Like the late Michael Gambon, the actor Joss Ackland was as great on stage as he was on the big (and small) screen where he made many memorable appearances and for a blockbuster generation it was him sneering the phrase, ‘Diplomatic immunity!’ at Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon 2 that many will relish but he was much, much more than that
Born on 28th February 1928 in North London to a journalist father and his mother, a housemaid, but he left school at only 15 years of age eager to become an actor. But it would not happen quickly and he worked in a dairy and a brewery before his father’s cousin, himself a playwright, encouraged him to apply for London’s Central School of Speech & Drama. Graduating he made his stage debut in 1945 and spent several years in repertory theatre travelling around the country where he met actress Rosemary Kirkcaldy in 1951 and they married that same year.
Having made an uncredited film debut in 1949 he continued his slog in repertory theatre but with no break out role they decided to move to South Africa in 1954 where he ran a tea plantation returning to the UK in 1957 and now with children (of which he would eventually have seven ). Work picked up enormously for him and the early 1960’s saw him in a number of high profile and at times demanding roles.
But it was as a narrator that he would first be heard in television in an adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s Indian tales but would later make a huge impression in a 1974 adaptation of Great Expectations and later in 1988 in the tremendous and BAFTA award winning ‘Shadowlands’. He was purportedly a difficult actor to work with allegedly disliking the process of rehearsal and was decidedly old fashioned if not maverick in his ways.
His TV work was extensive but his film work was eclectic taking in films as varied as Disney’s ‘One of our Dinosaurs is missing’ ( 1975), Peter Greenaways ‘A Zed and Two Noughts’ (1985). Richard Donners ‘Lethal Weapon 2’ (1989) and even ‘Bill & Ted’s Bogus Adventure’ (1991) a film that he insisted he only did because his daughter had dared him, before making his final film Fall of an Empire in 2014 retiring soon after. He once admitted, ‘I do an awful lot of crap but if it’s not immoral, I don’t mind. I’m a workaholic. I don’t mind giving crap a touch of class!’
His life was punctuated with tragedy. In 1963 his home caught fire and his pregnant wife survived but broke her back and it was thought that she would never walk again (18 months after leaving Stoke Mandeville she did walk albeit with callipers). But in 2000 his wife was diagnosed with motor neurone disease passing away two years later. His eldest son had died in 1982.
Joss Ackland was appointed CBE in 2001 and passed away on 19th November 2023 aged 95.
related feature: Michael Gambon obituary