"a very smiling face, and a great heavy chin" [COPP]
Actor Joss Ackland has passed away. He was 95 years old.
Sherlock Holmes fans may recognize him from a number of roles which we'll detail below — which would seem to parallel his stage career. In 2010, the Express credited him as appearing in more plays than any other living actor.
Born in London in 1928, he was trained at the Central School of Speech and drama and made his debut in 1945 in "The Hasty Heart." His first film was the thriller Seven Days to Noon (1950), but he was uncredited; he made his credited debut in a supporting role in Ghost Ship (1952). Ackland spent the late 1940s through the first half of the 1950s in regional theatrical companies, where he worked on his craft.
In 1955, he left the stage and managed a tea plantation in Africa for two years, where he also served as a disc jockey and wrote plays. In 1957, he returned to England and joined the Old Vic theatre company and managed the Mermaid Theatre from 1962-1964. At this time, he established his prominence on the stage with many performances in London's West End, including Captain Hook in "Peter Pan," Juan Peron in "Evita," and Falstaff in "Henry IV Parts 1 and 2."
During that time, he also began a run as a memorable character actor in films and television. He had roles in widely distributed films with great box office success such as The Hunt for Red October, Lethal Weapon 2 ("Diplomatic immunity!") and The Mighty Ducks.
He made his first Sherlock Holmes-connected appearance as The Hon. Philip Green in "The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax" opposite Douglas Wilmer in the BBC's Sherlock Holmes.
He also played the president in John Cleese’s disastrous parody, The Strange Case of the End of Civilization as We Know It, in which Cleese played the grandson of Sherlock Holmes. In "The Mystery of the Amber Beads," an episode of the BBC series The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes, based on the anthologies edited by Hugh Greene, Ackland played Grubber.
Ackland joined Christopher Lee and Patrick McNee in 1992 to play King Edward in Incident at Victoria Falls. In that role, he sent a ready-to-retire Sherlock Holmes on a mission to South Africa to recover the Star of Africa diamond.
But we remember him most vividly and fondly for his turn as Jephro Rucastle in "The Copper Beeches" from Granada's The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. This episode is toward the beginning of the Granada production, and it was a faithful adaptation with exquisite costuming, locations and casting.
Ackland seemed perfectly cast as Rucastle, as Conan Doyle described him as "a round, jovial man" who was a "prodigiously stout man with a very smiling face and a great heavy chin which rolled down in fold upon fold over his throat...with a pair of glasses on his nose."
In one of the signature scenes (with the late Natasha Richardson as Violet Hunter), we're treated to this excerpt described in the original story:
"Mr. Rucastle, walking up and down on the other side of the room, began to tell me a series of the funniest stories that I have ever listened to."
As a former disc jockey with decades of stage experience and as the father of seven children (whom he listed as his "hobby" in a 1981 interview), it's no doubt that Joss Ackland could have pulled off Rucastle's storytelling abilities.
Joss Ackland was rewarded for his service to the profession in 2001 when he was made a Commander of the British Empire. In 2002, he lost his wife of 51 years, Rosemary, to motor neuron disease. With her permission, he published her diaries in 2009 under the title My Better Half and Me.
Six of his seven children survive him, as do 32 grandchildren.