Cinematic heroes 7: James Cosmo


(c) Paramount


I’ll make no bones about it.  I love James Cosmo, the Scottish character actor who on the 24th of this month will turn 66 – though he’s been a fixture of films and TV shows for so long you could be forgiven for thinking he’s much older.


These days the hulking, craggy and formidable Cosmo – whose visage is usually bedecked with a beard, moustache and long tresses of hair that on anyone else would suggest ‘ageing hippy’, but that on him suggest ‘someone you really don’t want to mess with’ – seems most familiar when he’s clad in armour and wielding a broadsword.  He’s carved a profitable niche for himself playing characters in movies and TV shows set in the ancient world, the Middle Ages and medieval fantasy lands, such as Braveheart (1995), Ivanhoe (1997), Cleopatra (1999), Troy (2004), The Lost Legion (2007) and Game of Thrones (2011-2013).  However, Cosmo, who was born in Clydebank and attended the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Dramatic Art and the Bristol Old Vic Drama School, worked long and hard on television before he cornered the market for playing grizzled bear-like warriors in historical and fantasy epics.


He earned his acting spurs during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s in a long line of TV shows and TV plays.  The better-known titles he appeared in include Doctor Finlay’s Casebook, Softly Softly, UFO, The Persuaders, Doomwatch, Sutherland’s Law, Ouiller, Warship, George and Mildred, The Sweeney, The Onedin Line, The Professionals, Strangers, Minder and Fairly Secret Army.  The most distinguished TV productions from this time to feature Cosmo were probably Nigel Kneale’s haunted-house-cum-sci-fi-horror-story The Stone Tape (1972) – its influence is detectable in many films and TV shows made since then, including the recent acclaimed British horror movie The Borderlands – and the 1974 Play for Today adaptation of John McGrath’s The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil, the most important piece of political theatre to surface in Scotland during the 1970s.


I was in my mid-teens when I started to notice Cosmo as an actor.  He played a villain in an episode of The Hammer House of Horror (1980), which climaxed with him driving a cleaver into the skull of the fragrant Julia Foster, something that must have shocked those viewers who remembered her from the wholesome 1968 musical with Tommy Steele, Half a Sixpence.  That grisly scene made a big impression on me, although nothing compared to the impression it obviously made on Julia Foster.  He also appeared in 1981’s The Nightmare Man, a cheap but creepy BBC mini-series scripted by the great TV writer Robert Holmes about a mysterious killer stalking a fogbound Scottish island.  The Nightmare Man saw Cosmo in good company, as the cast also included Celia Imrie, James Warwick, Tom Watson and the equally craggy and durable Scottish character actor, Maurice Roeves.


(c) BBC


By the late 1980s Cosmo was becoming the go-to guy if you needed an imposing Scottish hard man in your production.  For example, he appeared in Brond, a 1987 Channel 4 adaptation of the novel by Frederick Lindsay, a rather trippy thriller set in Glasgow and involving conspiracies and terrorism.  It tells the story of a hapless innocent, played by a very young John Hannah, who falls under the influence of the mysterious and sinister Brond of the title and ends up being accused of carrying out a political assassination.  Brond is played by the portly and menacing Stratford Johns, although Cosmo is no less intimidating as Primo, the silent, lethal hulk who acts as Brond’s henchman.  Two years later Cosmo had a similar role in the glossy Glasgow-set BBC thriller The Justice Game, in which this time he terrorised Dennis Lawson – who played Wedge Antilles in the original Star Wars trilogy and is the real-life uncle of wee Ewan McGregor.


Meanwhile, in 1986, Cosmo had appeared in Russell Mulcahy’s Highlander, the fantasy movie about immortal beings feuding throughout human historyHe plays a member of the MacLeod clan in the medieval Scottish Highlands and he helps Christopher Lambert to escape when their superstitious fellow clansmen get alarmed about how, within hours, Lambert’s battle-wounds seem to miraculously heal themselves.  Not only does Lambert turn out to be one of the immortals but he’s also the world’s most French-sounding Scotsman.  Later in the movie he encounters Sean Connery, who’s another immortal and also the world’s most Scottish-sounding Spaniard.  (The scene where Lambert explains to Connery what a haggis is has to be heard to be believed.)  Totally scatty, but loveable, I suspect Highlander was the movie that helped Cosmo secure the sweaty, muddy sword-and-sandals roles he became well-known for in the 1990s and 2000s.


(c) Cannon Films


The key sword-and-sandals role for Cosmo arrived in 1995 when he played Campbell, father of William Wallace’s best friend Hamish in the Mel Gibson-directed, Mel Gibson-starring Braveheart.  Hamish is played by the huge, ursine Brendan Gleeson, who later found fame in Michael McDonagh’s glorious 2008 comedy-thriller In Bruges and in the Harry Potter movies, where he played Mad-Eye Moody.  If anyone is even huger and more ursine-looking than Gleeson is and could convincingly play his dad, it’s Cosmo.  (In reality, the two actors are only seven years apart in age.)


As we approach the referendum on Scottish independence being held this September, it’s difficult to talk objectively about Braveheart.  With the political debate intensifying, the film is often held up as representing everything that’s ugly about Scottish nationalism.  Every day on online forums and in the letters pages of the Scottish press, supporters of independence are accused of being lunatics who plaster their faces in woad, charge along muddy fields screaming “Freedom!” and generally believe that everything in Gibson’s film is historical fact.  Of course, historically, Braveheart is nonsense.  It’s also anti-English to a degree that wouldn’t be acceptable against any other ethnic, national or cultural group in a Hollywood movie.  (Gibson subsequently showed himself to have form in that regard.)  But in the film’s defence I’ll say that the battle scenes, for their time, were excellent.  And the supporting cast that Gibson assembled – Cosmo, Gleeson, David O’Hara, Patrick McGoohan, Sophie Marceau, Catherine McCormack, Angus McFadyen, Ian Bannen – is excellent too.


As Campbell Senior, Cosmo comes across as a near-unstoppable force of nature.  He gets skewered with an arrow at the initial uprising in Lanark but ignores that and carries on fighting; he gets his hand chopped off at the Battle of Stirling but ignores that and carries on fighting too.  Even when someone embeds an axe in his stomach at the Battle of Falkirk, he keeps going long enough to deliver a moving farewell speech to Gleeson.


For the record, James Cosmo supports independence for Scotland.  Indeed, if Scotland’s electorate consisted only of craggy hard-men Scottish character actors, Alex Salmond would have the ‘yes’ vote in the bag – Brian Cox, Peter Mullen, David Hayman and Ken Stott are backing independence as well.


A year later Cosmo appeared in Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting, the movie that gave the world an equally potent image of Scotland, if a rather different one from that presented by Braveheart.  In fact, Trainspotting is the modern-urban-Scottish-junkie yin to Braveheart’s heroic-medieval-Scottish-warrior yang.  In Trainspotting, he plays another dad, this time of Ewan McGregor’s Renton character, a junkie so desperate for his next fix that he’ll crawl into the shit-encrusted bowl of the Worst Toilet in Scotland to get it.


(c) HBO


After Braveheart, Cosmo was kept busy with sword-wielding roles, something that’s continued up to his recent run in Game of Thrones.  However, he’s also become something of a fixture in recent British and Irish horror / thriller movies – he’s appeared in Urban Ghost Story (1998), Outcast (2009), Citadel (2012) and The Glass Man (2011).  That last movie features him alongside the actor and magician Andy Nyman and Neve Campbell, star of the Scream movies.  The Glass Man got good reviews when it was shown at film festivals but mystifyingly it’s never been released in Britain, not even on DVD.  (According to the blog of the movie critic M.J. Simpson, it’s now available on DVD in, strangely enough, Argentina.)  The trailer can be viewed on youtube, though.  Cosmo looks as menacing as ever in it, but it’s rather disconcerting to hear him talking with a Cockney accent.


(c) Spotlight Pictures


Unexpectedly, Cosmo has a further speciality, which is for playing Santa Claus.  According to his IMDb profile he’s now filled the furry boots of Saint Nick on three different occasions, most famously in the 2005 Disney version of C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.


Though he’s well into his seventh decade, James Cosmo looks as daunting as ever.  His visage, bulk and general demeanour suggest a man to whom you definitely don’t want to show any disrespect.  And if you are foolhardy enough to be disrespectful, he’ll probably kebab you on a long rusty medieval pike and simultaneously slash your throat with a sgian dubh.  That’s the sort of guy I’d like to be when I become eligible for my bus-pass.