Derek Jacobi

Active - 1957 - 2020  |   Born - Oct 22, 1938 in Leytonstone, East London, England  |   Genres - Drama, Mystery, History

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Biography by Rebecca Flint Marx

One of Britain's most distinguished stage performers, Derek Jacobi is one of two actors (the other being Laurence Olivier) to hold both Danish and English knighthoods. Primarily known for his work on the stage, he has also made a number of films and remains best-known to television audiences for his stunning portrayal of the titular Roman emperor in I, Claudius.

Born in Leytonstone, East London, on October 22, 1938, Jacobi was raised with a love of film, and he began performing on the stage while attending an all-boys school. Thanks to the school's single sex population, his first roles with the drama club -- until his voice broke -- were all female. It was with one of his first male roles that Jacobi earned his first measure of acclaim: playing Hamlet in a school production staged at the 1957 Edinburgh Festival, he made enough of an impression that he was approached by an agent from Twentieth Century Fox. Ultimately deemed too young to be signed to the studio, Jacobi instead went to Cambridge University, where he studied history and continued acting. His stage work at Cambridge was prolific and allowed him to work with classmates Ian McKellen and Trevor Nunn, and, thanks to his performance as Edward II, landed him his first job after graduation. Jacobi acted with the Birmingham Repertory Theatre until his portrayal of Henry VIII attracted the attention of Laurence Olivier. Olivier was so impressed with Jacobi's work that he invited him to London to become one of the eight founding members of the prestigious National Theatre.

Jacobi went on to become one of his country's most steadily employed and respected actors, performing in numerous plays over the years on both sides of the Atlantic (in 1985, he won a Tony Award for his work in Much Ado About Nothing). He also branched out into film and television, making his film debut with a secondary role in Douglas Sirk's Interlude (1957). He acted in numerous film adaptations of classic plays, including Othello (1965) and The Three Sisters (1970). However, it was through his collaborations with Kenneth Branagh on various screen adaptations of Shakespeare that he became most visible to an international film audience, appearing as the Chorus in Branagh's acclaimed 1989 Henry V and as Claudius in the director's 1996 full-length adaptation of Hamlet. Jacobi made one of his most memorable (to say nothing of terrifying) screen impressions in Branagh's Hitchcock-inspired Dead Again (1991), portraying a hypnotist with a very shady background. In 1998, Jacobi earned more recognition with his portrayal of famed painter Francis Bacon in John Maybury's controversial Love Is the Devil: Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon.

On television, in addition to his celebrated work in I, Claudius, Jacobi has also earned praise for his roles in a number of other productions. In 1989, he won an Emmy for his performance in the 1988 adaptation of Graham Greene's The Tenth Man.

In 1994 he began a successful run as a mystery-solving monk in the TV series Cadfael, a program that ran for three years. He had a Shakespeare heavy 1996 playing Claudius opposite Branagh's Hamlet, and appearing in Al Pacino's documentary Looking for Richard. He lent his voice to the animated version of Beowulf. He began the new century appearing in the Best Picture winner Gladiator, and was part of the rich ensemble compiled by Robert Altman for Gosford Park. In 2005 he was in the cast of the hit children's film Nanny McPhee, and two years later he was in The Golden Compass. In 2010 he appeared in another Oscar winning best picture when he was in The King's Speech. The next year he appeared in Anonymous as well as My Week With Marilyn.

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  • Began performing on the stage while attending an all-boys school, playing female parts until his voice changed.
  • Continued in school productions while studying history at the University of Cambridge. A leading performance in Edward II earned him professional jobs after graduation.
  • Portrayal of Henry VIII impressed Laurence Olivier, who invited him to become one of the founding members of the newly formed National Theatre.
  • After numerous stage and screen appearances, breakthrough role came as the stammering emperor in the 1976 television series I, Claudius.
  • Gained international attention in Kenneth Branagh's film productions of Shakespeare's Henry V (1989) and Hamlet (1996) as well as his thriller Dead Again (1991).
  • His Doctor Who work includes performing on an audio drama and a webcast, and playing Professor Yana in the episode of the TV series titled "Utopia."
  • Shortly after civil unions were granted in England in 2005, legalized his 27-year relationship with actor Richard Clifford.
  • Has the rare distinction of attaining both Danish and British knighthood.