Preeminent British classical actor of the first post-Olivier generation, Derek Jacobi was knighted in 1994 for his services to the theatre, and, in fact, is only the second to enjoy the honor of holding two knighthoods, Danish and English (Olivier was the other). Modest and unassuming in nature, Jacobi's firm place in theatre history centers around his fearless display of his characters' more unappealing aspects, their great flaws, eccentricities and, more often than not, their primal torment.
Sir Derek portrayed the title role in Hamlet at the English National Youth Theatre prior to receiving his high school diploma, and earned a scholarship to the University of Cambridge, where he initially studied history before focusing completely on the stage. A standout role as Edward II at Cambridge led to an invite by the Birmingham Repertory in 1960 following college graduation. He became one of the eight founding members of Olivier's National Theatre Company and gradually rose in stature with performances in The Royal Hunt of the Sun, Othello, and Hay Fever, among others. He also made appearances at the Chichester Festival and the Old Vic.
Jacobi made his film debut with the recreation of his stage role of Cassio in Olivier's acclaimed cinematic version of Othello. Olivier subsequently cast Sir Derek in his filmed presentation of Chekhov's Three Sisters. On television, he was in celebrated company playing Don John in Much Ado About Nothing alongside Maggie Smith. Jacobi spent eight years at Britain’s National Theatre, performing in such sterling roles as Touchstone in As You Like It. He continued his dominance on stage as Ivanov, Richard III, and Pericles, as well as Orestes in Electra, but his huge breakthrough would occur on TV in the epic BBC series I, Claudius. His stammering, weak-minded Emperor Claudius was considered a work of genius and won, among other honors, the BAFTA Award. Television audiences also relished his performances as Richard II and Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Sir Derek took his Hamlet on a successful stage tour throughout England, Egypt, Sweden, Australia, Japan and China.
Jacobi made his Broadway bow in The Suicide. He then toured with the Royal Shakespeare Company with award-winning results. During this period, he received the Tony Award for his Benedick in Much Ado about Nothing; earned the coveted Olivier, Drama League and Helen Hayes Awards for his Cyrano de Bergerac; and earned equal acclaim for his Prospero in The Tempest and for his Peer Gynt. In 1986, he made his West End debut in Breaking the Code, for which he won another Helen Hayes Award; the play was then brought to Broadway, where Sir Derek received Tony and Drama Desk Award nominations for his performance.
He was nominated for an Emmy for his portrayal of Adolf Hitler in Inside the Third Reich and won an Emmy for his work opposite Anthony Hopkins in the WW II drama, The Tenth Man. He won a second Emmy by spoofing his classical prowess on an episode of Frasier (his first guest performance on American TV), in which he played the unsubtle and resoundingly bad Shakespearean actor Jackson Hedley.
Kenneth Branagh was greatly influenced by mentor Jacobi, and their own association includes Branagh's films Henry V, Dead Again, and Hamlet. Sir Derek also directed Branagh in the latter’s Renaissance Theatre Company production of Hamlet. In the 1990’s, Sir Derek returned to the Chichester Festival, this time as Artistic Director, as well as in the title role of Uncle Vanya.
Sir Derek gave a profound portrayal of the anguished titular painter in Love Is the Devil: Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon, and superb theatre performances as Friedrich Schiller's Don Carlos and in A Voyage Round My Father.
His memorable film performances include those in The Day of the Jackal, Little Dorrit, The Odessa File, Gladiator, and Gosford Park, among others.