Joss Ackland, who has died aged 95, was one of Britain’s hardest-working performers, appearing in more than 130 films and, so it was reported, in more stage plays than any other living actor.
He made his professional debut in 1945 and enjoyed a prolific stage career with the Old Vic and Mermaid theatres. His oeuvre included most of Shakespeare and Bernard Shaw, drawing-room comedies and even musicals.
Ackland was Falstaff in Henry IV when the Barbican opened; the godfather in Michael Cimino’s film The Sicilian (1987) and CS Lewis in the TV movie of Shadowlands (1985), for which he won a Bafta Best Actor award. He created the role of Juan Peron in the first West End production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita in 1978 and was involved in the first-ever passionate stage kiss between two men in John Mortimer’s Bermondsey (1971), with Denholm Elliot (who, though Ackland did not know it at the time, was gay).
Tall and jowly, with a bluff manner, deep voice and staccato laugh, Ackland had his most memorable film role in White Mischief as Greta Scacchi’s cuckolded husband Jock Delves Broughton, who is driven to murder his wife’s lover before committing suicide.
On the whole he did not rate his screen career highly, however, cheerfully admitting that some of his films were “Godawful” and he had done a lot of “crap” because, with a large family to support, he needed the money. “I don’t mind giving crap a touch of class,” he said.
Ackland contributed exotic or villainous cameos to Hollywood blockbusters including Lethal Weapon 2 and The Hunt for Red October, and even to a Pet Shop Boys video, which he claimed he did for a bet. His performance as the baddie Chuck De Nomolos in Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey is not listed in his Who’s Who entry and he told the Mirror that he accepted the role only “because a daughter dared me”.
Sidney Edmond Jocelyn Ackland was born on Leap Day – February 29 – 1928 into a broken home in north Kensington. His father, Norman Ackland, was a sports writer for The Daily Telegraph and a serial womaniser who specialised in getting maids pregnant, one of them being Joss’s mother Ruth. (In later life Ackland liked to joke that his birth date had allowed him to achieve a lot at a relatively young age. “I was called up at the age of four; by the time I was five I was married; by six I had three children and I played Falstaff when I was seven – not bad really.”)
He was educated at Dame Alice Owen’s School, then in Islington, where he decided to become an artist and won a scholarship to the Slade School of Art. But he changed his mind and worked in a brewery, a dairy and on a farm before enrolling at the Central School of Speech and Drama.
After making his professional debut as an understudy in The Hasty Heart at the Aldwych Theatre in 1945, Ackland joined the RSC, playing numerous minor roles at Stratford-upon-Avon, and appeared in repertory productions around the country.
In 1951, while appearing in Mary Rose at the Pitlochry Festival, he met and fell in love with his co-star Rosemary Kirkcaldy, a young actress who was engaged to marry someone rich and was due to tour America. Instead she chose poverty, Britain and Ackland. By the end of the summer they were married and the first of their seven children was born the following May.
At first, times were hard (Ackland had had to borrow seven shillings from his bride to buy the wedding ring), and at one point the couple, with two young children, were living at Maidenhead in a converted horsebox while Ackland dug potatoes by day and performed in rep at Windsor by night.
For a while they retreated to Nyasaland, where Joss worked on a tea plantation, then South Africa, where he worked as a disc jockey and actor. But in 1957, after the police raided their flat and confiscated the children’s story Black Beauty (on the presumption that it was subversive of apartheid), they returned to Britain.
It was now that Ackland’s career began to take off. He joined the Oxford Playhouse and later the Old Vic, and in 1962 he became associate director of the Mermaid Theatre, making his directorial debut with a production of The Plough and the Stars. He also bought a house in Barnes, south-west London.
Rosemary continued her acting career as best she could between births and mothering, but in 1963, in the first of several disasters, she was badly injured when their house was destroyed by fire. Ackland was at the theatre at the time and, as the fire took hold, though badly burned, Rosemary fought her way upstairs through the flames and threw her children, one by one, from a window into the garden, where they were caught by her neighbours. She then jumped 25 ft to the ground, breaking her back.
At the hospital she refused painkilling drugs, since she was pregnant with her sixth child. Ackland was told that she was not expected to live, that she would never walk and that the baby would not survive. In the event, she not only kept the baby; she also walked out of Stoke Mandeville Hospital in calipers 18 months later, though she continued to experience pain and walked with a limp.
The trauma led Ackland to give up his job at the Mermaid, and he began accepting television roles as a way of spending more time at home. “I spent so much time at the BBC,” he recalled later, “that I began to feel like a civil servant.” On the small screen over the decades he added weight to roles in series ranging from Z Cars in the 1960s, to the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes and Joan Hickson Miss Marple stories in the 1980s, and most recently in Midsomer Murders.
In 1966 he returned to the theatre to make his debut as a singer in the musical Jorrocks, in which he played a hunting-mad Victorian grocer. It was enormously successful and Ackland enjoyed “half-hour curtain calls” almost nightly. “I enjoyed the part immensely,” he said. “It was ideal for me because I see myself following that tradition of actors like Laughton, Welles and Newton.”
He had made his film debut in 1947 with a small part in Seven Days to Noon and from the late 1960s he attempted to establish a film career. However, with credits such as Crescendo, Mr Forbush and the Penguin, and The House That Dripped Blood, he was sensible not to forsake the stage.
In 1968 he won plaudits for his skill in bringing to life Gus, a public-school good chap, in John Osborne’s The Hotel in Amsterdam at the Royal Court and had leading roles in Come as You Are! (New Theatre, 1970) and Captain Brassbound’s Conversion (Cambridge Theatre, 1971), among other productions. After a season as Mitch in A Streetcar Named Desire (1974), he accepted a leading role in Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music (1976).
Two years later he extended his reputation as a singer when he accepted the part of Juan Peron in the smash-hit musical Evita. Despite the success of the production Ackland recalled regretting his decision to accept the role. “The rehearsals were marvellous,” he remembered, “but half an hour into the show on opening night and I was bored to tears.”
Ackland continued to mix his stage career with film and television work. He played Jerry Westerby, a bibulous journalist who works for British intelligence, in the BBC mini-series Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979); was the oppressive Mr Barrett in the television production of The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1982); played Captain Hook in the RSC’s production of Peter Pan (1983); and appeared in a minor role in Peter Greenaway’s controversial film A Z and Two Noughts (1985), as well as in Shadowlands, White Mischief and other films. In 1991 he played the impassive “C”, the spymaster based on Captain Sir Mansfield Cumming, founder of the British Secret Service, in the BBC mini-series Ashenden.
But his life continued to be haunted by tragedy. In 1982 his older son Paul died of a heroin overdose aged 29, after years in which his parents had gone to desperate lengths to try and wean him off the drug, even having him arrested. Then, in 1988, while crossing a road in Paris, the couple were struck by a car.
Rosemary’s injuries were bad and badly treated. A metal plate was inserted in her leg and caused her near-permanent pain. Some years later the plate became infected and broke through the skin, resulting in still more hospitalisations and treatments. Then in 2000, devastatingly, she was diagnosed with motor neurone disease.
She died in July 2002. Right up until the end of her life, even after she had lost the power of speech, she kept a diary, which she had begun as a teenager growing up in Africa. In 1989 Ackland had published his autobiography. I Must Be in There Somewhere and in 2009 he published My Better Half and Me, a book that told the story of an unusually close, passionate and very physical marriage in the form of edited extracts from Rosemary’s diaries.
For years following her death Ackland felt unable to return to the theatre, focusing instead on television and film work including How About You (2007) with Vanessa Redgrave. In 2012, however, he returned to the stage with a brief appearance as King George V in the stage version of The King’s Speech at Wyndham’s Theatre.
The following year, at the age of 85, he achieved a long-cherished ambition of playing King Lear when Sir Jonathan Miller directed a reading of the play in two performances at the Old Vic and St James’s Theatre. “Joss is a national treasure and his life is a lot like Lear’s,” observed the film director Norman Stone. “He has had to endure suffering and a bit of battering from life’s events, but has still stood firm.”
But, like Lear, it sometimes seemed that Ackland had become tired of life. “Today you can do anything in public,” he told an interviewer in 2012. “I hate this decade. There’s no glamour or romance. It’s become a question of saying “do you want a fag or a f---?” No one relates to anyone any more. No one respects anyone. It’s George Orwell come true.”
Joss Ackland was appointed CBE in 2001.
Ackland and his wife lived for many years in the north Devon village of Clovelly. He is survived by a son and five daughters.
Joss Ackland, born February 29 1928, died November 19 2023