Joss Ackland: Stalwart of British Stage and Screen

From a Washington Post obit by Harrison Smith headlined “Joss Ackland, stalwart of British stage and screen, dies at 95”:

Joss Ackland, a gravel-voiced British actor who played men of power and authority across an eclectic seven-decade career, donning a suit of armor to portray Falstaff on the London stage and wielding a pistol as a villainous South African diplomat and drug smuggler in “Lethal Weapon 2,” died on Nov. 19.

Mr. Ackland, a self-described workaholic, brought a mellifluous voice and commanding presence to more than 200 movies and television shows, in addition to starring in musicals on London’s West End and performing onstage with the Old Vic and the Royal Shakespeare Company. He had launched his theater career at 17, with a small role in “The Hasty Heart” on the West End, and was still performing at 85, playing the title character in a London reading of “King Lear” directed by Jonathan Miller.

Praising Mr. Ackland’s “gift for quiet understatement” in a tribute Sunday, Guardian theater critic Michael Billington called him “an actor with an unrivalled capacity for showing the complexity lurking behind the facade of the seemingly ordinary.”

Mr. Ackland found himself increasingly in demand in his late 50s and 60s, after playing Greta Scacchi’s cuckolded husband in the film “White Mischief” (1987). Inspired by a sensational murder case among the aristocratic Happy Valley set of British colonial Kenya, the movie brought him a BAFTA nomination for his portrayal of Sir Henry Jock Delves Broughton, a baronet accused of murdering his wife’s young lover.

Mr. Ackland received a second nomination for starring in playwright Michael Frayn’s TV movie “First and Last” (1989), about a retiree who walks the length of Britain. But he became far better known for another role that year, as the white-haired heavy battling Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in “Lethal Weapon 2.”

In the film’s climax, his character waves his ID and calls for “diplomatic immunity,” delivering the line in a thick South African accent that Mr. Ackland developed while drawing on memories of Cape Town and Johannesburg, where he had lived at the start of his career. “It’s just been revoked,” Glover replies with a gunshot.

Mr. Ackland went on to appear in action blockbusters, including as a Soviet ambassador in “The Hunt for Red October” (1990) and a Russian defense minister in “K-19: The Widowmaker” (2002). He also played a mentor to Emilio Estevez in the Disney sports movie “The Mighty Ducks” (1993) and, to his great regret, appeared as a super villain in “Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey” (1991) and as an eccentric taxi passenger in the music video for the Pet Shop Boys’ cover of “Always on My Mind.”

“I can’t tell you how embarrassing that was,” he told the Radio Times in 2002, a year after he was named a commander of the Order of the British Empire for his services to acting. “I do an awful lot of crap, but if it’s not immoral, I don’t mind,” he added, while acknowledging that he was “tired of not being able to make a movie without a car chase, or the villain dying twice.”

Theater offered more satisfying work. On the West End, he starred in two musicals directed by Harold Prince: Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” in 1975, with Hermione Gingold, and Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s “Evita” in 1978, in which he played Argentine President Juan Perón to Elaine Paige’s Evita.

By his reckoning, one of his greatest roles was Shakespeare’s Falstaff, which he first played in a 1959 production of “The Merry Wives of Windsor” at the Old Vic. “It was a disaster, but I was the greatest disaster of all,” he told the Guardian in 2014, recalling a production in which he, as a young man, tried to get into the head of a 60-year-old character with help from a fake beard.

He had more success in 1982, when he reprised the role in an eight-hour production of “Henry IV,” directed by Trevor Nunn for the RSC. Mr. Ackland delivered what Billington described at the time as “a great performance,” playing the character as both “a comic symbol for the supernatural order of Charity,” as W.H. Auden once put, and as “a hard, brutal, earthbound realist.”

Sidney Edmond Jocelyn Ackland was born in London. His father, a journalist from Ireland, was rarely at home. “He always had a mistress,” said Mr. Ackland. He was raised mainly by his mother, who worked as a maid.

Mr. Ackland dropped out of school to become an actor and trained at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London. He was working for a regional theater company in Scotland when he met Rosemary Kirkcaldy, a fellow actress. She was engaged at the time to a wealthy hotelier, but in 1951 she married Mr. Ackland instead.

The couple struggled financially before moving to Africa in 1955, managing a tea plantation in what is now Malawi, where Rosemary was brought up, before returning to acting in South Africa. By 1958 they had returned to Britain, where Mr. Ackland found his fortunes much improved.

“Because I’d been away, I was accepted as a fresh new face,” he recalled. He joined the Old Vic, touring on Broadway in repertory productions of “Hamlet,” “King Henry V” and “Twelfth Night,” and by the early 1960s he was performing with London’s Mermaid Theatre, where he also dabbled in directing.

On screen, he played a British intelligence asset approached by Alec Guinness in the BBC adaptation of John le Carré’s “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” (1979). His other screen roles included writer C.S. Lewis in the TV movie “Shadowlands” (1986), an elegant mafia don in “The Sicilian” (1987) and Aristotle Onassis in the Emmy-winning miniseries “A Woman Named Jackie” (1991).

For almost 51 years, Mr. Ackland received guidance and support from Rosemary, who “would hear my lines, take notes, criticize and help,” he told the Daily Express newspaper. “When I walked onstage, I felt she came with me.”

His wife was nearly killed in a fire one night in 1963, when their South London home burned down while Mr. Ackland was playing the title role in Brecht’s “Life of Galileo.” Rosemary rescued the children, dropping them to neighbors from an upstairs window; by the time she jumped, five months pregnant with their sixth child, it was too smoky to see. She plummeted to the ground and was hospitalized with a broken back.

Rosemary recovered, giving birth to a daughter and regaining the ability to walk. She and Mr. Ackland were later devastated by the death in 1982 of their oldest son, Paul, from a heroin overdose. Information on survivors was not immediately available, but Rosemary Ackland died in 2002, two years after she was diagnosed with motor neuron disease. According to the Sunday Times of London, she was buried in a churchyard across the street from their home in Devon, under the epitaph, “Room for one more.”

“I consider I’ve had two lives,” Mr. Ackland told the newspaper. “Before I met Rosemary I was laid-back and lazy. From meeting her, another life started. When she died, that life died. I’m not maudlin or miserable or anything, but I consider my time is over.” Asked if that meant he was “waiting to die,” he replied: “Absolutely not. She’d be furious.”

Harrison Smith is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. Since joining the obituaries section in 2015, he has profiled big-game hunters, fallen dictators and Olympic champions. He sometimes covers the living as well, and previously co-founded the South Side Weekly, a community newspaper in Chicago.

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