A "forceful, commanding stage presence", Jacobi has enjoyed a successful stage career, appearing in such stage productions as Hamlet, Uncle Vanya, and Oedipus the King. He has twice been awarded a Laurence Olivier Award, first for his performance of the eponymous hero in Cyrano de Bergerac in 1983 and the second for his Malvolio in Twelfth Night in 2009. He also received a Tony Award for his performance in Much Ado About Nothing in 1984 and a Primetime Emmy Award in 1988 for The Tenth Man. His stage work includes playing Octavius Caesar, Edward II, Richard III and Thomas Becket.
In addition to being a founder member of the Royal National Theatre and winning several prestigious theatre awards, Jacobi has also enjoyed a successful television career, starring in the critically praised adaptation of Robert Graves's I, Claudius (1976), for which he won a BAFTA; in the titular role in the medieval drama series Cadfael (1994–1998), as Stanley Baldwin in The Gathering Storm (2002), as Stuart Bixby in the ITV comedy Vicious (2013–2016) and as Alan Buttershaw in Last Tango in Halifax (2012–present).
Though principally a stage actor, Jacobi has appeared in a number of films, including The Day of the Jackal (1973), Henry V (1989), Dead Again (1991), Gladiator (2000), Gosford Park (2001), The Riddle (2007), The King's Speech (2010), My Week with Marilyn (2011), and Cinderella (2015).
He was knighted in 1994 and has also been made a member of the Danish Order of the Dannebrog.
Jacobi, an only child, was born in Leytonstone, Essex, England, the son of Daisy Gertrude (née Masters), a secretary who worked in a drapery store in Leyton High Road, and Alfred George Jacobi, who ran a sweet shop and was a tobacconist in Chingford. His patrilineal great-grandfather had emigrated from Germany to England during the 19th century. His family was working class. Jacobi describes his childhood as happy. In his teens he went to the Leyton Sixth Form College and became an integral part of the drama club, The Players of Leyton.
While in the sixth-form, he starred in a production of Hamlet, which was taken to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and very well regarded. At 18 he won a scholarship to the University of Cambridge, where he read history at St John's College and earned his degree. Younger members of the university at the time included Ian McKellen (who had a crush on him – "a passion that was undeclared and unrequited", as McKellen relates it) and Trevor Nunn. During his studies at Cambridge, Jacobi played many parts including Hamlet, which was taken on a tour to Switzerland, where he met Richard Burton. As a result of his performance of Edward II at Cambridge, Jacobi was invited to become a member of the Birmingham Repertory Theatre immediately upon his graduation in 1960.
Jacobi's talent was recognised by Laurence Olivier, who invited the young actor back to London to become one of the founding members of the new National Theatre, even though at the time Jacobi was relatively unknown. He played Laertes in the National Theatre's inaugural production of Hamlet opposite Peter O'Toole in 1963. Olivier cast him as Cassio in the successful National Theatre stage production of Othello, a role that Jacobi repeated in the 1965 film version. He played Andrei in the NT production and film of Three Sisters (1970), both featuring Olivier. On 27 July 1965, Jacobi played Brindsley Miller in the first production of Peter Shaffer's Black Comedy. It was presented by the National Theatre at Chichester and subsequently in London.
After eight years at the National Theatre, Jacobi left in 1971 to pursue different roles. In 1972, he starred in the BBC serial Man of Straw an adaptation of Heinrich Mann's book Der Untertan, directed by Herbert Wise. Most of his theatrical work in the 1970s was with the touring classical Prospect Theatre Company, with which he undertook many roles, including Ivanov, Pericles, Prince of Tyre and A Month in the Country opposite Dorothy Tutin (1976).
Jacobi was increasingly busy with stage and screen acting, but his big breakthrough came in 1976 when he played the title role in the BBC's series I, Claudius. He cemented his reputation with his performance as the stammering, twitching Emperor Claudius, winning much praise. In 1979, thanks to his international popularity, he took Hamlet on a theatrical world tour through England, Egypt, Greece, Sweden, Australia, Japan and China, playing Prince Hamlet. He was invited to perform the role at Kronborg Castle, Denmark, known as Elsinore Castle, the setting of the play. In 1978 he appeared in the BBC Television Shakespeare production of Richard II, with Sir John Gielgud and Dame Wendy Hiller.
In 1980, Jacobi took the leading role in the BBC's Hamlet, made his Broadway debut in The Suicide (a run shortened by Jacobi's return home to England due to the death of his mother), and joined the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC). From 1982 to 1985 he played four demanding roles simultaneously: Benedick in Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, for which he won a Tony for its Broadway run (1984–1985); Prospero in The Tempest; Peer Gynt; and Cyrano de Bergerac which he brought to the US and played in repertory with Much Ado About Nothing on Broadway and in Washington DC (1984–1985). In 1986, he made his West End debut in Breaking the Code by Hugh Whitemore, starring in the role of Alan Turing, which was written with Jacobi specifically in mind. The play was taken to Broadway. In 1988 Jacobi alternated in West End the title roles of Shakespeare's Richard II and Richard III in repertoire.
He appeared in the television dramas Inside the Third Reich (1982), where he played Hitler; Mr Pye (1985); and Little Dorrit (1987), based on Charles Dickens's novel; The Tenth Man (1988) with Anthony Hopkins and Kristin Scott Thomas. In 1982, he lent his voice to the character of Nicodemus in the animated film, The Secret of NIMH. In 1990, he starred as Daedalus in episode 4 of Jim Henson's The Storyteller: Greek Myths.
Jacobi continued to play Shakespeare roles, notably in Kenneth Branagh's 1989 film of Henry V (as the Chorus), and made his directing debut as Branagh's director for the 1988 Renaissance Theatre Company's touring production of Hamlet, which also played at Elsinore and as part of a Renaissance repertory season at the Phoenix Theatre in London. The 1990s saw Jacobi keeping on with repertoire stage work in Kean at the Old Vic, Becket in the West End (the Haymarket Theatre) and Macbeth at the RSC in both London and Stratford. In 1993 Jacobi voiced Mr Jeremy Fisher in The World of Peter Rabbit and Friends.
He was appointed the joint artistic director of the Chichester Festival Theatre, with the West End impresario Duncan Weldon in 1995 for a three-year tenure. As an actor at Chichester he also starred in four plays, including his first Uncle Vanya in 1996 (he played it again in 2000, bringing the Chekhov play to Broadway for a limited run). Jacobi's work during the 1990s included the 13-episode series TV adaptation of the novels by Ellis Peters, Cadfael (1994–1998) and a televised version of Breaking the Code (1996). Film appearances of the era included performances in Kenneth Branagh's Dead Again (1991), Branagh's full-text rendition of Hamlet (1996) as King Claudius, John Maybury's Love is the Devil (1998), a portrait of painter Francis Bacon, as Senator Gracchus in Gladiator (2000) with Russell Crowe, and as "The Duke" opposite Christopher Eccleston and Eddie Izzard in a post-apocalyptic version of Thomas Middleton's The Revenger's Tragedy (2002).
In 2001, Jacobi won an Emmy Award by mocking his Shakespearean background in the television sitcom Frasier episode "The Show Must Go Off", in which he played the world's worst Shakespearean actor: the hammy, loud, untalented Jackson Hedley. This was his first guest appearance on an American television programme.
Jacobi has narrated audio book versions of the Iliad, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C. S. Lewis, Farmer Giles of Ham by J. R. R. Tolkien, and two abridged versions of I, Claudius by Robert Graves. In 2001 he provided the voice of "Duke Theseus" in The Children's Midsummer Night's Dream film. In 2002, Jacobi toured Australia in The Hollow Crown with Sir Donald Sinden, Ian Richardson and Dame Diana Rigg. Jacobi also played the role of Senator Gracchus in Gladiator and starred in the 2002 miniseries The Jury. He is also the narrator for the BBC children's series In the Night Garden.
In 2003, he was involved with Scream of the Shalka, a webcast based on the science fiction series Doctor Who. He played the voice of the Doctor's nemesis the Master alongside Richard E. Grant as the Doctor. In the same year, he also appeared in Deadline, an audio drama also based on Doctor Who. Therein he played Martin Bannister, an ageing writer who makes up stories about "the Doctor", a character who travels in time and space, the premise being that the series had never made it on to television. Jacobi later followed this up with an appearance in the Doctor Who episode "Utopia" (June 2007); he appears as the kindly Professor Yana, who by the end of the episode is revealed to actually be the Master. Jacobi admitted to Doctor Who Confidential he had always wanted to be on the show: "One of my ambitions since the '60s has been to take part in a Doctor Who. The other one is Coronation Street. So I've cracked Doctor Who now. I'm still waiting for Corrie."
In 2004 Jacobi starred in Friedrich Schiller's Don Carlos at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield, in an acclaimed production, which transferred to the Gielgud Theatre in London in January 2005. The London production of Don Carlos gathered rave reviews. Also in 2004, he starred as Lord Teddy Thursby in the first of the four-part BBC series The Long Firm, based on Jake Arnott's novel of the same name. In Nanny McPhee (2005), he played the role of the colourful Mr. Wheen, an undertaker. He played the role of Alexander Corvinus in the 2006 movie Underworld: Evolution.
In March 2006, BBC Two broadcast Pinochet in Suburbia, a docudrama about former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet and the attempts to extradite him from Great Britain; Jacobi played the leading role. In September 2007, it was released in the U.S., retitled Pinochet's Last Stand. In 2006, he appeared in the children's movie Mist, the tale of a sheepdog puppy, he also narrated this movie. In July–August 2006, he played the eponymous role in A Voyage Round My Father at the Donmar Warehouse, a production which then transferred to the West End.
In February 2007, The Riddle, directed by Brendan Foley and starring Jacobi, Vinnie Jones, and Vanessa Redgrave, was screened at Berlin EFM. Jacobi plays twin roles: first a present-day London tramp and then the ghost of Charles Dickens. In March 2007, the BBC's children's programme In the Night Garden... started its run of one hundred episodes, with Jacobi as the narrator. He played Nell's grandfather in ITV's Christmas 2007 adaptation of The Old Curiosity Shop, and returned to the stage to play Malvolio in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night (2009) for the Donmar Warehouse at Wyndham's Theatre in London. The role won him the Laurence Olivier Award for Best Actor. He appears in five 2009 films: Morris: A Life with Bells On, Hippie Hippie Shake, Endgame, Adam Resurrected and Charles Dickens's England. In 2010 he returned to I, Claudius, as Augustus in a radio adaptation. In 2011, he was part of a medieval epic, Ironclad, which also starred James Purefoy and Paul Giamatti, as the ineffectual Reginald de Cornhill, castellan of Rochester castle.
Jacobi starred in Michael Grandage's production of King Lear (London, 2010), giving what The New Yorker called "one of the finest performances of his distinguished career". In May 2011 he reprised this role at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
In April 2012 he appeared in Titanic: Blood and Steel and in November 2012 he starred in the BBC series Last Tango in Halifax. In 2013 he starred in the second series of Last Tango and in 2014 the third series.
In 2013, Jacobi starred alongside Ian McKellen in the ITV sitcom Vicious as Stuart Bixby, the partner to Freddie Thornhill, played by McKellen. On 23 August 2013 the show was renewed for a six-episode second series which began airing in June 2015. The show ended in December 2016, with a Christmas special.
Shakespeare authorship involvement
Jacobi has been publicly involved in the Shakespeare authorship question. He supports the Oxfordian theory of Shakespeare authorship, according to which Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford wrote the works of Shakespeare. Jacobi has given an address to the Shakespeare Authorship Research Centre promoting de Vere as the Shakespeare author and wrote forewords to two books on the subject in 2004 and 2005.
In 2007, Jacobi and fellow Shakespearean actor and director Mark Rylance initiated a "Declaration of Reasonable Doubt" on the authorship of Shakespeare's work, to encourage new research into the question.
In 2011, Jacobi accepted a role in the film Anonymous, about the Oxfordian theory, starring Rhys Ifans and Vanessa Redgrave. In the film Jacobi narrates the Prologue and Epilogue, set in modern-day New York, while the film proper is set in Elizabethan England. Jacobi allows that making the film was "a very risky thing to do", and imagines that "the orthodox Stratfordians are going to be apoplectic with rage".
Jacobi is gay. In March 2006, four months after civil partnerships were introduced in the United Kingdom, Jacobi registered his civil partnership with Richard Clifford. They live in Primrose Hill, North London. He was a Grand Marshal of the 46th New York City Gay Pride March in 2015.1985: Commander of the Order of the British Empire (United Kingdom)
1989: Knight 1st class of the Order of the Dannebrog (Denmark)
1994: Knight Bachelor, for services to Drama (United Kingdom)