heather Griffiths. He was 65 years old.
Various obituaries for Griffiths include an official statement, released by Daniel Radcliffe, with whom he appeared in the Harry Potter films, as well as sharing the leading roles in ”Equus.” Radcliffe said, ”Any room he walked into was made twice as funny and twice as clever, just by his presence.” The statement goes on to say that the two actors shared Radcliffe’s first scene ever filmed, and his first appearance on the live stage. ”Both times, I was feeling awkward and nervous,” the statement continues, ”But, terrified as I was, his encouragement, tutelage, and humor made it a joy. I am proud to say I knew him.”
Despite his family name, which is of Welsh origin, Griffiths was born in Yorkshire, in northeastern England. His father was a steelworker, and his mother is listed as ”a bagger,” which I believe refers to an employee of a grocery store. Both of his parents were totally deaf, and he would tell an interviewer from the BBC that both felt alienated and angry at the world, due to their condition. He ran away from home repeatedly, in his youth.
When he was 8 years old, Griffiths was much smaller and thinner than other children his age, so he was subjected to experiments on his glands, which caused him to add an additional 60 percent to his overall weight, in less than a year, and which he believed were responsible for his great girth for the rest of his life. Observers claimed he ate reasonably, and he was famously light on his feet and dexterous in motion, yet he was unable to lose significant amounts of weight.
Although he was willing to talk with interviewers about his great size, normally in his roles, it wasn’t mentioned, and didn’t really play a role in most of his parts. He did, occasionally, state his belief that his physical appearance had cost him achievements which he believed he had earned, and while he had won a great many major awards, including the Tony, the Drama Desk Award, the Golden Globe and many more, the only honor he was given by the British Government was Officer of the Order of the British Empire. Officer is the second to lowest of five levels of that award, which entitles those on the top two levels to call themselves ”Sir” or ”Dame,” and which have been won by many actors who have achieved significantly less than he has.
One interviewer managed to get him to say that he believed that every actor over age 55 ought to be issued a 3-pound, cold salmon, with which he would be entitled to slap the face of a good looking, young, successful upstart actor, while announcing, ”That’s for being so lucky, you …”
Nicholas Hytner, artistic director of the British National Theatre, issued a statement that Griffiths had the very unusual ability to be simultaneously very funny, and yet to make the audience realize that he was desperately tragic and sad, inside. Hytner called Griffiths ”One of the very finest actors in the world, today.”
Three of Griffiths’ four siblings died at birth or very shortly after. His father was a physically powerful man, who used to challenge anyone in the crowd at a neighborhood pub to a fist fight, as a way to make additional money. The family lived below the poverty line and both of his parents were prone to hit each other, and to hit him.
The senior Griffiths forbade his son to apply to drama school, which he considered ”poofery,” so his son dropped out of school at age 15, and took a job as a porter. His boss encouraged him to seek further education, so he applied to the Manchester Polytechnic School of Drama, and was accepted. At the school, his successful portrayal of ”Bottom” led to his casting with professional companies, and the beginning of his successful career.
Griffiths took the theater and its artistry very seriously, and was famed for bursts of anger at audience members whose cellphones went off during performances. On two occasions, he asked audience members whose phones rang more than once to leave the theater.
The theatrical world, including its brassy cousin, the film industry, is much the worse for his departure.