Joss Ackland, distinguished British star of stage and screen, dies at 95

The British actor Joss Ackland, who excelled in playing film villains in a varied career spanning eight decades, died on Sunday, his family said. He was 95.

In a statement, they said the actor, known for his “distinctive voice and commanding presence”, passed away peacefully at home, surrounded by relatives.

“He will be remembered as one of Britain’s most talented and beloved actors,” it added.

Ackland’s most famous big-screen baddie was a corrupt South African diplomat in “Lethal Weapon 2” whose diplomatic immunity ultimately fails to protect him from Mel Gibson and Danny Glover’s tenacious LA cops.

He played a vengeful mafia don in “The Sicilian”, and was a buttoned-up aristocratic Englishman accused of murder in Kenya in “White Mischief”.

Ackland even made a cameo as a murderous hitchhiker in a surreal video for the Pet Shop Boys’ synth-pop version of “You Were Always On My Mind”.

But far from feeling typecast, the imposing actor, who stood at 6ft 1in (1.85 meters), with a rich voice bordering between grandfatherly reassurance and outright menace, reveled in the roles.

“I think you can still be subtle but it’s so much easier to portray evil than it is good,” he told BBC radio in 2001.

Ackland attributed his prolific output in television, film, stage plays, and even musicals to his early struggles as a jobbing actor.

Those difficulties in the first 10 years of his career from the mid-1940s prompted him and his actress wife Rosemary to move to a tea plantation in Malawi, then South Africa.

He returned to the UK in 1957 with a newfound determination to succeed, joining London’s Old Vic theatre alongside actors including Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, and Tom Courtenay.

Ackland, who was born in the west London suburb of North Kensington on February 29, 1928, had no truck with method acting, in which actors immerse themselves in a character. 

“I like to do research before because it saves acting,” he said, believing credibility above all was the key to winning over audiences.

Before filming “The Sicilian”, he lived with an aging mafioso for six weeks in a village near Palermo, to give him an insight into the life of crime families.

When the cameras started rolling, “all I had to do was say the lines”, he said.

– Grief –

Ackland’s grief at the death of his son Paul in an overdose at age 29 helped him portray the writer C.S. Lewis’ loss of his wife in the 1985 television film “Shadowlands”.

Other real events gave him a perspective on his work, such as when a fire destroyed the family home and left Rosemary badly injured when she jumped from a window to escape.

“Suddenly you realise how valuable every minute of life is,” he said.

The devoted couple were married for 51 years and had seven children. Rosemary developed motor neurone disease and died in 2002.

Ackland, who appeared in the acclaimed TV version of John le Carre’s “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” and in “The Hunt for Red October” as the Russian ambassador, acknowledged some of his roles were better than others.

He admitted only accepting a part in “Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey” because of a bet with his daughter, and agreed to be in the Pet Shop Boys video because his children liked them.

But he got fussier in later life, retiring in 2014 and preferring instead to spend time with his large family of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

In 2020, he sought to dispense some of his nine decades of experience to a younger generation struggling with the fear and unknown of the coronavirus pandemic and the isolation of lockdown.

“Every decade has its surprises, challenges, and its marvels,” he intoned reassuringly in a video from his home in the fishing village of Clovelly in north Devon, southwest England.

“Over the years in time of trouble I have seen adversity breed strength, connection, and humor in this country. I’ve seen it over and over again and I hope that you, the young, will look back on this decade and be able to say it too.”