Now his ironic performance as love interest Mark Darcy in Bridget Jones’s Diary looks set to make him one of the biggest names in British films—a very English heart-throb to rank alongside Hugh Grant and Rupert Graves.
But as our pictures show, he wasn’t always so dashing. In his student days, he wore flares, an orange waistcoat and dodgy rocker hairdo as he larked around with friends for the 1979 end-of-year photo at Barton Peveril sixth-form college at Eastleigh Hants. bMr Darcy would not have been impressed by their antics as a friend playfully hooked a walking stick round Colin’s neck. But his time at college did mark a turning point. He took up drama, discovered rock music—especially Genesis and The Who—and became a pin-up for the first time.
Teacher Penny Edwards remembers that he was a hit with the girls as well as being one of the lads. She says: “He was very sociable and a lot of the girls liked him.” This really beautiful girl had a terrible crush on him, but they never got together. It became a running joke.
“Colin was very sensitive to literature and had this stage presence."
"I wasn’t surprised he did so well. Underneath the laddish exterior was quite a shrewd character who knew exactly what he wanted to do.”
College was the first time he really felt accepted and started making serious plans for an acting career. Before that he’d floundered around, unsure of how to go about chasing his dreams.
Travelling seemed to be in his blood, but it meant that he was never in one place long enough to settle down. Born in Grayshott, Hant, he spent his childhood moving around as his father, a teacher, travelled abroad to work.
Today, with an Italian wife, an American ex, and an 11-year-old Canadian-American son, William, Firth spends much of his time flying all over the world.
His teacher parents David and Shirley were born in India and carried on travelling as Colin was growing up. At two weeks old they took him to Nigeria.
He showed early signs of being an entertainer. Banned from watching TV, he took up piano lessons and kept his sister Kate and brother Jonathan amused with jokes and impressions. David says, “Colin always had a very vivid imagination. He loved dressing up and really liked Batman.” Soon, the piano lessons were replaced by Saturday morning acting classes run by Freda Kelsall, who was to coach him for 10 years. She is a close friend, and flew to Italy for his wedding to Livia.
When Colin was 11, the family moved again—this time to America, setting up home in St Louis, Missouri. Posing in a lumberjack shirt for his high-school yearbook picture, he looks every inch the all-American kid. But he was shunned by the other pupils for being different and became a loner. He said later: “It was a really nasty school. I was put in a class of guys with long hair, earrings and combat jackets with drug slogans on their backs who would bring drugs to school. I was still into train sets."
Teacher Carol Welstahoff remembers: “The other kids didn’t take to him because he was different. To them, he was your stereotypical English schoolboy.
“I think it was a lonely time, but he spent a lot of it reading. He was a very conscientious, top-of-the-class student.”
His dad explains: “He would have found it difficult fitting in at any school—partly because of moving and party because he wanted to go off and follow his own interests. He started a band with some friends, playing the guitar and being the lead singer.”
Back in England, the family moved to Winchester and Colin went to Montgomery of Alamein secondary school—in the class above comedian Jack Dee—after failing his 11-plus.
But he felt he was seen as “posh” because of his middle-class upbringing. He recalls: “There was a whole area of playground chat I couldn’t join in. We didn’t have popular culture. I hadn’t seen Crossroads, Magpie or Randall and Hopkirk.”
The teachers despised him, he believes. He says: “I had the intelligence, but never worked out how to do exams. Arrogance got me through school.”
He took part-time jobs as a dustman and paperboy, but never seriously contemplated anything but acting. By the time he got to college, his mind was made up. He auditioned for drama schools and spent a summer working with the National Youth Theatre. Determined to make it, Colin moved again, to London. He worked in a series of poorly-paid jobs at the Shaw Theatre and National Theatre, eventually winning a place with a grant at the Drama Centre.
He lived in a rundown bedsit in North London, and times were hard. Freda recalls: “I went to see him and he didn’t have much money—he had holes in his shoes and was going to walk two miles to a play.
“But he was determined. I though: ‘This boy is going somewhere.’
“And he has. He’s a lovely person. He might be a heart-throb, but he’s still got his feet on the ground. He never stops talking, and he’s very funny—very kind.”
Firth didn’t have to wait long for his big break. In his last year at the Drama Centre, he was snapped up for a starring part in Another Country on the West End stage.
His proud father says: “We never dreamt he would be straight on to the West End stage. The he was in the film version. It was about rebels against the system, so it was quite appropriate. Seeing him on stage was amazing, but the thing that made the biggest impact was going down the road past the Shaftesbury Theatre and seeing his portrait, huge, outside.”
Colin had a string of stage and TV roles, including playing a policeman in the Granada serious Crown Court in 1984.
By 1988, it looked as if Hollywood was beckoning when he won the title role in the costume drama Valmont. But the movie flopped and he was off on his travels again—this time to British Columbia with his co-star American actress Meg Tilly. They set up home in a forest cabin and had their son William. Firth wrote fiction and developed a handy streak, but the relationship ended after five years and he returned to England.
Although the series based on Jane Austen’s novel made him a household name, Colin gets tired of the Darcy label. He said: “I enjoyed the recognition in some ways, but it was as if my whole career came down to that one part. It wasn’t really me that everyone was crazy about—it was the character.”
David adds: “I think people are quite shocked when they meet him. They expect him to be like Darcy, but he is quite an excitable person who likes larking around.
“He’s very noisy—the life and soul of the party. He’s a very dominant personality. He doesn’t get recognised much because he doesn’t look like Darcy in his own clothes. But he was in a play in London and a group of American women arrived to see it. They had travelled all that way to see him.”
Now his fans have had to accept that Colin is spoken for. He fell in love with student Livia, now 31, on the set of another BBC production, Nostromo. They married in Italy in 1997 and live in Islington, North London.
Despite his hectic schedule, he always finds time for his family. His sister Kate, 38. is a voice coach and brother Jonathan, 33, is an actor. Their dad says: “He is very close to his family and tries to see as much of them as possible. He lost four grandparents in the last five years. One of the funerals was only a few weeks ago and he was there, very upset.”
With a successful career and a new baby to fuss over, it looks as if the nomadic Mr Darcy may be settling down at last. He said recently: “I’ve always felt stimulated by change and travel and things that are new, but as I’ve got older I’ve felt the need to put down roots.” Modestly, he adds: “I never believed I had the capacity to be a star. Sometimes I can’t get my head round the fact that I’m a dad and successful. It doesn’t seem like my story.”
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