Applause at curtain calls makes me feel silly. Sir Laurence Olivier advised me just to stand there, bloody well take it and not be rude,” sighs British actor Derek Jacobi. “I try.” The roar of the crowd is supposedly the insatiable need of his profession, but for Jacobi it has become almost embarrassingly constant. His performance as the stuttering Roman emperor of PBS’ I, Claudius three years ago was a TV landmark. On November 10, in the newest episode of the BBC-PBS Shakespeare series, he has been given the honor of playing Hamlet. Quite simply, Jacobi is at 42 an heir apparent to mentor Olivier as one of the best actors of his generation.
Yet when recently faced with his Broadway debut, he nearly passed out from stage fright. “On the first preview, I started hyperventilating,” Jacobi remembers. “At the end of the show I was lying on the couch with a lot of very worried producers standing around while I was fighting for breath. I was in sheer terror.” Naturally, though, his opening-night portrayal of an anguished Soviet worker in The Suicide (a 1932 satire still banned in Russia) won him the accustomed awed notices. “I still have gnawing doubts about my talents,” frets Jacobi. “And it gets worse. Being acclaimed is dangerous. You can’t fall below what the public expects.”
While avoiding that pitfall, Jacobi already has learned what he wants most from his burgeoning fame and fortune: “Anonymity, like Olivier. If Olivier walked by, you wouldn’t know him,” Derek points out. “He was never a Ryan O’Neal, a sensation-or headline-seeker. He was always an actor.” And, of course, an enormous influence on young Derek. In 1963, when Olivier chose the eight founding members of his influential National Theatre in London, Jacobi was at 24 the youngest and the only unknown. “Olivier was very generous with his time, talent and encouragement,” recalls Derek. “You can’t itemize it.” Of his protégé, Olivier now says, “He did brilliantly well right from the beginning, and he has shown his rare prowess in everything that he has done since.”
The son of a London department store manager and a secretary, Jacobi recalls “a very happy childhood,” despite a bout with rheumatic fever at 10 that briefly paralyzed his legs. To strengthen them, he swam, cycled and played tennis. He already had made his maiden stage appearance at 6 in the twin title roles of The Prince and the Swineherd with the drama group at a local library. “Most people pass out of that make-believe stage,” he says. “I’m still in it. Most actors have one foot in the cradle.” At 17 he did a schoolboy production of Hamlet during the Edinburgh Festival that won him professional offers. Resisting that temptation, Jacobi entered Cambridge on a full academic scholarship, plunged into university dramatics and “somehow managed” to graduate in history. He turned pro with a Birmingham repertory company that year, and his credits include dozens of theater pieces, TV shows and movies like The Day of the Jackal, The Odessa File and The Human Factor.
He claims to have “no personal life,” but Jacobi’s five-bedroom Victorian house in London’s unfashionable Stockwell section is constantly astir with a revolving coterie of male and female acting friends. “It’s like a hotel,” says Jacobi. “I rely on my houseguests to do the cooking and washing up. That’s the rent they pay. I’m very good at Hoovering [vacuuming]. I like order and pattern. That’s one reason I’d be difficult to live with on a permanent basis.”
As for fitness, Derek reports that a hypnotist cured him of a three-pack-a-day cigarette habit last year and that his preferred exercise is “thinking about using my rowing machine.” He plans a vacation when The Suicide closes on Broadway and is resisting pressure to do more films. “Movies are a director’s toy,” he explains. “But my bank manager likes them. It’s a cliché, but it’s true: Movies make you rich, TV makes you known, but theater is what it’s really all about.”