I am a very lucky man, and I know this.
For reasons that seem beyond comprehension, I figured out that I wanted to be in theatre when I was very young. And I've spent most of my life doing just that. This year will mark my 30th anniversary working in the theatre. My first paying job was in 1981 in a production of A Christmas Carol, playing a party-goer in the Ghost of Christmas Present chunk. In playing "20 Questions" at nephew Fred's party, it was my job to say, "A bear!"
But I knew that I wanted to be in the theatre much younger than that. It was in the mid-1970s that I decided that if I was going to be in the theatre, I should watch the one show that was evidently about theatre – "Masterpiece Theater."
While readers chuckle at my youthful naiveté, my choice was propitious on multiple counts. If nothing else, my timing introduced me to the work of one of the world's great actors – a man who has been a kind of hero to me as an actor all these years – Sir Derek Jacobi.
Yes, I decided I should watch a show about theatre just at the time that I, Claudius was being broadcast in the U.S.A. I don't think I saw the first episode. I entered a few episodes into the series. And I was enthralled. Of course the range of actors, particularly in the lead roles (Sian Phillips, Brian Blessed, George Baker, and John Hurt) were all very good. But the best of them, I thought, was the actor playing Claudius. To a boy growing up in Iowa, Derek Jacobi's amazing creation of Claudius astonished me week after week. I took to putting a cassette recorder near the television speaker each week, so I could record the episodes and listen to them.
Since then I've done what I could to follow Sir Derek's career. And I've had a number of disappointments in actually getting to see him act.
I went to London in 1982 to visit my brother for Christmas. Sir Derek was playing Prospero in Stratford. Unfortunately the one performance that I could have gone to was on Boxing Day, and none of us could figure a way to get to Stratford, see the show, and get back to London. So my first opportunity to see him came and went.
Not long after that, Sir Derek led a company that performed Much Ado About Nothing and Cyrano de Bergerac on Broadway. At the time I was in Oklahoma and poor as a church mouse without any means by which I could get to NYC. Another opportunity came and went.
In the late 1980's Sir Derek came to America with a production of Breaking the Code. The production was playing in Washington, D.C. I was on the road at the time and had a day off near D.C. Unfortunately some major protest or march or something was happening. All the hotel rooms were taken and there wasn't a way to get in or out of the city on that one day available to me.
So, I happened to notice in an interview that Sir Derek was interested in playing Lear. I told my wife, "If I hear or see that he's playing Lear somewhere – I'm going." And so it turned out that Sir Derek's production of Lear in London came just a few months after the birth of our little girl, thus limiting my ability in terms of both time and money of just dropping everything to go see a play.
Then it turned out that the production would tour to America – to Brooklyn.
So, I have my ticket. This month I will finally be able to be in the same room with Sir Derek and watch him act in my favorite play.
Why is he my hero? I think I've seen and listened to just about everything he's done on some media. I have a worn audio cassette of a BBC Radio production of Hamlet. I saw the obscure film, The Human Factor. I've seen the "Tales of the Unexpected" episodes. In watching Sir Derek work, the thing that I appreciate is the integrity of giving himself to the work, and evidently to his colleagues.
For me, he seems to embody the best of both Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson. Sir Derek has possession of breath-taking technical skills of speech and movement. His mind can take you through hair-pin turns of thought with extreme ease. And, like Sir Ralph, he has a glimpse of grandeur and other-worldliness that allows a Cyrano and a Brother Cadfael to make perfect sense. And like Alec Guinness, Sir Derek can seem to disappear into a role.
From what I can gather, Sir Derek is a shy man. So it seems unlikely that we'll ever have the Sir Derek Jacobi memoire or much about his thoughts on acting beyond the short interview. I think that's a shame, but there you are.
Bravo, Sir Derek. And thank you.