Joss Ackland obituary: prolific character actor from White Mischief to Lethal Weapon 2

The British-Irish actor, who has died aged 95, had a fine line in villainy and accents over many decades of memorable supporting turns in film and television.

21 November 2023

By David Parkinson

Joss Ackland in Midsomer Murders: Vixen’s Run (2006) © ITV Global Studios Entertainment

“I do an awful lot of crap,” Joss Ackland declared in 2001, “but if it’s not immoral, I don’t mind. I’m a workaholic.” He later confessed, “I don’t mind giving crap a touch of class.” Although Ackland, who has died aged 95, often took major stage roles, he was mostly seen in character parts, racking up over 200 film and television appearances between 1949 and 2014. Claiming to be his own favourite actor, he placed himself in the unpredictable maverick tradition alongside Charles Laughton, Robert Newton and Orson Welles.

The son of an Irish sports journalist and a housemaid, Sidney Edmond Jocelyn Ackland was born in London on 29 February 1928 and used to joke that he was called up at four and played Falstaff at seven. In fact, he only started acting after meeting his father’s playwright cousin, Rodney Ackland, and landed an understudy role in a 1945 production of The Hasty Heart after training at the Central School of Speech and Drama.

Despite making his film debut with an uncredited bit in Landfall (1949), Ackland struggled to make his mark and spent time in the mid-1950s managing a tea plantation in wife Rosemary Kirkcaldy’s birthplace of Nyasaland (now Malawi). The experience informed his BAFTA-nominated performance as Sir ‘Jock’ Delves Broughton in White Mischief (1987), a recreation of an infamous murder case in wartime Kenya in which Ackland’s cuckolded baronet epitomised Happy Valley’s aura of debauched decency and colonial indolence.

White Mischief (1987)

Following a period acting and disc jockeying in South Africa, Ackland returned to Britain and enjoyed a change of fortune at the Old Vic and the Mermaid Theatre. He started seeking television work, however, after Rosemary broke her back in a 1963 house fire, and became a familiar face as Detective Inspector Todd in Z-Cars (1967 to 1968). He also drew cult kudos as a man becoming fixated with a waxwork in the Amicus anthology The House That Dripped Blood and as a crook with a stomach ulcer in Villain (both 1971).

But it was stage triumphs as Fredrik Egerman and Juan Perón in Hal Prince’s West End productions of A Little Night Music (1975) and Evita (1978) that raised Ackland’s profile, and he cemented his status as a slippery journalist-cum-agent in TV serial Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979). He would return to espionage and demonstrate his talent for impassive intensity as C, the spymaster in Ashenden, while reuniting with John le Carré on A Murder of Quality (both 1991), which co-starred Denholm Elliott, with whom Ackland had shared the London stage’s first passionate gay kiss in John Mortimer’s Bermondsey (1971).

Having been a forbidding father in The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1982), Ackland showed a softer side as C.S. Lewis in the BAFTA-winning BBC adaptation of Shadowlands (1985) and as Alan Holly, who walks from Land’s End to John o’Groats, in First and Last (1989). This would bring Ackland’s second BAFTA nomination. But villainy would become his stock in trade, as he essayed a ruthless 1950s Mafioso in Michael Cimino’s The Sicilian (1987), menaced the Pet Shop Boys in It Couldn’t Happen Here (1987), and got to hiss the relishable phrase “diplomatic immunity” to Mel Gibson and Danny Glover, as a drug-running South African consul-general in Lethal Weapon 2 (1989).

Ackland also enjoyed toying with accents, as the Soviet ambassador in The Hunt for Red October (1990) and the defence minister in Kathryn Bigelow’s K19: The Widowmaker (2002), as well as the Scandinavian ice-hockey mentor in Disney’s The Mighty Ducks (1992). This escaped Ackland’s ire (he even did D3 in 1996), but he loathed chewing scenery as a time-travelling gym teacher-turned-terrorist in Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991), which he insisted he only did because his daughter had dared him.

He also had nothing good to say about Mad Dogs and Englishmen (1995) and Passion of Mind (2000) or his respective co-stars, Elizabeth Hurley and Demi Moore. Such outspokenness reflected his frustration at accountants having more say in commercial cinema than directors. But Ackland remained prolific before retiring following Decline of an Empire (2014), in which he appeared alongside Peter O’Toole.

  • Joss Ackland, 29 February 1928 to 19 November 2023
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