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'Harry Potter' actor Richard Griffiths dies at 65

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. The Associated Press
Friday, March 29, 2013 - 8:44 am

LONDON — Richard Griffiths, a versatile British actor who won a Tony Award for "The History Boys" and played the boy wizard's unsympathetic Uncle Vernon Dursley in the "Harry Potter" movies, has died. He was 65.

Agent Simon Beresford announced Friday that Griffiths died a day earlier of complications following heart surgery at University Hospital in Coventry, central England.

He paid tribute to Griffiths as "a remarkable man and one of our greatest and best-loved actors."

Griffiths appeared in dozens of movies and TV shows, but will be most widely remembered as a pair of contrasting uncles — flamboyant Uncle Monty in 1980s cult classic "Withnail and I" and the hero's grudging Muggle guardian in the "Harry Potter" series.

Griffiths once said he liked playing Uncle Vernon "because that gives me a license to be horrible to kids."

But "Harry Potter" star Daniel Radcliffe paid tribute to the actor, saying "I was proud to say I knew him."

A large man and a huge stage presence, Griffiths was one of Britain's leading theater actors, creating roles including the charismatic teacher Hector at the emotional heart of Alan Bennett's school drama "The History Boys" — a part he took to Broadway, winning a Tony, and repeated for the film adaptation.

National Theatre artistic director Nicholas Hytner, who directed "The History Boys," called Griffiths' performance in that play "a masterpiece of wit, delicacy, mischief and desolation, often simultaneously."

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 was born in northeast England's Thormaby-on-Tees in 1947 to parents who were deaf and mute — an experience he felt contributed to his exceptional ability to listen and to communicate physically.

He left school at 15 but later studied drama and spent a decade with the Royal Shakespeare Company, making a specialty of comic parts such as the buffoonish knight Falstaff.

On television, he played a crime-solving chef in 1990s' British TV series "Pie in the Sky," and he had parts in movies ranging from "Chariots of Fire" and "Gandhi" to "The Naked Gun 2 ."

Known for his sense of humor, large store of rambling theatrical anecdotes and occasional bursts of temper, Griffiths was renowned for shaming audience members whose cell phones rang during plays by stopping the performance and ordering the offender to leave.

Griffiths' last major stage role was in a West End production of Neil Simon's comedy "The Sunshine Boys" last year opposite Danny DeVito. The pair had been due to reprise their roles in Los Angeles later this year.

In 2007 he appeared in a London and Broadway production of "Equus" alongside the then 17-year-old Radcliffe.

"Richard was by my side during two of the most important moments of my career," Radcliffe said Friday.

"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.

"In fact, any room he walked into was made twice as funny and twice as clever just by his presence."

Griffiths is survived by his wife, Heather Gibson.