The ev­ery­man ac­tor and his good for­tune

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. - By Martin Ru­bin


If the curse of even the most suc­cess­ful ac­tors is that there is never quite enough work, then you need look no fur­ther than Sir Derek Ja­cobi’s packed re­sume of stage and screen roles to un­der­stand why he ti­tled his en­gag­ing mem­oir as he did. Age 75, he is star­ring in “Last Tango in Halifax,” the lat­est in a string of such hits be­gin­ning with “I, Claudius” in the 1970s.

More­over, if be­com­ing world fa­mous for roles in movies as well as tele­vi­sion were not enough, he has strut­ted and played his way through an amaz­ing num­ber of Shake­speare’s char­ac­ters, in­clud­ing most of the top ones, in Bri­tain’s most distin­guished the­aters. Read­ing about these parts and his co-stars from Sir Lau­rence Olivier and Sir Ian McKellen to Dame Edith Evans and Dame Mag­gie Smith are more than suf­fi­cient to war­rant buy­ing the book.

In “As Luck Would Have It,” there are won­der­ful sto­ries, such as one about royal pro­to­col at a Wind­sor Cas­tle state din­ner de­lay­ing for ag­o­niz­ing min­utes the treat­ment of a badly burned hand from a “molten hot” gold ser­vice plate. Then there are the en­coun­ters with Princess Mar­garet, pre­dictably capri­cious, dif­fi­cult and nasty, and a sur­pris­ing Mar­garet Thatcher, who told him at din­ner af­ter she had come to see him play the epony­mous priest in Jean Anouilh’s “Becket”:

“You know there are many ways in which what you do, and what I do, are the same. But there is one very in­ter­est­ing thing in which we are very dif­fer­ent. … You re­quire a dark­ened au­di­to­rium, but I need light. I need to see their eyes.”

Mr. Ja­cobi was clearly struck by her own “pierc­ing blue eyes” and writes, “the hairs on my neck stood up … it was just the way she said it, very calm, that com­pletely spooked me.”

Nev­er­the­less, shin­ing forth from al­most ev­ery page is Mr. Ja­cobi’s deep sense of grat­i­tude for the luck that has blessed him through­out his long life. Sure, there have been bumps along the way, like an early re­jec­tion from the pres­ti­gious Royal Shake­speare Com­pany and a much later ter­ri­fy­ing brush with stage fright, but Mr. Ja­cobi pre­sents him­self as one kissed by for­tune from birth.

The only child of work­ing-class par­ents in Lon­don’s East End, he grew up in a house with­out books but with a mum and dad who gave him un­con­di­tional love and sup­ported him in his de­sire to be an ac­tor, spurred by their reg­u­lar and happy vis­its to the lo­cal cin­ema. Abil­ity group­ing in the state school he at­tended en­abled him to win a schol­ar­ship to Cam­bridge Univer­sity, where he acted more than he stud­ied, but still came away with a re­spectable de­gree in his­tory.

In­deed, so var­ied were his stage ex­pe­ri­ences in the fa­bled world of the­atri­cal Cam­bridge, which was very much on the radar screen of the Bri­tish pro­fes­sion, that he felt no need to go to drama school. In­stead, af­ter act­ing with some fu­ture stars whom he would con­tinue to en­counter through­out his ca­reer — and oth­ers, like Sir David Frost and Dame Mar­garet Drab­ble, who would go on to ex­cel in other fields — he honed his craft in the tough of school of provin­cial reper­tory.

In his case, one of the best was based in the large in­dus­trial city of Birm­ing­ham, where he played one clas­sic role af­ter an­other. When the Royal Shake­speare Com­pany re­jected him af­ter an ini­tial show of in­ter­est, Birm­ing­ham hap­pily took him back, and it was not long be­fore he caught the eye of Olivier when play­ing Shake­speare’s Henry VIII and found him­self suc­ces­sively in the great ac­tor-knight’s com­pany at Chich­ester and then, af­ter he as­sumed the lead­er­ship of Bri­tain’s Na­tional Theatre, on its Olympian heights.

Al­though Mr. Ja­cobi mod­estly at­tributes so much of his suc­cess to luck, he re­peat­edly shows the pro­fes­sion­al­ism, in­dus­tri­ous­ness and in­tu­itive­ness that en­abled him to take full ad­van­tage of the op­por­tu­ni­ties that came his way. He is aware that he has a cer­tain qual­ity, al­though with char­ac­ter­is­tic mod­esty, he frames it in the fa­mil­iar con­text of good for­tune:

“As an ac­tor I had the bless­ing for a very long time to have a pho­to­graphic mem­ory and to be a very fast study. I like to feel there is some kind of un­writ­ten con­tract be­tween me and the pub­lic, and that it knows about me and knows what to ex­pect, namely that I bring to the parts I play a kind of ev­ery­man re­al­ity, not some­thing ex­treme and out of this world, so that they iden­tify with me be­cause, re­ally, I’m not so spe­cial.”

Few read­ers would agree with those last few words, I feel sure, af­ter en­coun­ter­ing this un­com­monly ap­peal­ing man in these pages and see­ing what he has achieved with all that talent, hard work and, yes, luck. Martin Ru­bin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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