- - Thursday, May 15, 2014

By Derek Jacobi
HarperCollins. $26.99, 307 pages, illustrated

If the curse of even the most successful actors is that there is never quite enough work, then you need look no further than Sir Derek Jacobi’s packed resume of stage and screen roles to understand why he titled his engaging memoir as he did. Age 75, he is starring in “Last Tango in Halifax,” the latest in a string of such hits beginning with “I, Claudius” in the 1970s.

Moreover, if becoming world famous for roles in movies as well as television were not enough, he has strutted and played his way through an amazing number of Shakespeare’s characters, including most of the top ones, in Britain’s most distinguished theaters. Reading about these parts and his co-stars from Sir Laurence Olivier and Sir Ian McKellen to Dame Edith Evans and Dame Maggie Smith are more than sufficient to warrant buying the book.

In “As Luck Would Have It,” there are wonderful stories, such as one about royal protocol at a Windsor Castle state dinner delaying for agonizing minutes the treatment of a badly burned hand from a “molten hot” gold service plate. Then there are the encounters with Princess Margaret, predictably capricious, difficult and nasty, and a surprising Margaret Thatcher, who told him at dinner after she had come to see him play the eponymous priest in Jean Anouilh’s “Becket”:

“You know there are many ways in which what you do, and what I do, are the same. But there is one very interesting thing in which we are very different. You require a darkened auditorium, but I need light. I need to see their eyes.”

Mr. Jacobi was clearly struck by her own “piercing blue eyes” and writes, “the hairs on my neck stood up it was just the way she said it, very calm, that completely spooked me.”

Nevertheless, shining forth from almost every page is Mr. Jacobi’s deep sense of gratitude for the luck that has blessed him throughout his long life. Sure, there have been bumps along the way, like an early rejection from the prestigious Royal Shakespeare Company and a much later terrifying brush with stage fright, but Mr. Jacobi presents himself as one kissed by fortune from birth.

The only child of working-class parents in London’s East End, he grew up in a house without books but with a mum and dad who gave him unconditional love and supported him in his desire to be an actor, spurred by their regular and happy visits to the local cinema. Ability grouping in the state school he attended enabled him to win a scholarship to Cambridge University, where he acted more than he studied, but still came away with a respectable degree in history.

Indeed, so varied were his stage experiences in the fabled world of theatrical Cambridge, which was very much on the radar screen of the British profession, that he felt no need to go to drama school. Instead, after acting with some future stars whom he would continue to encounter throughout his career — and others, like Sir David Frost and Dame Margaret Drabble, who would go on to excel in other fields — he honed his craft in the tough of school of provincial repertory.

In his case, one of the best was based in the large industrial city of Birmingham, where he played one classic role after another. When the Royal Shakespeare Company rejected him after an initial show of interest, Birmingham happily took him back, and it was not long before he caught the eye of Olivier when playing Shakespeare’s Henry VIII and found himself successively in the great actor-knight’s company at Chichester and then, after he assumed the leadership of Britain’s National Theatre, on its Olympian heights.

Although Mr. Jacobi modestly attributes so much of his success to luck, he repeatedly shows the professionalism, industriousness and intuitiveness that enabled him to take full advantage of the opportunities that came his way. He is aware that he has a certain quality, although with characteristic modesty, he frames it in the familiar context of good fortune:

“As an actor I had the blessing for a very long time to have a photographic memory and to be a very fast study. I like to feel there is some kind of unwritten contract between me and the public, and that it knows about me and knows what to expect, namely that I bring to the parts I play a kind of everyman reality, not something extreme and out of this world, so that they identify with me because, really, I’m not so special.”

Few readers would agree with those last few words, I feel sure, after encountering this uncommonly appealing man in these pages and seeing what he has achieved with all that talent, hard work and, yes, luck.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.