Considered heir to a generation of British stage actors best known for their interpretations of Shakespearean heroes and villains, Derek Jacobi (born 1938) is also greatly respected for his film roles and television work.
Jacobi was born on October 22, 1938, in the East London area of Leytonstone. His father, Alfred Jacobi, was a German immigrant to England and the manager of a department store. Derek was the only child of Alfred and Daisy Masters Jacobi, a secretary. When he was just four, his parents took him to a pantomime performance of Cinderella at the London Palladium where Jacobi was one of several young audience members selected to come on stage. He was awed by the experience, and soon made his debut in the tough dual role of The Prince and the Swineherd at the age of six in a kindergarten-cast production staged at his local library. A few years later, Jacobi survived a childhood bout with rheumatic fever that left him unable to walk for a time; when he regained the use of his legs, he worked determinedly to recover his physical strength through vigorous exercise.
Cambridge in the 1950s
Jacobi continued to act throughout his teens, and garnered favorable press for his debut as Hamlet in the 1955 National Youth Theatre production of the Shakespearean tragedy at the Edinburgh Festival. After graduating from Leyton County High School, Jacobi entered St. John's College at Cambridge University on a scholarship. He promptly enrolled in the university's venerable Amateur Dramatic Club as well as its Marlowe Society, the latter named in honor of the Elizabethan playwright and first English dramatist to write in blank verse.
Though Jacobi was officially a student in history, Cambridge was well-established as a training ground for the London stage. He recalled those spirited university days in a 1979 interview with Ruth Hamilton in the New York Times. "We acted all the time. It was like being in [repertory theater]. You fitted in your academic work between engagements," Jacobi reminisced. "What mistakes you made, you made in public-not the classroom." Both Ian McKellen and Trevor Nunn, later fellow luminaries in British drama as well, were friends of Jacobi's at Cambridge. The Marlowe Society's annual production was a much-anticipated event at the college, and Jacobi's senior year lead in Edward II landed him a job with the Birmingham Repertory Company in 1960.
Talent Recognized by Olivier
In Birmingham, Jacobi moved from Jacobean and Elizabethan drama to roles in modern experimental theater. A stint in Birmingham was considered a stepping stone to the prestigious Royal Shakespeare Company. When Jacobi received what he believed was his RSC offer, he resigned from Birmingham and went to Stratford-upon-Avon. He was surprised to learn that he was simply being asked to audition; terrified at his blunder, he performed poorly and summarily received a rejection letter. Fortunately, he was able to return to the Birmingham company.
One of his idols, Laurence Olivier, had also achieved early fame in the Birmingham Company, and Olivier's attendance at a performance of Shakespeare's Henry VIII one day in 1963 propelled Jacobi to minor stardom when the veteran actor offered him roles in two productions that he was directing for the Chichester Festival Theater. Jacobi accepted, resigned again from the Birmingham Repertory, and later that year was also invited by Olivier to join the upstart National Theatre Company. He was just 24, and the only unknown member of the octet that had been hand-picked by Olivier.
Jacobi spent eight years with the National Theatre, which provided him with ample opportunity to take on an array of important roles from the annals of drama. These included the Shakespearean staples Othello and Much Ado About Nothing, as well as more contemporary works such as Chekhov's Three Sisters and plays by George Bernard Shaw and Noel Coward. Othello was even filmed by Warner Brothers and released for the screen in 1966. But over the decade, London's obstinate theater critics gave Jacobi mixed reviews for his work, and a poor reception at one 1971 production caused Jacobi to resign. He returned to the Birmingham Repertory and the following season won enthusiastic praise for his mad king in Oedipus Rex.
Increasingly Diverse Roles
A serious film offer came for Jacobi in The Day of the Jackal in 1973; an assassination thriller set in France and based on the Frederick Forsyth novel of the same name. Jacobi also appeared in The Odessa Files and in an acclaimed film version of Three Sisters directed for the stage by Olivier. In addition to the forays into film, Jacobi also became involved with another respected and innovative drama group, the Prospect Theater Company. He appeared in several of its outstanding productions of classical, Elizabethan, and modern dramas both in London and in foreign locations.
Jacobi also began appearing in television projects, the first of which was a British production of a seven-part series for ABC-TV in 1973 on the Viennese waltz master, Johann Strauss and his family. But North American audiences came to know Jacobi through two series originally produced for British networks and then aired on public television. The first was The Pallisers, an adaptation of Anthony Trollope's work of fiction. Like other British imports on PBS during this era, it became surprisingly popular with American viewers. Jacobi was then cast as a doomed Roman emperor in the 13-part I, Claudius, based on the novels by Robert Graves. It debuted on PBS in 1977 to excellent reviews and very high ratings, and was periodically re-broadcast over the next few years.
Jacobi as the Danish Prince
In November of 1979, the Prospect Theater Company became the first British troupe to perform in communist China, and Jacobi electrified Chinese audiences with his lead in Hamlet. It was also broadcast on live television, and 100 million Chinese reportedly tuned in as well. The following year, Jacobi finally made his Broadway debut in a play called The Suicide by Nikolai Erdman. Set in Moscow during the repressive Stalinist era, Jacobi's performance was widely reviewed and commended in the press. The Suicide, however, was an expensive production and box office receipts were less than expected; it closed less than two months later.
Also in 1980, Jacobi appeared as one of a notorious trio of elite Britons unmasked as Soviet spies in the Granada Television docu-drama Philby, Burgess and MacLean. The production won rave reviews on both sides of the Atlantic. But at mid-career as primarily a stage actor, Jacobi was most readily identified with his title role in Hamlet, which he reprised once more for a BBC-PBS production. Jacobi's interpretation of the inexperienced prince would become the definitive version of the popular Shakespearean tragedy for his generation; ironically, Olivier had gained fame himself decades before with his portrayal; a future colleague of Jacobi's, Kenneth Branagh, would inherit the crown later. Jacobi admitted it was difficult for a stage-trained actor to work in the electronic medium. "The main difficulty is the lack of an audience. The plays were intended for the theater," Jacobi said of Hamlet and other Shakespearean works to Hamilton. "They were written in such a way-certainly, with the great tragedies-that the actor reaches peaks and valleys and charts his way through the play in a series of rhythms. It's like a piece of music. In television, this, naturally, is cut up."
"Absolute Stark Terror"
Jacobi finally received the long-awaited offer from the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1982. With the company, he returned to Broadway in 1984 for a dual tour of Cyrano de Bergerac and Much Ado about Nothing. The two roles were scheduled to run simultaneously, with Jacobi enacting the swashbuckler with the prominent nose during the matinee of Cyrano de Bergerac, and then readying for a hesitant Shakespearean lover for the evening's performance in Much Ado about Nothing. Initially, he was wary of accepting the roles, since he had been heavily involved in television work for the past few years. "I knew I had to get back to the theater, but I was afraid I was losing my nerve and never would," Jacobi told Leslie Bennetts of the New York Times. "I'll never forget opening night of Much Ado in Stratford-wearing high heels on a steeply raked glass stage. I knew the part backwards and forwards, but suddenly I thought I didn't know anything, and it was the worst moment of my life. My costume turned black with sweat. Stage fright is too mild a word for it; it is absolute stark terror."
Jacobi continued to work with the RSC and take the occasional film role. He was cast as Nicodemus in the 1982 film The Secret of NIMH. He won his first Antoinette Perry Award in 1988 for Breaking the Code as Alan Turing, the real-life English cryptographer who deciphered a vital enemy transmission code during World War II. That same year, he directed Branagh in the young actor's stage debut in Hamlet, and the following year appeared in Branagh's film version of Henry V. In 1996, Jacobi appeared as himself in the small independent film by Al Pacino, Looking for Richard, an exploration on the role of Shakespeare's Richard II.
Unsure about Tonsure
Jacobi returned to PBS with great success in the mid-1990s as the lead in the Mystery!series Brother Cadfael. He played a twelfth-century crime-solving monk in Shrewsbury, England, an informally trained physician and veteran of one of the Crusades who solves local murder mysteries-at times against the orders of his religious superiors-using his extensive knowledge of botany. Based on the novels of Ellis Peters, the Cadfael series, which ran from 1994 to 1999, was filmed in Hungary and called for Jacobi to shave his head into the distinctive Benedictine tonsure. "They can get people on the moon but they can't create a state-of-the-art tonsured wig," Jacobi said in an interview with Patricia Brennan of the Washington Post. "I will only do three-and-a half inch diameter, no more-it's like being mutilated. I think one of the reasons [the monks] did it was self-mutilation, or the crown of thorns, or so that God can see your thoughts easier."
In 1998, Jacobi played the notoriously ill-tempered British painter Francis Bacon in the biopic Love Is the Devil, based on one of the artist's romantic involvements that ended in a suicide. "Jacobi projects Bacon's legendary charisma and cruelly cutting charm," said Robert Sklar in an ARTnews review. In 1999, the actor was scheduled to appear in Joan of Arc: The Virgin Warrior. Knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1994, Jacobi also received several honors in 1997 in Washington, D.C. as part of an anniversary gala for the Folger Shakespeare Library. He attended a reception at the White House, was honored with a National Press Club luncheon forum, and was presented with the Sir John Gielgud Award for Excellence in the Dramatic Arts by the Shakespeare Theater.
Somewhat ironically, Jacobi is a firm believer that the part-time actor and corn merchant known as William Shakespeare did not actually write the plays credited to him. He and many scholars believe that the works were instead penned by the far more worldly and learned 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward Devere. Jacobi is far from a traditionalist regarding interpretations of the bard's plays, and has been showered throughout his career with critical affection for bringing a modern feel to the centuries-old dramas. "Shakespeare is not easy, and the more accessible it can be made without ruining the ideas, the better," Jacobi told the Washington Post. "There is such a world of treasure to be found that the plays will never be exhausted. Each generation finds new truths, each actor finds new interpretations. There can't ever be a definitive production. [With each new production] you bring out another relevance, and make them understandable."
Further Reading on Derek Jacobi
ARTnews, September, 1998.
Boston Globe, November 8, 1998.
New York, September 22, 1980.
New York Times, June 10, 1979; October 24, 1984; January 20, 1985.
Newsweek, October 22, 1984.
People, November 10, 1980.
Washington Post, January 12, 1995; August 17, 1997.