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Derek Jacobi Biography

Home > Actors > J > Jacobi, Derek > Biography

Birth Name: Derek Jacobi
Born: 10/22/1938
Birth Place: Leytonstone, England, GB

Sir Derek Jacobi was born on Oct. 22, 1938 in the East-London area of Leytonstone, U.K. Raised in a working-class family during the war, his mother, Daisy, was a secretary and his father, Alfred, worked as a tobacconist and ran a sweet shop. Jacobi's mother, who harbored theatrical ambitions of her own, encouraged her son's early interest in the theater. By age six, Jacobi appeared in his first kindergarten production, performed at the local library. A childhood bout with rheumatic fever cost him the use of his legs temporarily, although strenuous physical rehabilitation and sheer determination soon allowed him to walk the boards once more. Attending Leyton County High School, Jacobi joined an amateur theatre group, where he garnered considerable notice for his portrayal of "Hamlet" with the National Youth Theatre at the 1955 Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Soon after, he entered Cambridge University on a scholarship and as a member of the school's drama societies trained and performed regularly with the likes of Ian McKellen. Jacobi's performance in the title role of "Edward II" for the university's Marlowe Society during his senior year earned the aspiring thespian an invitation to join the Birmingham Repertory Theatre immediately after graduation. While there, he played roles ranging from Henry VIII in both Shakespeare's play and Robert Bolt's "A Man for All Seasons," in addition to the character of Ferdinand in "The Tempest."

Not long after a botched audition with the vaunted Royal Shakespeare Company, Jacobi was noticed by Laurence Olivier during a performance at Birmingham in 1963. Impressed, Olivier offered the young actor roles in a pair of productions he was directing for the Chichester Festival. Following the Chichester performances, Olivier asked Jacobi to join the newly formed National Theatre Company, with whom he would spend the next eight years. Things were moving quickly for Jacobi, who made his London stage debut as Laertes in "Hamlet" at the National Theatre for its inaugural production in 1963. The following year, he was Cassio to Olivier's "Othello" in a production that also marked his feature film debut when it was filmed in 1965. Over the next three decades, Jacobi offered distinguished performances in such roles as Touchstone in an all-male version of "As You Like It" in 1967. Other highlights included an Olivier-directed production of Chekhov's "Three Sisters" (1970), which was also released as a film. The harsh London theatre critics were not always kind to Jacobi, however, and after a particularly bad reception to a performance in 1971, he left the National and returned to Birmingham, where he won over audiences with his portrayal of the mad king in a 1972 mounting of "Oedipus Rex."

By the mid-1970s, Jacobi, primarily known for his stage work, gradually began to make headway in film with such roles as a detective's assistant in director Fred Zinnemann's adaptation of Frederick Forsyth's novel "The Day of the Jackal" (1973) and as a printer in a pivotal sequence of "The Odessa File" (1974), based on another Forsyth bestseller. It was, however, on television where Jacobi first gained true international recognition for his brilliant, award-winning turn as the twitching, stuttering, doomed emperor in the British miniseries "I, Claudius" (PBS, 1977). That same year, he earned further acclaim as one third of a trio of British citizens accused of spying for the Soviets in the historical docudrama "Philby, Burgess and Maclean (Granada, 1977), prior to picking up another film role as the victim of a deadly case of mistaken identity in Otto Preminger's interpretation of Graham Greene's "The Human Factor" (1979). Returning to the works of Shakespeare, Jacobi went on to give memorable performances as "Richard II" (PBS, 1979), followed by an indelible turn as "Hamlet" on stage for the second time that same year. Less successful was his first trip to America in 1980, where he made his New York stage debut in the Stalinist-ear comedic drama "The Suicide," which closed within two months.

On American network television, Jacobi gave a mesmerizing portrayal of Adolph Hitler in the ambitious miniseries "Inside the Third Reich" (ABC, 1982), and as the complex anti-hero Archdeacon Frollo opposite Anthony Hopkins in a lavish production of Victor Hugo's "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" (CBS, 1982). Venturing into new mediums, he lent his melodious voice to the role of the wise old rat Nicodemus for the animated feature "The Secret of NIMH" (1982). Having at last joined the revered Royal Shakespeare Company, Jacobi returned to Broadway two years later where he appeared opposite Sinéad Cusack in simultaneous revival productions of "Cyrano de Bergerac" and "Much Ado About Nothing" in 1984-85. The latter production earned him the Best Actor Tony Award in 1985. In 1987, he offered a tour-de-force portrayal of Alan Turing, a gay man who cracked the German Enigma code during WWII, in the Broadway production of "Breaking the Code." In a pair of installments from the "Hallmark Hall of Fame" series, Jacobi appeared as Archibald Craven in "The Secret Garden" (CBS, 1987), followed by an Emmy-winning turn as a mysterious stranger posing as a former POW in "Graham Greene's 'The Tenth Man'" (CBS, 1988).

In addition to the many luminaries of the British stage that he had worked with, Jacobi also forged a fruitful working relationship with actor-director Kenneth Branagh. On stage, he directed the young Branagh in "Hamlet" in 1988, and then switched positions when he essayed The Chorus in the Branagh-directed feature adaptation of "Henry V" (1989). Jacobi twice worked with director Christine Edzard; first, in "Little Dorrit" (1988), as the middle-aged bachelor in love with the title character, then in "The Fool" (1990), as a 19th-century clerk leading a double life. In the 1990s, he frequently lent his voice to several documentary projects, including Ken Burns' "The Civil War" (PBS, 1990). As always, Jacobi remained a vital presence on the stages of England throughout the decade, with well-regarded performances in productions of "Kean," "Macbeth" and "Uncle Vanya," to name but a few. The distinguished thespian was given one of his country's highest honors when he became Sir Derek Jacobi after being knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1994. On television, he won more loyal fans on both sides of the Atlantic with his portrayal of a 12th-century, mystery-solving Benedictine monk in the series "Cadfael" (PBS, 1995-99), in addition to teaming once more with Branagh for his epic interpretation of "Hamlet" (1996), in which Jacobi portrayed Claudius.

Jacobi landed one of his most intense screen roles playing 1960s artist Francis Bacon in the biopic "Love Is the Devil: Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon" (1998), which co-starred Daniel Craig as Bacon's deeply troubled lover, George Dyer. In cinemas, the actor continued to offer scene-stealing supporting turns, such as the eccentric art aficionado, Lucky Leadbetter, in "Up at the Villa" (2000), a rebellious Roman senator in director Ridley Scott's blood-soaked epic, "Gladiator" (2000), and as Probert, the button-downed valet in the all-star ensemble of Robert Altman's "Gosford Park" (2001). Proving that he did indeed have a sense of humor, Jacobi won another Emmy for his guest appearance as a talentless Shakespearian actor in an episode of the long-running sitcom "Frasier" (NBC, 1993-2004) in 2001. He continued to work steadily onscreen, making appearances in projects like "Nanny McPhee" (2005), "Underworld: Evolution" (2006), "The Golden Compass" (2007), in addition to a memorable portrayal of the Chilean dictator in the made-for-TV docudrama "Pinochet's Last Stand" (HBO, 2007). Jacobi won British theater's coveted Laurence Olivier Award for Best Actor with his 2009 performance as the puritanical Malvolio in Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night," before joining the cast of the Academy Award-winning historical drama "The King's Speech" (2010). Now a de facto elder statesman of English theater, he next took on the daunting task of portraying "King Lear" in a heralded 2011 performance described by one critic as "the finest and most searching" interpretation of Shakespeare's angry old man to date.

By Bryce Coleman