British stage and screen legend Joss Ackland dies at 95

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Joss Ackland, a gravel-voiced British actor who has played men of power and authority over an eclectic seven-decade career, dons a suit of armor to portray Falstaff on the London stage and wields a pistol as a ferocious African diplomat. South and a drug smuggler in “Lethal Weapon 2,” he died on November 19. He was 95.

His agent, Paul Pearson, confirmed the death but had no details.

A self-described workaholic, Mr Ackland brought a mellifluous voice and commanding presence to more than 200 films and television shows, as well as starring in musicals on London’s West End and performing on the staged by 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 on Sunday, Guardian theater critic Michael Billington called him “an actor with a unique ability to show the complexities of lies behind the facade of the seemingly normal.”

Mr. Ackland was in high demand in the late 50s and 60s, after playing Greta Scacchi’s husband in the film “White Mischief” (1987). Inspired by a sensational murder case among the Happy Valley aristocracy of British colonial Kenya, the film earned him a BAFTA nomination for his portrayal of Sir Henry Jock Delves Broughton, a baron accused of murdering his lover young wife

Mr Ackland received a second nomination for starring in playwright Michael Frayn’s television film “First and Last” (1989), about a retired man who walks across Britain. But he became much better known for another role that year, as the white man fighting Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in “Lethal Weapon 2”.

At the end of the film, his character whips out his ID and asks for “diplomatic immunity,” delivering the line in the thick South African accent that Mr. Ackland developed while drawing. on memories of Cape Town and Johannesburg, where he lived at the beginning of his career. “It’s just revoked,” Glover replied with a gun.

Mr. Ackland went on to appear in action blockbusters, including as a Soviet ambassador in “The Hunt for Red October” (1990) and as the Russian defense minister in “K-19: The Widowmaker” (2002). He also mentored Emilio Estevez in the Disney thriller “The Mighty Ducks” (1993) and, much to his dismay, appeared as a supervillain in “Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey” (1991) and as 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 appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire for his services to acting. “I do a lot of crap , but if it’s not immoral, I don’t care,” he said, acknowledging that he was “tired of not being able to make a movie without a car running, or the person who died two hour. .”

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

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

He had further success in 1982, when he reprized 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 superb performance,” playing the character as both “a comic symbol for the supernatural order of Charity,” as WH Auden once put it, and as “a royal hard, brutal, territorial. .”

Sidney Edmond Jocelyn Ackland was born in London on February 29, 1928. His father, a journalist from Ireland, was rarely at home. “He always had a mistress,” said Mr Ackland. He was raised mostly 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 at a regional theater company in Scotland when he met Rosemary Kirkcaldy, a fellow actress. She was at the time engaged in a wealthy hotel, but in 1951 she married Mr Ackland instead.

The couple struggled financially before moving to Africa in 1955, managing a tea plantation in Malawi, where Rosemary was raised, before returning to acting in South Africa. In 1958 they had returned to Britain, where Mr Ackland found that his fortunes were much better.

“Because I was gone, I was accepted as a fresh new face,” he recalled. He joined the Old Vic, toured on Broadway in repertory productions of “Hamlet,” “King Henry V” and “Twelfth Night,” and in the early 1960s performed with the Mermaid Theater in London. , where he was also involved in directing.

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

For almost 51 years, Mr Ackland was guided and supported by Rosemary, who would “hear my lines, take notes, criticize and help,” he told the Daily Express newspaper. “When I walked on the stage, I felt like she came with me. “

His wife was almost killed in a fire one night in 1963, when their home in South London caught fire while Mr Ackland was performing the title role in “Life of Galileo”. by Brecht. Rosemary freed 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 fell to the ground and was in the hospital 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 of their eldest son, Paul, in 1982 from a heroin overdose. Survivors were not immediately available, but Rosemary Ackland died in 2002, two years after being diagnosed with motor neuron disease. According to the Sunday Times of London, she was buried in a cemetery across the street from their home in Devon, under the tombstone, “Room for one more”.

“I think I’ve had two lives,” Mr Ackland told the newspaper. “Before I met Rosemary I was quiet and lazy. From meeting her, another life began. When she died, that life died. I’m not maudlin or miserable or anything, but I think my time is up.” When asked if that meant he was “waiting to die,” he replied: “Of course not. She would be angry.”

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