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Comedy actors who played real-life killers

Stephen Marchant arriving for the 'I Give It A Year' premiere, at the Vue Leicester Square, London. 24/01/2013 Picture by: Alexandra Glen
Stephen Marchant arriving for the 'I Give It A Year' premiere, at the Vue Leicester Square, London. 24/01/2013 Picture by: Alexandra Glen /

They made their names as comedic performers, but these stars of the small and big screens have also surprised fans by transforming themselves into notorious real-life killers.

Olivia Colman

She may be an Oscar-winning national treasure these days, but for millions of comedy fans, Olivia Colman will always be synonymous with earlier comedy roles in the likes of Peep Show and Hot Fuzz. That makes it all the more newsworthy when she took on the role of Susan Edwards, the woman who conspired with her husband Christopher to execute her parents in 1998.

As recounted in the TV drama Landscapers, the parents were shot dead with a World War Two revolver in their Nottinghamshire home, then buried in the garden. Susan and Christopher then carried on a calm charade for over 15 years, forging letters and Christmas cards suggesting Susan’s parents were still alive while plundering their victims’ pension and benefits accounts.

Bizarrely, the killers splurged a lot of the money on movie memorabilia, showing a special fixation on anything related to film icon Gary Cooper. The (very) darkly comedic aspects of the case, such as the Gary Cooper obsession and the fact that a letter arrived from Buckingham Palace congratulating Susan’s dead father on coming up to his 100th birthday, makes the story a natural match for Olivia Colman’s talent for deadpan, absurdist performances.

Stephen Merchant

Famed as the co-creator of classic sitcoms The Office and Extras, Stephen Merchant is also known for his rib-tickling performances in The Ricky Gervais Show and Hello Ladies. While his gangly frame and trademark spectacles make Merchant one of the most distinctive-looking stars of the comedy scene, he’s practically unrecognisable in Four Lives, a gritty TV drama based on the shocking story of so-called 'Grindr Killer' Stephen Port.

Between 2014 and 2015, Port used dating apps to lure four men to their deaths in Barking. What made the case particularly disturbing was the brazen manner in which Port left their bodies to be discovered. Three of his victims were found in the same graveyard, yet detectives took a woefully long time to realise a serial killer was at work.

As the title suggests, Four Lives puts the focus squarely on the lives of the victims, rather than on the sinister and remorseless killer. But Merchant’s remarkable metamorphosis into the Port, complete with bobbed wig, must rank as one of the most unlikely and fascinating acting showcases in British telly history.

Steve Carrell

Think Steve Carrell, and his star-making comedic turns in The Office, The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Anchorman will probably spring to mind. But in 2014 he startled film-goers by turning himself into John du Pont, the eccentric scion of one of the wealthiest families in the United States, who murdered a major wrestling star dead for reasons that still defy explanation.

His victim, Dave Schultz, was a hugely popular Olympic gold medallist who’d been living, along with his family, on du Pont’s sprawling estate. Here, du Pont established a sophisticated training facility for wrestlers and seemed to have a firm bond with Schultz. Yet, under the surface du Pont was evidently battling strange personal demons.

Increasingly paranoid and isolated, du Pont was prone to waving his guns around and once kicked Black athletes off the estate because of a bizarre superstition about the colour black. It came to a head one cold January day in 1996 when he drove over to Schultz’s home and shot the wrestler dead in a moment of manic fury.

His familiar face made grey and spectral by prosthetics, Carrell’s turn as the tragically unhinged du Pont earned him an Oscar nomination. It’s an example of how casting against type can sometimes make for a truly iconic performance.

Martin Clunes

Back in 2002, a particularly audacious casting decision saw Men Behaving Badly star Martin Clunes step into the shoes of John George Haigh, aka the Acid Bath Murderer., who operated in the 1940s. Responsible for the killings of at least six people, Haigh earned his notorious nickname by submerging his victims’ corpses in sulphuric acid.

As that MO suggests, Haigh’s crimes were notably ruthless and grisly. After ingratiating himself with a family of three, he killed and dissolved all of them before nonchalantly stealing their assets. Other victims included a doctor and his wife, whom he lured to a quiet place and slaughtered to get his hands on thousands of pounds worth of possessions.

What was described as Haigh’s 'callous, cheerful, bland and almost friendly indifference' to his crimes is perfectly embodied by Martin Clunes in the TV drama A is For Acid, with the comedy star also looking surprisingly similar to the dapper and charming serial killer. That said, the spectacle of Gary from Men Behaving Badly brutally slaughtering random people and turning their corpses into gunk would probably have disturbed audiences as much as the details of the crimes themselves.

Top Image: Olivia Colman at Moet BIFA 2014 - Ibsan73 | Wikimedia | CC BY 2.0