[img]http://hits.guardian.co.uk/b/ss/guardiangu-feeds/1/H.20.3/11133?ns=guardian&pageName=Lou+Jacobi+obituary%3AArticle%3A1305375&ch=Stage&c3=Guardian&c4=Theatre%2CFilm%2CStage%2CJudaism+%28News%29%2CCanada+%28News%29%2CComedy%2CWest+End%2CBroadway%2CTelevision+%28Culture%29%2CWoody+Allen+%28Film%29&c6=Ronald+Bergan&c7=09-Nov-16&c8=1305375&c9=Article&c10=Obituary&c11=Stage&c13=&c25=&c30=content&h2=GU%2FStage%2FTheatre[/img]Character actor and comedian who specialised in Jewish roles
Portly, balding, twinkly-eyed and sporting a moustache, Lou Jacobi, who has died aged 95, believed that he "had the look of everybody's favourite Uncle Max". Although Jacobi had been acting since he was 12, he was the sort of character actor that one could never imagine being young. He was born in the Jewish section of Toronto, Canada, and started performing as a child in the Yiddish theatre in a play called The Rabbi and the Priest, in which he was a violin prodigy. He went on to specialise in Jewish roles, both comic and dramatic, lending them that particular intonation and body language of which he was a master.
In the 1940s, Jacobi worked as a stand- up comic at holiday resorts in Muskoka, north of Toronto, a vacation spot popular with Jewish holidaymakers. He was also cast in Spring Thaw (1949), which was to become one of the most celebrated satirical revues in Canada.
From 1952 to 1956, Jacobi worked in Britain, where he had roles in Pal Joey and Guys and Dolls in the West End and appeared in four films, including Carol Reed's A Kid for Two Farthings (1955) as Blackie Isaacs, an East End wrestling promoter. In the same year, he landed the part of Hans van Daan, one of eight Jews hiding from the Nazis, in the Broadway production of The Diary of Anne Frank. He stayed with the play for over a year, before repeating the role in George Stevens's well-meaning 1959 movie version. Appearing opposite Shelley Winters as his wife, Jacobi, playing a rather weak character given to occasional rages, provides one of the best performances in a generally badly cast film.
Back on Broadway in 1959, he was in Paddy Chayefsky's The Tenth Man, about the exorcism of a dybbuk. This was followed by Neil Simon's first Broadway play, Come Blow Your Horn (1961), in which he played the self-made Jewish father with a playboy son whom he keeps calling a "bum" with great comic relish. For the rest of his career, Jacobi alternated between the stage, screen and television. He was the philosophical barman in Billy Wilder's Irma La Douce (1963), who tells Jack Lemmon: "To be overly honest in a dishonest world is like plucking a chicken against the wind – you'll only end up with a mouthful of feathers."
On stage, in Woody Allen's first play on Broadway, Don't Drink the Water (1966-68), Jacobi created the role of the father of a "typical" family from New Jersey, forced to seek refuge in the American embassy of a mythical country called Vulgaria behind the iron curtain. A few years later, Jacobi was reunited with Allen for Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask (1972). In the sketch called Are Transvestites Homosexuals?, Jacobi is a respectable middle-class middle-aged married man who has sudden urges to dress in women's clothes. Delightfully incongruous in drag, Jacobi seems perversely to enjoy the dangerous possibility of his cross-dressing being exposed.
In another episodic film, James Ivory's Roseland (1977), Teresa Wright plays an ageing widow who dances the waltz at the dancehall with Jacobi, an uncouth widower, the antithesis of her late husband. It was a bitter-sweet tale played to perfection by the contrasting duo.
Among his many small, but noticeable, roles were the uncles in My Favourite Year (1982) and Barry Levinson's semi-autobiographical Avalon (1990), where he has an excellent dinner-party scene. "You cut the turkey without me?" he explodes, which became one of the character's catchphrases. In his last film, IQ (1994), Jacobi was one of four eccentric geniuses, including Walter Matthau as Einstein, who comment on the action.
Jacobi painted in his spare time and recorded a comedy album, Al Tijuana and His Jewish Brass, which starts out as Tijuana rhythm then veers off into the Jewish Bronx with clarinets, violins and kazoos. His wife Ruth died in 2004.
• Louis Harold Jacobovitch (Lou Jacobi), actor, born 28 December 1913; died 23 October 2009
• This article was amended on 16 November 2009, to restore material on the transvestites sketch and the film Roseland which was cut for space reasons in the newspaper version.
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Guardian: Lou Jacobi obituary
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