Lindsay was born Robert Lindsay Stevenson in Ilkeston, Derbyshire, the son of Norman and Joyce Stevenson. After leaving Gladstone Boys school, Lindsay enrolled in the drama department of Clarendon college in Nottingham, intending to become a drama teacher. However, friends at Nottingham Playhouse encouraged him to apply to Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA), and in 1968 he was accepted there with the aid of a government grant. After he graduated, he took a job as a dialect coach for a repertory company in Essex, and then joined a regional theatre group.
Lindsay first came to prominence as the cockney layabout Jakey Smith in ITV comedy series Get Some In!, and he appeared in the fourth series of the BBC sitcom The Good Life. He was then given the starring role as incompetent revolutionary Wolfie Smith in the BBC sitcom Citizen Smith. He followed this with roles in a number of the BBC Television Shakespeareproductions, including Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing, and as Edmund in King Lear opposite Sir Laurence Olivier in 1983.
Lindsay enjoyed a successful stage career, especially during the 1980s and 90s. Highlights of his theatrical career include:
- the role of Edmund, the illegitimate son of Gloucester in King Lear opposite Laurence Olivier
- the role of Bill Snibson in the hugely acclaimed 1984 London revival of Me and My Girl (for which Lindsay won an Olivier Award) which subsequently transferred to Broadway, earning him a Tony Award (against competition that included Colm Wilkinson, Roger Allam and Terrence Mann in Les Mis in both cases).
- the role of the titular Becket opposite Derek Jacobi as King Henry II in 1996 (for which he won another Olivier Award)
- the role of Fagin in Cameron Mackintosh's acclaimed London revival of Oliver! at the Palladium. Lindsay won a third Olivier for this performance.
- he starred in a production of The Entertainer at the Old Vic in 2007
- in 2010 he returned to his native Derby to star in the title role of Derby Live's production of Onassis before its transfer to London's West End.
Lindsay became famous in the UK for his role as incompetent revolutionary Wolfie Smith in the BBC sitcom Citizen Smith. Earlier, a young Lindsay appeared on The Good Life in the 1977 series 4 episode entitled Our Speaker Today. Lindsay's success on Broadway and in the West End led to the starring role in the film Bert Rigby, You're a Fool, although it was not a commercial success. However, he continued to enjoy success on television, and in 1991 played the leading role in Alan Bleasdale's dark comedy serial G.B.H., for which he won aBAFTA for his performance. He also starred in the surreal Channel 4 sitcom Nightingales, and appeared in the films Fierce Creatures and Divorcing Jack. In 1998 he was cast in the recurring role of Captain Pellew in the ITV mini-series Hornblower, based on the novels of C.S. Forester. He was also the original choice for the lead role in the drama Cracker, but turned the part down as he didn't want to become too associated with heavyweight, darker drama characters. He later appeared as Fagin in the 1999 ITV Oliver Twist miniseries.
In October 2005 he starred in a ITV drama series Jericho, about a Scotland Yard detective investigating murder and kidnapping in London's Soho in the 1950s. In January and February 2006, he appeared as Sneath in two loosely linked Stephen Poliakoff dramas, Friends and Crocodiles and Gideon's Daughter, shown on BBC One. He was the only actor to appear in both productions.
He has also portrayed Prime Minister Tony Blair in the Channel 4 satires A Very Social Secretary and The Trial of Tony Blair. In 2003, he made a guest appearance in an episode inAbsolutely Fabulous and also provided his voice as the narrator for the BBC documentary series Seven Wonders of the Industrial World.
Lindsay appeared in the 8th Ricky Gervais Video Podcast, where Gervais announced Lindsay would be starring in the second series of Extras. He appeared in the last episode of the second series playing an egotistical, pushy version of himself. He also appeared in the romantic comedy Wimbledon, as the tennis club manager who hires Peter Colt and played the protagonist, Maddox, from the Radio 4 comedy Electric Ink by Alistair Beaton in 2009.
Lindsay sings the recorded version of Derby County Football Club's song "Steve Bloomer's Watchin'", played and sung by the fans at the beginning of every home game, and usually at the start of the second half and after a good win.
In 1974 Lindsay married Cheryl Hall, who later appeared alongside him in Citizen Smith. They divorced in 1980, when he started a long-term relationship with actress Diana Weston, with whom he has a daughter, Sydney Laura Stevenson (born Hammersmith, London, 2 April 1988), who co-starred with him in three episodes of My Family. Since acting as Admiral Pellew in the Hornblower series, Lindsay has become good friends with the real Pellew family.
He then left Weston for actress/presenter Rosemarie Ford. The couple have two sons, both born in Hillingdon, London: Samuel Lindsay Stevenson (born 18 November 1999) and James Lindsay Stevenson (born 8 April 2003). The couple married on 31 December 2006. Lindsay researched his family tree in the third series of Who Do You Think You Are?, which aired on 13 September 2006. He travelled to his hometown and to Turkey, where his grandfather Raymond Dunmore had taken part in the Gallipoli campaign during World War I. Lindsay has been a life-long supporter of Derby County F.C., a fact which he stated in a short section for CBBC's Newsround entitled 'My Team'.
Lindsay has always been known for his left-wing politics. He describes himself as a staunch socialist, and has marched in the past in support of miners. He vehemently opposed Prime Minister Tony Blair's decisions to go to war in Afghanistan and Iraq, and now feels disillusioned with mainstream politics: "You see those images of Iraq and Afghanistan and Lebanon, don't you? And I suspect somewhere, when he goes home at night and the kids are in bed, he must go, Jesus, what have I done?"