The heart of the mat­ter

Be­hind en­dear­ing Kenny the plumber is a dot­ing dad ... and pos­si­bly a Vik­ing

Life & Style Weekend - - READ - BY Jim Alouat

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

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