Joss Ackland: Distinguished British Star Of Stage And Screen Dies At 95

British actor Joss Ackland arrives at the British Premiere of his latest film ‘Flawless’ in London’s Covent Garden on November 26, 2008. (Photo by MAX NASH / AFP)

Joss Ackland, a British actor who excelled at playing film villains over an eight-decade career, died on Sunday, according to his family. He was 95.

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According to a statement, the actor, famed for his “distinctive voice and commanding presence,” died peacefully at home, surrounded by family.

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

In “Lethal Weapon 2,” Ackland played a corrupt South African diplomat whose diplomatic immunity fails to protect him from Mel Gibson and Danny Glover’s relentless LA cops.

In “The Sicilian,” he played a vindictive mafia don, and in “White Mischief,” he played a buttoned-up aristocratic Englishman accused of murder in Kenya.

Ackland even appeared in a strange video for the Pet Shop Boys’ synth-pop version of “You Were Always On My Mind” as a murdering hitchhiker.

But, far from feeling stereotyped, the imposing actor, who stood at 6ft 1in (1.85 metres) and had a rich voice that alternated between grandfatherly reassurance and outright threat, 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 credited his early tribulations as a jobbing actor for his prodigious output in television, film, stage plays, and even musicals.

During the first ten years of his career, beginning in the mid-1940s, he and his actress wife Rosemary moved to a tea estate in Malawi, then to South Africa.

In 1957, he returned to the UK with a renewed ambition to excel, joining London’s Old Vic theatre alongside Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, and Tom Courtenay.

Ackland, who was born on February 29, 1928, in the west London area of North Kensington, was not a fan of method acting, in which players 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 ageing 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.

In the 1985 television film “Shadowlands,” Ackland’s sadness over the death of his son Paul in an overdose at the age of 29 inspired him to depict the writer C.S. Lewis’ loss of his wife.

Other real-life incidents influenced his art, such as when a fire destroyed the family house and severely injured Rosemary when she leaped from a window to escape.

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

The loving couple had seven children and had been married for 51 years. Rosemary died in 2002 from motor neurone disease.

Ackland, who played the Russian ambassador in the celebrated TV adaptations of John le Carre’s “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” and “The Hunt for Red October,” admitted that some of his parts were better than others.

He admitted that he only decided to appear in “Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey” because of a wager with his daughter, and that he agreed to be in the Pet Shop Boys video because his daughters liked them.

He became pickier as he grew older, retiring in 2014 and choosing to spend time with his huge 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 humour 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.”

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