The Ballad of Rubeus Hagrid

The first Harry Potter film initially depicts the night Harry learns he’s a wizard like a scene from a horror movie. Harry and the disagreeable Dursleys—his uncle, aunt, and cousin—have escaped to a cottage on a remote island, attempting to outrun the letters alerting Harry to his magic. But the messenger arrives anyway, in the form of a half-giant named Hagrid. The Dursleys cower and scream as he knocks, rain pummels the roof, and the sweeping John Williams score crescendos—until Hagrid breaks down the door and steps inside. “Sorry about that,” he sighs, placing the hunk of wood back in its frame. With three little words and a sheepish raise of his eyebrows, the tension dissipates. Hagrid’s no fearsome monster, but a friendly visitor. Indeed, he might even be feeling a tad guilty over causing such a ruckus in the middle of the night.

Such was the power of Robbie Coltrane, the Scottish actor who died yesterday at the age of 72, and who, to a generation of Potter fans, was best known for his work playing Hagrid across eight films. The character, as written on the page, was a clumsy, delightful, and ever-loyal ally to Harry and his friends, his outward appearance and affection for vicious magical creatures concealing a gentle core. In the role, Coltrane, already standing at 6-foot-1, had to perform with extra-small props and sets, don a padded overcoat, and stand on platforms to tower over his co-stars. Yet the challenge of being Hagrid wasn’t merely physical. Coltrane, across a decade of movies, imbued in him a depth and warmth that made him feel not just instantly memorable, but real. In doing so, he subtly pushed against the scripts’ inclinations to turn the character into mere comic relief or an adorable buffoon.

Not that Hagrid wasn’t funny or lovable. In the books, the character was eccentric, an adult whom Harry and his friends were comfortable visiting regularly for casual chats over tea—or for the occasional bit of intel they needed to accomplish an illicit mission, given Hagrid’s loose lips. The groundskeeper at Hogwarts after being expelled from the magical institution in his youth, Hagrid was a bit of a child himself, just overgrown. He took pride in being a part of the staff but ached to practice magic as freely as they did, and he often drank himself silly. He’s the kind of oddball who took precious care of man-eating spiders and frightful dragons, who named a terrifying three-headed dog “Fluffy,” but christened a docile bloodhound “Fang.”

The films were largely faithful to Hagrid’s story, but they had a tendency to poke fun and gawk at the character. In the first installment, Hagrid’s birthday cake to Harry is decorated in misspelled icing (Happee Birthdae), an unnecessary jab at his intelligence, considering how the books did no such thing. In the fourth film, Goblet of Fire, Hagrid’s attraction to a romantic interest causes him to stab a colleague in the hand with a fork, a rather violent manifestation of his ungainliness that didn’t appear in the text either. Many times, when Hagrid spoke, characters treated him like a nuisance, reacting with eye rolls or grimaces, talking to him like he was dim.

[Read: Living through death with Harry Potter]

Coltrane began his career as a comic, doing stand-up in Edinburgh and performing on the sketch show, Alfresco, alongside the likes of Hugh Laurie and Emma Thompson. When it came to playing Hagrid, however, Coltrane never took too caricaturish an approach. Even Hagrid’s most absurd moments came with a knowingness, a vulnerability that captured the character’s harsh past, as a half-giant abandoned by his giantess mother, bullied by Hogwarts classmates, and desperate to keep his genetic history a secret. The actor seemed to understand that Hagrid’s hardships gave him a toughness that didn’t set into resentment, but into a profound ability to embrace characters like Harry, Ron, and Hermione—those who found it similarly hard to fit in with everyone else.

Take the scene of him introducing them to his half brother, the giant Grawp, for instance. The situation is absurd, almost farcical: He needs the trio to keep Grawp company while he’s gone, and the dialogue calls for Hagrid to be insistent on their help as the fight between good and evil intensifies. “He’s completely harmless, just like I said,” he explains, “though high-spirited is all … You will look after him, won’t you?” But instead of offering these words forcefully, Coltrane says them softly, hinting at Hagrid’s guilt and desperation over the request. As the scene ends, he’s almost blinking back tears.

Hagrid, apart from a touching sequence at the end of the second film, was rarely the star of the show, but his compassion for the heroes helped sustain the sprawling story’s heart, and Coltrane recognized the value in his character from the beginning. In an interview for the franchise’s 20th anniversary special, the actor compared Hagrid to Superman. “You wish there were a power for good in the world that was irresistible to the bad guys,” he said. “And Hagrid was always obviously the good guy, wasn’t he?” He certainly was.

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