I, Derek : Jacobi shuns the fame that followed his stunning role in PBS ‘Masterpiece’

Nancy Mills is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer.

One of England’s top stage actors, Derek Jacobi is also one of the most modest. Reluctant to step into the gap left by the deaths of Lord Laurence Olivier and Sir Ralph Richardson, Jacobi insists on ignoring fame, letting his work in such varied fare as “I, Claudius,” “Henry V” and “The Tenth Man,” for which he won an Emmy, speak for itself.

Now “I, Claudius” is airing again, 15 years after its U.S. premiere. The 13-hour production, begining tonight on PBS’ “Masterpiece Theatre,” stars Jacobi as the gibbering cripple Claudius, who survives the chicanery and political corruption of ancient Rome to become emperor. It is the role that made his career.

Jacobi was sipping a cup of tea in his dressing room at Paramount Studios, where he had come to make his Hollywood debut in “Dead Again,” a film scheduled for September release and directed by fellow Briton Kenneth Branagh.

Jacobi, 50, reeled off the three stages of the successful actor. “It starts with Young and Talented,” he said. “You’ve got youth. There’s nothing to lose, so you go for it. You’re a rank outsider, and it’s great.


“Then you move on to Experienced and Successful. You’ve been around for awhile, and you’ve earned your share of praise and gathered your stock of experience. People know who you are.” Despite his 30 years as an actor, he insisted, “I’m still in this category.”

Jacobi is very reluctant to move into the top division, which he calls Distinguished and Acclaimed.

“There you have the worst pressure,” he said. “You are the favorite in the race, and money is bet on you. The expectations are enormous. I probably wouldn’t want to be here. I resist it because I don’t like acclamation much.”

And yet here he is an actor, that most public of professions. Furthermore, he is attracted to the showiest parts. His Claudius, afflicted with not only a limp but also a stammer, was an internationally noted tour de force.


He almost didn’t get to play Claudius, Jacobi recalled: “The BBC had been through the entire actor’s directory before they cast me. Then I had to go to lunch with the American who controlled the property. The BBC arranged it all. They told me, ‘For God’s sake, charm him.’ So I switched on 150% charm, and he agreed to risk using me.”

Almost instantaneously Jacobi leaped out of the ranks of theatrical ensemble players. “Claudius was the part that got me known to the general public,” he said. “It was one of those flukes that happen to some actors, not all. You’re lucky if you can use it. I plowed all the kudos back into the theater. When I toured ‘Hamlet’ in the provinces, people came to see if the Prince of Denmark would stutter and twitch but they ended up enjoying good theater.”

Although Jacobi works occasionally in films and television, his first love remains the stage. “I feel more in charge there. The creative and artistic choices are being made by me. With film, they can fiddle around with you. They can improve you or destroy you. They can alter your rhythm and timing. In the theater, a great part of the actor’s craft is rhythm.”

After appearing in recent stage productions of “Cyrano de Bergerac,” “Breaking the Code,” “Richard III” and Jean-Paul Sartre’s “Kean,” Jacobi is back in London preparing for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s six-hour, two-evening stage version of “War and Peace,” written by Hugh Whitemore. He will play Pierre, Tolstoy’s anguished aristocrat.


As much as Jacobi loves to talk about his work, he cringes at the accolades it brings. “I think it’s a fallacy that actors live on applause,” he said. “Some do, not all. I’m one who doesn’t. I’d prefer at the end of the show to say, ‘That’s it.’ But I know you’ve got to say thank you and be gracious.”

Jacobi discovered acting when he was 6. “I was in a play at the local library,” he said. “I had the dual role of the prince and the swineherd. There’s a line in Sartre’s play where Edmund Kean--who was one of England’s great actors--says, ‘A man is an actor as he is a prince--by birth.’ There’s nothing you can do about it. I do think actors are born. It’s in you. How it gets there I don’t know.”

In Jacobi’s case, it certainly wasn’t in the genes. His father serviced vending machines. “I was lucky I was London born and bred and surrounded by theater,” he said. “In the 1950s I went to the Old Vic to see Burton, Gielgud, Wolfit, Olivier--all on school outings.”

After studying history at Cambridge University, Jacobi joined Birmingham Rep, where he worked his way up from bit player to leading man. Olivier happened to see one of his performances and noted the promising young actor. A few years later Olivier saw Jacobi again when Olivier locked himself out of his apartment.


“Sir Laurence had to spend the night in a hotel room,” Jacobi said. “He flipped on the television and saw me in ‘She Stoops to Conquer.’ ”

In 1963, when Jacobi auditioned for Britain’s just-forming National Theatre, Olivier remembered his earlier double-exposure to the young actor and hired him as an understudy and spear-carrier. Luckily for Jacobi, the actor he was understudying (Jeremy Brett) got the call to Hollywood, and he inherited all his parts.

Describing his chosen profession as “a compulsion, an obsession and a vocation,” he said, “I’m very typical of actors. Paradoxically there’s a shyness as people, but acting is a way of getting over that shyness. Kean says, ‘You don’t act to earn a living. You act to lie. You act so as not to know yourself. You act because otherwise you’d go mad.’

“That’s why I act. I act to be what I cannot be because I’m fed up with what I am. But they all apply.”


The repeat of “I, Claudius” begins tonight at 8 on KOCE and KVCR; 9 on KCET, KPBS.