He was an actor of brilliant oratorical talent, despite being born to mute parents who needed him to learn sign language before he could talk. Now, Richard Griffiths has himself been silenced. The plaudits offered to the life and career of the Withnail And I star – who has died at the age of 65 – could not have been louder.
Famed among younger generations for his role in the Harry Potter films, he was hailed as “one of the very greatest” British actors, who won fans of all ages for a string of memorable roles in television, film and theatre. His death, at the University Hospital of Coventry and Warwickshire on Thursday, followed complications from heart surgery.
Griffiths’s turn as Uncle Monty in Withnail And I, which initially flopped before attracting a cult following, remains one of his best-loved performances. Richard E Grant, who played Withnail, called him “my beloved Uncle Monty” on Twitter and added: “Chin-chin, dear friend.” Paul McGann, who also starred in the film, said: “A mighty tree has fallen.”
Sir Nicholas Hytner, who directed Griffiths in stage and screen versions of Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, said: “[He] wasn’t only one of the most loved and recognisable British actors – he was also one of the very greatest. His performance in The History Boys was quite overwhelming: a masterpiece of wit, delicacy, mischief and desolation, often all at once.”
The play enjoyed huge success in the UK and internationally. Griffiths first won an Olivier Award for the West End production and a Tony Award when it transferred to Broadway.
He also played Vernon Dursley in the Harry Potter films. Daniel Radcliffe said working with him on the series about the boy wizard, and later in the play Equus, was “a joy”. Thea Sharrock, who directed Griffiths in Equus and last year’s revival of Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys, called him a “tender, gentle, kind, generous, loving man”.
While Griffiths’s varied performances thrilled audiences, from detective-turned-chef in Pie In The Sky on television, to the film farce Naked Gun 2½ and Alan Bennett’s The Habit Of Art at the National Theatre, colleagues also hailed his gregarious nature off screen. Radcliffe added: “Any room he walked into was made twice as funny and twice as clever just by his presence. I am proud to say I knew him.”
Sir Nicholas added that Griffiths was “the life of every party” and his “anecdotes were legendary”.
He was also forthright, especially about disruptions to stage shows. Three times in his career, he broke off mid-line to berate hapless audience members whose mobile phones went off during his performances. Griffiths, who called his upbringing in Stockton-on-Tees one of “Dickensian poverty”, was born in Thornaby in 1947, the son of a steel fixer. Pursuing acting against his father’s wishes, he was spotted in 1974 by the director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Trevor Nunn, and spent a decade there.
Griffiths married Heather Gibson in 1980, seven years after they appeared together in Lady Windermere’s Fan.