Claudius coin (and role) bring great good luck to Derek Jacobi

The Washington Star, August 2 1978: NEW YORK — When Derek Jacobi, visiting briefly from London, arrived at WABC-TV recently for a guest shot on Stanley Siegal’s talk show, he was greeted with a tacky sight. A half-dozen psuedo-Roman couches were strewn around the studio, and strewn on each was a Playboy Bunny. They’d brought their Mommy, pop singer Lainie Kazan, who presides in Lainie’s Room of the Playboy Club, for a program that would somehow explore the question — are women exploited in today’s society? You may have read about Siegal, an eccentric host who often brings his psychiatrist to work with him and strews himself on a couch for an on-camera therapy session.

The Roman decor was clearly a nod toward Jacobi’s title role in the riveting, finely-acted I, Claudius, “The Masterpiece Theater” series about five Roman emperors, recently concluded here on public broadcasting. (They are expected to be rebroadcast here next season.)

Jacobi (pronounced Jack-a-bee), a slight man with short, reddish hair, sparkling blue eyes, a pixie face and a neat beard, grown for his current role as “Hamlet,” at London’s Old Vic, was bewildered, out of place but impeccably polite. He will play both Richard II and Hamlet in the forthcoming PBS presentation of the BBC/Time-Life productions of Shakespeare’s 36 plays, and he was in town to help publicize the upcoming six-year series.

There was a little introductory patter between Siegal, Kazan and Jacobi which made it exquisitely clear that neither of the first two had heard of the last, let alone even seen an episode of “I, Claudius”. They may have heard of Shakespeare. One would have supposed that after the first commercial, Derek Jacobi would have been long gone, having said his goodbyes nicely.

But there he was again, and there he remained for an entire embarrassing hour in which he tried, good naturedly, to take part.

Derek Jacobi, 37. Cambridge classmate of actor Michael York, who calls him “a delicious man.” A bit shy. But with a hearty laugh that rings out when he’s truly amused. His stage career began at Birmingham Repertory and at 23, he joined director Sir Laurence Olivier’s National Theatre Company. (“It was like meeting God he recalls now.”) Jacobi, whose roles have run the gamut in classical productions for the National, has also had supporting roles in movies and television (he was seen here in a small role in “The Pallisers”).

Then came Claudius. “The one big absolute thing it did for me,” Jacobi answers slowly, “ It made me famous. The kind of fame,” he says “that makes producers think of him for leading roles now. “If it weren’t for Claudius,” he says, with amusement, “I might be second servant instead of Richard II.”

Jacobi considers it nothing short of miraculous that he got the role of Claudius that’s opened so many stage doors for him. “They wanted Charlton Heston for the part, and they never heard of me.” Characteristically, he bases the decision not on himself but circumstance. The character, Claudius, goes in age from a 17-year-old boy to a very old man. “If Heston had the part, they would have had to have somebody else for the young Claudius. With me, I do it straight through.”

No one seeing Derek Jacobi would recognize him as the limping. stammering Claudius — young or old — in his remarkable performance in the dramatization of the Robert Graves’ novels, “I, Claudius,” and “Claudius the God.” It was a part that possessed him in a way none other ever has, he says, lowering his voice. Like the British actor, Brian Blessed, who played Claudius grandfather, the Emperor Augustus, Jacobi had some strange experiences during the making of the series. During the filming, Graves, 81, was invited to lunch and to watch a few scenes. He gave them all a turn, for he had lived and breathed Claudius most of his life. Blessed said that he thought Graves actually believed he was Claudius.

Jacobi thinks the heavy latex make-up nearly everyone wore to be aged had a lot to do with the emotions churned up on the set. As Claudius, he appears first as a very old man, writing a family history which he relives in flashback. The very first day he had to arrive at the studio at 5 in the morning so that makeup people could apply layers of Latex to his face. Six hours later, looked into the mirror and Robert Graves was looking at me,” Jacobi recalls.

Does Jacobi miss old Claudius? “Oh, I do. I miss him, terribly,” Jacobi says, holding out his hand to show a copy of a Roman ring given him by Jack Pulman, who wrote the television version of “I, Claudius”. Then he reaches decorously inside his neat blue tattersall shirt and pulls out some chains. On one hangs a large coin with a profile of Claudius. “That’s the old boy himself,” Jacobi says. “That’s 2,000 years old. The coin was a gift of Robert Erskine, professor of antiquities who was consultant for the series. From another chain dangles a piece of jade, a gift, a good luck charm for flying.

You can see I’m superstitious,” Jacobi says with his shy smile. The third chain has a Libra charm, his birth sign.

Jacobi says he never wears his chains outside his shirt — nor his shirts unbuttoned to show them off. He takes them off when he’s on the stage. But once, recently, as Hamlet, he forgot, and in the midst of a “strenuous scene they came flying out and this great thing was swinging around hitting me on the face!” That great-spirited laugh rings out.

He’s particularly fond of the Claudius coin. “He’s become a great good luck thing with me. Even now, when I go on the stage and take him off, I give him a quick kiss. He seems to bring me luck.”

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