October 22, 1938– Derek Jacobi was invited by Laurence Olivier to become one of the 8 founding members of The National Theatre, right after graduating from Cambridge. An extremely successful film & theatre actor, he is probably most noted for his amazing performance in the groundbreaking BBC TV miniseries I, Claudius (1976) & for Shakespearean roles in theatres around the world, including what many feel was the very best Hamlet of the 20th century.
Sir Derek Jacobi is also friends & current co-star with another British Knight, Sir Ian McKellen. They have been pals since youth when they both attended Cambridge at a time when homosexuality was still very much illegal in Britain.
“We knew we were both gay, but we didn’t call it gay.”
Astonishing then that after Cambridge they never acted together again until they joined their considerable talents to appear, surprisingly, on a sitcom, Vicious, seen in the USA on PBS. I am just crazy for Vicious which is about an older gay couple, together for decades, living in their Covent Garden flat, & spending most of their time bitching to & about each other. I relate to this one. Vicious was originally supposed to be called Vicious Old Queens, but McKellen objected.
“I said, ‘I’m not old’, I thought that was quite witty.”
The sitcom seems an interesting choice for 2 esteemed actors noted for their classical stage work & in McKellen’s case, anchoring a couple of famous film franchises. But both of the Sirs are openly gay & of a certain age, which lead to a certain scrutiny with the sitcom & they both have spoken of feeling a certain responsibility to the gay community.
Their friendship helped them get through a time when being gay could bring ruin to lives & careers, to the decriminalization of homosexuality in Britain & Margaret Thatcher’s anti-gay Section 28 Bill that banned the “promotion of homosexuality”, to the UK’s passage of Marriage Equality.
Life was so different in the 1950s when they both were at university, even though McKellen now admits that he did have a bit of crush on Jacobi.
“Yes, I did fancy him, but I didn’t act on it, God, no. It was illegal, remember. I do get on my high horse about it, because it was so difficult. There were no gay clubs you could go to. No gay bars, no gay newspaper, nothing. One of the reasons I became an actor was that you could meet gay people. Even then everything was difficult. When you went to America they asked; ‘Are you now, or have you ever been, homosexual?’ I lied on the form. It was a different world.”
Olivier gave Jacobi his big film break, recreating his stage role of Cassio in Olivier’s acclaimed film version of Othello (1965). Olivier also cast Jacobi in his film version of Chekhov‘s Three Sisters (1970) & as the villainous Don John in Much Ado About Nothing (1967) opposite Maggie Smith.
Jacobi served as a mentor to Sir Kenneth Branagh who then cast Jacobi in his films Henry V (1989), Dead Again (1991), & as Claudius in Hamlet (1996). Jacobi then directed Branagh in Renaissance Theatre Company‘s production of Hamlet.
Jacobi has played gay characters, including gay hero Alan Turing in both the stage & film versions of Breaking The Code (1996), the same story as last year’s Oscar nominated The Imitation Game, openly gay painter Francis Bacon in Love Is The Devil (1998) & in one of my top favorite films Robert Altman’s Gosford Park (2001). Other films include: The Day Of The Jackal (1973), Gladiator (2000), The King’s Speech (2010), & My Week With Marilyn (2011).
On TV Jacobi earned an Emmy Award nomination playing that zany, wacky Adolf Hitler in Inside The Third Reich (1982), & won an Emmy for the WWII drama The Tenth Man (1988) opposite Anthony Hopkins who played Der Führer in The Bunker (1981). He is one of only two actors to play both the title character on Doctor Who & his greatest enemy, The Master. Jacobi won his second Emmy spoofing his classical theatre notoriety on the TV series Frasier playing the world’s resoundingly worst Shakespearean actor.
“I’ve been acting for 55 years. I’ve proved I can do it. So any performance now has got to be deeper & better than that, nothing to do with ego, bravura, look-at-me acting. That is an invitation to the audience to assess your ability, & it gets in the way. The object is to get past that & lose yourself in your belief in the person you are trying to create. To find something absolutely real. But I constantly hope to go further than I manage to do.”
Jacobi is married to Richard Clifford, his partner of 36 years. Clifford is also a noted classical actor & has appeared onscreen with Jacobi in Little Dorrit (1987) & Cyrano de Bergerac (1985). About their wedding in 2013, Jacobi said:
“I’ve now been there, done that, & got the T-shirt. We just went to the registry office, signed a bit of paper & it was all over. We didn’t have a big party, but we had 25 friends to lunch. It was very quiet though, all over in a morning.”