The only child of a middle class British family, Derek Jacobi (pronounced jack-oh-bee) was born on October 22, 1938 in Leytonstone, East London, and was bitten by the acting bug at a relatively young age. His father served in the military during World War II and his mother worked full time during the war, so Jacobi would entertain himself by going to the movie theater. It was here that Jacobi decided he wanted to become an actor, and he embarked on his thespian education by joining The Players of Leyton, his high school's drama club.
As Leyton was an all-boy's school, Jacobi played female roles until his voice broke, at which point he almost immediately landed the lead role in William Shakespeare's Hamlet, and received national acclaim for his performance.
At 18, Jacobi received a scholarship to Cambridge, which at the time had no recognized course of study in drama, so Jacobi chose a major in history, with an eye toward becoming a history teacher should the acting thing not work out. At Cambridge, Jacobi continued his Shakespearean work, including playing Hamlet again. Immediately upon his graduation, he was offered membership in the famous Birmingham Repertory Company, where he caught the eye of Sir Laurence Olivier during a performance of Henry VIII. Olivier offered him the chance of a lifetime by inviting him to become one of the eight founding members of the new National Theatre in London. During the 1960s, Jacobi made the transition to the silver screen when Olivier was producing his filmed version of Shakespeare's work. His first movie role was playing Cassio in Othello in the 1965 film, and while his love for the stage never diminished, he began taking on more movie roles at this stage in his career.
The 1970s saw Jacobi broaden his work into television, after being cast by director Herbert Wise as Emperor Claudius in the BBC's stellar miniseries I, Claudius. When PBS broadcast the series as part of its Masterpiece Theater, it quickly became known as some of the finest acting work ever done for the small screen, and gained Jacobi worldwide reknown for the difficult role, playing the lame, stammering Claudius. Jacobi's stage work also broadened, and he began taking lead roles in nearly everything he was cast in during this time, usually touring with the Prospect Theater Company. His most notable film role of the 70s was probably that of Caron in The Day of the Jackal.
The 1980s marked Jacobi's entry into Broadway, where he starred in "The Suicide", winning a Tony Award in 1985 for his performance in "Much Ado About Nothing". He also played his most controversial role, that of Adolf Hitler in the 1982 miniseries "Inside the Third Reich". Much like Olivier discovered Jacobi, Jacobi also discovered a young actor named Kenneth Branagh during the 80s, and mentored him during this decade. Branagh, no mean actor on his own, has often cast Jacobi in his own films, with roles including that of a serial killer (well, sort of, just see the movie) in Dead Again. Jacobi also received his first Emmy Award in 1989 for his supporting role in The Tenth Man.
The 1990s brought some of Jacobi's finest work, including that of Crusader-turned-monk Brother Cadfael, and Alan Turing in Breaking the Code both on stage and the screen. He also narrated portions of Ken Burns' acclaimed miniseries about the American Civil War for PBS. Jacobi was knighted in 1992, and is only the second actor (the first being Olivier, natch) to be knighted by two countries--he also recieved a Danish knightood in 1980.
He shows no sign of slowing down during the 2000s, as he's already starred in Gladiator and Robert Altman's Gosford Park. He also won his second Emmy for a guest starring role on Frasier in 2001. He continues to work both stage and screen, bringing to his roles his mellifluous voice and commanding presence, needing only an Oscar to complete his Grand Slam of American acting awards. An intensely private man, not much is known about his personal life, other than he likes gardening (which probably gives him great insight into Brother Cadfael, yes?) with a passion almost equal to his passion for acting. Of himself, Jacobi attributes all of his success to luck, and describes himself as "dull as dishwater".
Rather than presenting the way-too-long list of Jacobi's credits and accolades, I ask you to do this: go down to your local video store and pick up anything with Jacobi in it. You'll be well-rewarded.
Biographical data adapted from the Internet Movie Database and the Hollywood.com celebrity biographical section.