The heart of the matter
Behind endearing Kenny the plumber is a doting dad ... and possibly a Viking
THERE’S been a question gnawing at Shane Jacobson for most of his life. A myth talked about at family gatherings, mentioned in conversation among friends, yet never fully explored.
Could the Jacobson clan be descendants of Vikings? “That’s the big topic in our family,” Jacobson says, laughing.
“Someone might say ‘golly, he doesn’t mind eating a fair meal’ and I’d lean on it and say ‘well we’re Vikings, you’re lucky I’m using a fork’.”
It’s the reason the 46-year-old Aussie star of TV, film and stage leapt at the chance to be part of the eighth season of SBS’s Who Do You Think You Are, a show which delves deep into the ancestry of prominent Australians.
Was Jacobson apprehensive about what he might find? Royal blood? Lost family treasure? A shameful family secret?
“I had no fear because it was all before me so I wasn’t responsible,” he said. “You’re a detective exploring your own life. What did surprise me was how quickly it became very personal. It defines who you are.”
Spurred on by his dad Ron, who was eager for answers, Jacobson began a quest which took him across the world to Finland. Jacobson describes his dad as one of his best mates and there’s an easygoing rapport between the pair in the episode’s opening exchanges.
“We’re mates and that’s a helluva thing to have,” Jacobson says. “I didn’t realise not everybody has that.
“When I was younger I wasn’t quite aware how lucky I was to have that relationship with dad.”
Jacobson’s parents split when he was young, but his recollection of his childhood isn’t of a broken home, it’s one filled with warm memories.
Jacobson was raised in Avondale Heights in the western suburbs of Melbourne with his brother Clayton and sisters Natalie and Kim. As Jacobson tells it, from his mother Jill, a calisthenics teacher, he learnt to dance and cook; from his father he learnt how to box and deliver a punchline. Both mum and dad encouraged their children to work hard and have fun. His dad was born into a carnival family and raised in a tent until he was 21.
Those working class roots are ingrained in Jacobson and his recent journey into his ancestry only cemented that. “Working class is my family and I now know I come from a long line of working class people,” he says.
“It should be working classy, I reckon.”
It’s this down-to-earth attitude which has endeared him to fans and made Jacobson one of the most durable actors in the country. Whether he’s starring in ABC’s Jack Irish alongside Guy Pearce, or in supporting roles on films such as The Dressmaker, Jacobson loves it all.
Asked which he prefers, stage, TV or film, Jacobson offers up a simple analogy. “It’s like beer, wine and champagne, they’re all manufactured differently but aren’t they all great.”
Away from the spotlight, Jacobson prides himself on being multi-talented and good with his hands. This is a man as at home building a chook shed or fixing his tractor as he is adept at crafting characters for the screen. He’s acquired almost every licence you can get your hands on, from bus to boating.
Jacobson’s philosophy is simple: there is no such thing as wasted knowledge. “I know at school we sat there thinking what are we going to do with fractions? But when the pie turns up you cut it into quarters.”
That thirst for knowledge is something he hopes to pass to his own children. A father of four, Jacobson’s children are all under 10 years old, and at the age where their curiosity is insatiable. Jacobson hopes to nurture that, as his parents did for him.
“All the things I have learnt in my life have benefited me at some point and shaped me as a person. As a father, I can pass that on to my kids because who knows what they want to do yet?”
Jacobson is relishing fatherhood.
“I want to do such a good job of being a parent in the early part of their life, to make sure I have built them into decent young adults and humans,” Jacobson says.
But as his children grow up faster than he can imagine he knows he’ll have to ease on the parenting brakes at some point. “I will always care for them, will always worry about them and love them. But there comes a point where you have to stop advising them, the training wheels have to come off, because that’s how they get their balance.”
What does he hope his children will say about him when they’re his age? “I’d love them to say he was great fun when we were young, he’s still great fun and he’s become as much a mate to me as a parent,” Jacobson says.
While Jacobson can pick and choose his roles now, that was not always the case. In the early part of his career, he would juggle gigs as a stand-up comedian and acting in commercials with work as a credit card fraud investigator or other odd jobs.
In 2006 that all changed with a sweet, earnest portaloo plumber with a heart of gold and a lisp named Kenny Smyth. Kenny, starring Jacobson in the main role and directed by his brother Clayton, was a critical success and took home almost $10 million at the local box office.
Jacobson became a household name. The funny, heart-warming mockumentary celebrated its 10th anniversary last month.
“I can’t believe it’s been 10 years,” Jacobson says. “Still to this day people will yell out Kenny on the street and some people say ‘you must be sick of that’ and I think ‘are you kidding?’. Kenny gave us our careers.”
The inspiration for the character was Jacobson’s dad and his eclectic uncles. “Our dad and uncles were our superheroes,” he says. “They were gentlemen who would lay their coat on a puddle for a woman, but if someone was to cross them, they were strong men and could sort themselves out.”
Probably an apt description of Jacobson himself. He’s often described as the quintessential Aussie bloke. A man who can have a beer with a tradie at the local pub at noon and charm business leaders as an MC at a conference in the evening. He chuckles at the narrative.
“I’ve been told by people that I give some blokes hope. Don’t get me wrong. I tried to be flash and impressive but I couldn’t get it to stick.”
Perhaps it’s a combination of his self-deprecating humour and hard-working ethos that have won audiences over. He’s relatable. One of us. And importantly success hasn’t gone to his head.
“When you walk down the street and people recognise you it doesn’t make you better than them,” Jacobson says.
“I do wish single mothers, when they were walking down the street, people would say ‘wow, that woman raised three kids on her own, good on you mate, love your parenting’, wouldn’t that be great.”
Since returning from his Finnish adventure the phone has been ringing off the hook from family members with one question on their lips: are we Vikings? “I’ve shared a bit of it but I want them to watch and be surprised,” Jacobson says.
With a slate of films, TV and stage roles and another book coming out, the ever-busy Jacobson says he’s not sure when audiences will see him next.
“I could turn up anywhere,” he said.
When you walk down the street and people recognise you it doesn’t make you better than them
Who Do You Think You Are airs on Tuesday, September 13 at 7.30pm on SBS