Most of the obituaries for Richard Griffiths, who died March 28, led with his role in the “Harry Potter” films, but to theatergoers and cult-film fans, his role as Uncle Vernon in the fantasy films was just a footnote to a long and notable career.
The 65-year-old Griffiths, with his portly appearance and distinctive voice, had a long career on the British stage with the Royal Shakespeare Company, winning acclaim in such roles as Falstaff. He became known to film fans with the 1987 “Withnail and I,” which became a cult hit and led to other film and TV work.
But one of his best performances occurred when he was nearing 60, in Alan Bennett’s “The History Boys,” playing a popular teacher who was the centerpiece of the play. He won the Evening Standard award for his work, and a Tony when it moved to Broadway in 2006. That year, he re-created the role in the Nicholas Hytner-directed film.
Last year, Griffiths starred with Danny DeVito in the West End revival of Neil Simon’s “The Sunshine Boys,” which was scheduled to kick off the new season at L.A.’s Ahmanson Theatre Center Theatre Group, with a Sept. 24-Nov. 3 run. In a statement, CTG producing director Douglas C. Baker said, “He was one of the greats and will be dearly missed by all. ‘The Sunshine Boys’ producers, creative team, and CTG will meet soon to discuss future plans for the production.”
Griffiths had a fine sense of humor and large store of theatrical anecdotes, for which he was famous along with occasional bursts of temper. At an American Theater Wing panel discussion in April 2006, he talked about touring Hong Kong and New Zealand with “History Boys,” when some of the best lines didn’t get the anticipatory laughs.
Quoting George Burns he said, “I say something, they laugh and I shut up. they stop laughing and I say something else.” But in Hong Kong where the “History Boys” performance was accompanied by surtitles in Mandarin, Cantonese and English, he said, “You say a line and wait for the laugh but it never comes and it never comes so you look foolish like you’ve forgotten your line but you have not.”
National Theater a.d. Nicholas Hytner, who directed “History Boys,” called Griffiths’ performance in that play “a masterpiece of wit, delicacy, mischief and desolation, often simultaneously.”
Besides that work, Griffiths starred in another Rialto transfer from London: “Equus” with his “Harry Potter” co-star Daniel Radcliffe.
“Richard was by my side during two of the most important moments of my career,” Radcliffe said last week. “In August 2000, before official production had even begun on ‘Potter,’ we filmed a shot outside the Dursleys’, which was my first ever shot as Harry. I was nervous and he made me feel at ease. Seven years later, we embarked on ‘Equus’ together. It was my first time doing a play but, terrified as I was, his encouragement, tutelage and humor made it a joy.”
Griffiths also played poet W.H. Auden in Bennett’s “The Habit of Art,” a hugely persuasive performance despite the lack of physical resemblance between the two men.
Griffiths is survived by his wife, Heather Gibson.
(Associated Press contributed to this report.)