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LA Times Interview with Robbie Coltrane


Talented comedic actors often are able to transform themselves into dramatic actors of exceptional sensitivity. Jack Lemmon and Tom Hanks are two film clowns who won best actor Oscars for dramas ("Save the Tiger" and "Philadelphia," respectively). Fellow Oscar winner Emma Thompson started out doing sketch comedy and musical theater before starring in the dramatic films "Howards End" and "Remains of the Day." Now Scottish actor Robbie Coltrane is joining their career paths. The gregarious Coltrane is best known to American audiences for his zany antics in the feature farces "The Pope Must Die(t)" and "Nuns on the Run." But his turn as the brilliant criminal psychologist Dr. Eddie (Fitz) Fitzgerald in A&E's "Cracker" is no laughing matter. The hard-hitting British detective series premiered last year and kicks off its second season on the cable channel Tuesday. Coltrane's "Fitz" is a complex, troubled individual: He's a compulsive gambler whose escapades with the bookies have wreaked havoc with his marriage. He also drinks and smokes to excess. In the first episode, he is rushed to the hospital after he thinks he has had a heart attack. Nominated this year for a CableACE award for his exceptional performance in "Cracker," Coltrane, who was born in 1950 in Glasgow and still calls Great Britain home, already has received best actor awards from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, the British Broadcast Press Guild and the Monte Carlo Festival. 


Over lunch in Universal City, Coltrane is as funny as his larger-than-life comedic characters and seems to enjoy keeping his guests in stitches. Making the switch from comedy to drama wasn't difficult for the actor. In fact, Coltrane points out, he began his career 20 years ago doing dramatic theater and even made underground, experimental films in New York. In the early 1980s, though, he began doing sketch comedy on British TV with the likes of Emma Thompson and Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie ("Jeeves & Wooster"). Roles in feature comedies soon followed. "I like doing comedy," he says. "I enjoy it." The role of Fitz was created for him by writer Jimmy McGovern. "Originally, they wanted Robert Lindsay ("Bert Rigby, You're a Fool"). I don't know what the politics were, but Jimmy McGovern's daughters thought I was the man for the job. They are in their 20s, so I was deeply flattered-in every possibly way." Coltrane and McGovern worked on bringing Fitz to life. "That went on for weeks and weeks," he says, sipping on his cappuccino. "Though I am a car maniac, we decided he wouldn't drive because we thought it would be quite funny if he would have to rush places and wait for the bus, like real people have to and not have all that macho screeching of tires and nonsense."


To prepare for his part, Coltrane talked to McGovern, who is actually an ex-compulsive gambler, and attended Gamblers Anonymous. "I spoke to the guy in Vegas who runs the book shop there," Coltrane relates. "He talked about `crap degenerates,' as they call them. The guys who actually go in to lose. The people who run the wheels actually know the people who come in to lose. If (the wheel operators) are decent, once the gamblers are like one- or two-thousand bucks down, they say, `Listen pal. It is time to go home.' You would have thought people who run casinos would be quite cynical, but that is not how they work. What they want are people who come back every week and don't lose heavily." Fitz, Coltrane says, is a gambler "because he is very intelligent and can finish most people's sentences. He needs some relationship with emergency and danger. Because he isn't a physical guy, gambling is a very, very good way to get the adrenaline going, particularly if you fake your wife's signature on a mortgage agreement for an extension. ..." Recently signed to play the villain in the upcoming James Bond flick, "Goldeneye," Coltrane says he is frequently courted by American TV producers. "I have offers to come and do sitcoms but they want five years' commitment," he says. "They want 27 shows a year and three months off to make a film if you are lucky. I have got past that stage in Britain and I wouldn't want to go back to that. You know what I mean? To be honest, to commit myself to five years to do a sitcom would drive me nuts. My commitment to `Cracker' is three years. I will do it again this year, and that's it." At least for the series. "We will do specials and I think we will do a feature or two," Coltrane says. "It would be mad to let a character like that die. It is such a good character. But I think it would be difficult to come up with nine hours every year (for TV) of that quality. ... I would like to leave while the quality is still excellent."


The Unofficial Guide To Cracker 1999-2006