There was something big, big, captivating about the actor Joss Ackland, who has died aged 95. He was a leader in British films for years and a boy of the Old Vic, the Royal Shakespeare Company – he played with Falstaff in the opening RSC production of Henry IV, Parts One and Two, at the new Barbican Center in 1982 – and on the West End stage.
He appeared in more than 100 films, and numerous television dramas and series, usually, in later years, white-haired and bearded, but always with energy and force, whether as the cuckolded husband, Jock Delves Broughton, in Michael Radford’s White Mischief (1987) with Greta Scacchi and Charles Dance, or as the drug lord in Lethal Weapon 2 (1989) with Mel Gibson and Danny Glover.
At the Old Vic in 1958-59, Ackland played Toby Belch, Caliban, Falstaff in The Merry Wives, and Pistol, in a company that included Maggie Smith, Moyra Fraser, John Moffatt, Barbara Jefford and Alec McCowen; for all of them, this season was a highlight and a turning point in their respective careers.
Ackland went on to play leading roles for Bernard Miles at the Mermaid, where he was associate director, and the cock-hunting enthusiast in the musical Jorrocks (1966) with Beverley Cross and David Heneker at the New Theater (now the Noël Coward) . . His later stage roles in London included the tragic, powerful Mitch in the 1974 revival of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, with Claire Bloom, the brilliant, almost terrifying Frederick Egerman in Hal Prince’s 1975 London premiere of A Little Night Music (with Jean Simmons) by Sondheim. and Hermione Gingold) and a prominent Perón in Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1978 Brechtian Prince production of Evita.
It is interesting that he never felt happy, or at home, in any of these performances. Ackland was what is sometimes called a “difficult” actor; he felt at odds with new ideas, hated Trevor Nunn’s rehearsal process at the RSC, or even the notion that his Captain Shotover in Nunn’s brilliant Chichester festival production of Shaw’s Heartbreak House in 2000 could be a valid “political” interpretation. He remained a proud old-fashioned maverick, an average, supporting actor with considerable weight.
Born in north London, the son of Norman Ackland, an Irish journalist, and his wife, Ruth (née Izod), he was educated at Dame Alice Owen’s school in Islington, although he left aged 15 and was determined on being an actor. He worked in a brewery, and a dairy, in Bedford, before a chance meeting with his father’s cousin, the playwright Rodney Ackland, led him towards the Principal School of Speech and Drama.
He made his London debut in Hasty Heart at the Aldwych in 1945 and had minor roles at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1947 alongside Donald Sinden and Paul Scofield, and seven years later represented Croydon, Wimbledon, Chesterfield and Coventry. .
He met his future wife, Rosemary Kirkcaldy, who was born in Nyasaland (now Malawi) and also an actress, when he joined her in JM Barrie’s Mary Rose in Stonetown in 1951, and they married at the end of the year. Still without any real progress, the couple decided to try their luck in South Africa in 1954, where Joss worked as a field assistant on a tea plantation in Beira, Mozambique, before moving to Cape Town for two years, and spent six months in Johannesburg. , where he appeared in plays with Terence Rattigan and Coward with Moira Lister and Dulcie Gray.
The Acklands returned to Britain in 1957 with a growing family – they would have seven children – and Ackland was suddenly in demand, first at the Oxford Playhouse with director Frank Hauser, then at the Old Vic and the Mermaid, where he was between 1962 and 1964. His major roles included Bluntschli in Shaw’s Arms and the Man, the suicidal Kirilov in Dostoevsky’s The Possessed and the title role in Brecht’s Galileo. His light touch in contemporary dramas benefited John Osborne’s blistering Hotel in Amsterdam (1968) at the Royal Court and Duke of York, and the comedy bill of John Mortimer’s short plays, Come As You Are (1970), with Glynis Johns, Pauline Collins and Denholm Elliott at the Duchess.
His first television impact was as the narrator of 26 episodes of Rudyard Kipling’s Indian stories in the early 1960s, but he cemented his public status, and indeed affection, with Joe Gargery in 1974’s BBC Great Expectations (Michael York as Pip, Margaret. Leighton as Miss Havisham) and as CS Lewis in William Nicholson’s award-winning TV film Shadowlands in 1988.
Meanwhile, apart from opening the Barbican with the RSC – following his gargantuan Falstaff with a wonderful Captain Hook in Nunn and John Caird’s reimagining (designed by John Napier) of Peter Pan – Ackland was a delightful Gaev in the Cherry Orchard at Chichester. opposite Bloom in 1981 and a hit at the National in Harley Granville-Barker’s The Madras House in 1977 (with Scofield) and in Jean Seberg, Marvin Hamlisch’s disastrous 1983 musical directed by Peter Hall.
He endured the cataclysmic experience, in 1982, of playing “Sir” in Ronald Harwood’s The Dresser to empty houses on tour with Kenneth Haigh, but he always hoped that, one day, he might play in King Lear afternoon and evening Sir; he never did.
And although his strangely contrasting films included One of Our Dinosaurs Is Missing (1975) with Peter Ustinov and Helen Hayes and A Zed and Two Noughts (1985) with Peter Greenaway, he became the face of the television in series such as The 70s. Barretts of Wimpole Street and Great Expectations (the cast also included Sarah Miles and James Mason) and the 1987 all-star version of When We Are Married with Priestley (he was a bibulous photographer), with Timothy West and Prunella Scales as one of three couples . not married after all.
With film and television appearances in the 90s to her credit, Chichester has had acclaimed theater performances as Lauren Bacall’s revenge target in 1995’s The Visit, as underwear millionaire Shaw, John Tarleton in 1997’s Misalliance, and as the brilliant Captain Shotover, the best since. Colin Blakely at the National. His final stage appearance, in 2012, was as the flamboyantly authoritarian and bearded King George V in The King’s Speech at Wyndham’s theatre.
In his 1989 autobiography, I Must Be in There Somewhere (the phrase is an old actor rambling about his identity in a cigar box of nose putty, greasepaint sticks and spirit gum), Ackland described several off-stage plays, like fire. at his home in Putney, south-west London, in 1963; Rosemary, who was then pregnant with her sixth child, survived the disaster despite breaking her back. She was told she would never walk again, but did so 18 months later, leaving Stoke Mandeville hospital in callipers.
The couple’s eldest son, Paul, died in 1982 and, in 2000, Rosemary was diagnosed with motor neurone disease. She died two years later in 2002. She told her side of the story in the diaries she kept for more than 50 years, which Ackland edited and wrote around in his second book, My Better Half and Me (2009).
Ackland, who was appointed CBE in 2001, is survived by his son Toby and five daughters, Melanie, Antonia, Penelope, Samantha and Kirsty – and 34 grandchildren and 30 great-grandchildren.
• Joss (Sidney Edmond Jocelyn) Ackland, actor, born 29 February 1928; he died 19 November 2023