Scotsman Obituaries: Joss Ackland, British star who began his career at Pitlochry Festival Theatre
Like many famous actors of stage and screen in the 20th century, Joss Ackland honed his skills at Pitlochry Festival Theatre in Perthshire, before he went on to appear in such Hollywood hits as The Hunt for Red October, Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey and The Mighty Ducks.
Unlike other actors, however, in between Pitlochry and Hollywood, Ackland managed a tea plantation in East Africa. He resumed his acting career in theatre in South Africa, which clearly served him well for one of his best-known roles as the villain in Lethal Weapon 2.
He played a corrupt South African diplomat, running a drug-trafficking business on the side. At the end of the film he seemingly kills Mel Gibson’s character and then smugly claims “Diplomatic immunity!”, enunciating every single syllable as is it was a separate word. Danny Glover, in the role of Gibson’s partner, shoots him dead. “It’s just been revoked,” he says.
“Not a day goes by without someone across the street going ‘Diplomatic immunity!’,” Ackland said. “It drives you up the wall.”
Ackland was larger than life, theatrical off-stage as well as on, with a big voice and often a cape and fedora. I interviewed him for a book I wrote on Mel Gibson at the time of Braveheart and found him an entertaining raconteur.
He certainly did not hold back on his opinions. "I do an awful lot of crap,” he admitted to one interviewer. Singled out for expressions of regret were his Bill and Ted movie and also a video he did with the Pet Shop Boys for the chart-topper Always on My Mind, with Ackland as a sinister, eye-rolling character they pick up on the road.
“I can't tell you how embarrassing that was,” he said.
In his opinion Demi Moore was “not very bright or talented” and Lauren Bacall “a right pain in the arse”.
He described himself as a workaholic and accepted as many roles as he could, leading to a decidedly varied resume, both in terms of the nature and quality of the works. On stage he won rave reviews as Shakespeare’s Falstaff and he was Juan Peron in the original London West End production of Evita.
On the small screen he played the writer CS Lewis in Shadowlands (a role played by Anthony Hopkins in the film version) and he was Jerry Westerby, the sport journalist and part-time intelligence agent, in the wonderful 1979 version of John le Carre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, starring Alec Guinness.
He was born Sidney Edmond Jocelyn Ackland on the odd day in a leap year, 29 February, in 1928, in North Kensington in London.
His mother was a maid. His father was a journalist from Ireland who was staying at the boarding house where she worked. He saw little of his father while growing up.
“He was very fond of different ladies, would go tootling off, but would pop in occasionally,” said Ackland.
North Kensington was not the upmarket district it is now and Ackland described his family as “very poor”.
He left school at 15 and worked in a brewery and a dairy before his father’s cousin Rodney Ackland, a playwright, encouraged him to pursue a career in acting and directed him to the Central School of Speech and Drama.
He had spells with several companies in England and most significantly at Pitlochry Festival Theatre, where in 1951 he met Rosemary Kirkcaldy, who was cast in the title role in JM Barrie’s Mary Rose.
She was already engaged to someone else, but she broke it off, married Ackland and they remained married until her death in 2002.
“We quickly married, but financially it was hard, so we decided to go to Africa, where Rosemary had been brought up,” he said.
Then came the tea plantation in Malawi and a return to acting in South Africa. By the time they headed to Africa they already had two young children. They would eventually have seven.
“We came back to London two and a half years later to find that things had changed enormously, including the theatre," he said. “Look Back in Anger had opened at the Royal Court. French windows were out and kitchen sinks were in. Lots of the actors I had worked with in the past had been washed away with the tide, but fortunately, because I’d been away, I was accepted as a fresh new face.”
But actually it was with Shakespearean roles that Ackland’s career really took off. In the late 1950s he played Falstaff, Toby Belch and Caliban at the Old Vic in London and by the mid-1960s he was working regularly in television, appearing in episodes of Sherlock Holmes, with Peter Cushing and Nigel Stock, Dr Finlay’s Casebook and The Avengers.
He was Mr Peggotty in a BBC adaptation of David Copperfield and a rather unlikely d’Artagnan in The Futher Adventures of the Musketeers. He would play d’Artagnan’s dad in the starry 1973 film of The Three Musketeers, with Michael York, Richard Chamberlain, Oliver Reed, Faye Dunaway, Raquel Welch and Charlton Heston.
One of Ackland’s most interesting parts was as Sir Jock Delves Broughton in the 1987 period drama White Mischief with Charles Dance and Greta Scacchi. Broughton was a real-life character, part of an upper-class clique that enjoyed a hedonistic life of parties, drugs and extramarital sex while the rest of the world fought World War Two.
Broughton was suspected of murdering the Earl of Erroll, who was having an affair with his wife, but the Crown failed to produce enough evidence to secure a conviction.
Ultimately Ackland had more than 200 film and television credits, largely in “character roles”.
Joss Ackland is survived by six of his seven children – his eldest son died of a heroin overdose – and by dozens of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
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