Ronald Lacey was a British character actor whose career spanned more than thirty years; his was a face familiar from a variety of television and film appearances, but it was his performance as the evil Major Toht in Raiders of the Lost Ark that gained him international recognition and a place in popular culture.
Few villains in cinema, few devils in the demonology of popular culture, are as immediately sinister as Lacey’s Nazi agent. His name rhymes with the German word for ‘death’ and in his first scene his shadow appears before he does. Toht doesn’t so much step out of the shows as bring the shadows with him.
The renown earned by a single, highly successful role can sometimes mask an actor’s versatility even while it opens doors for them. Lacey’s performance as Indiana Jones’s wicked adversary led to further work in US film and television, but he had long been established in British theatre, film, and television.
A brief acquaintance with his career may give the impression that he was usually cast as sinister or unprepossessing characters, but the full picture tells a different story, showing a wide diversity of roles to his credit.
Nor did Lacey’s success as a Hollywood villain lead him down any of those familiar paths toward being typecast, with his screen appearances remaining as diverse and intriguing in both character and genre as before.
In a career that lasted more than three decades, Lacey appeared in dramas both light and dark, and comedies both low and high. Recognised by many as the thieving Harris in the BBC sitcom Porridge, he is less recognised but more widely remembered (and surely, much-quoted) for his legendary turn as the monstrous, baby-eating and scene-stealing Bishop of Bath & Wells in Blackadder II.
Among his many television credits, Lacey guest-starred in a variety of well-loved, but very different, staples of British and American television drama, such as All Creatures Great and Small, Bergerac, Boon, Minder, Hart to Hart, and Magnum P.I.
Fans of fantasy and science fiction know him from appearances in cult television shows like Blake’s 7, The Avengers, and Randall & Hopkirk, Deceased, or movies like Red Sonja, Flesh & Blood, and of course The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension.
Connoisseurs of British Kitchen Sink drama will know Lacey from his performance as Billy Herne, one of a group of young men on trial for murder (and perhaps for being young) in the 1962 film The Boys. Sherlock Holmes enthusiasts will know him from his dual performance as the Sholto brothers in the Jeremy Brett version of The Sign of Four, or for his portrayal of Inspector Lestrade opposite Ian Richardson’s Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles (1983).
Fans of Cold War thrillers will have seen him in Firefox, fans of Shakespeare will have seen him as one of the shag-haired villains sent to murder Banquo in Polanski’s film of Macbeth.
Keen watchers of World War II drama will have been intrigued to see the legendary Major Toht reincarnated first as Winston Churchill in the made-for-TV sequel to The Great Escape, and then as Emil Luger in the sprawling TV mini-series The Nightmare Years, based on William Shirer’s account of the pre-war propaganda war in 1930s Germany. Luger only appears in one episode, but is a highly memorable character, an Austrian broadcaster who contends fiercely with Joseph Goebbels, and righteously confronts Leni Riefenstahl over her failures as a journalist.
Lacey starred in the BBC’s 1978 drama Dylan, which depicted the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas in his final days. No less a critic than Clive James described Lacey’s portrayal of the wracked, physically deteriorating Thomas as having ‘a central dignity holding the whole mess together’, and felt that the performance merited description as ‘bravura’.
Lacey performed on British television throughout the 1960s and 1970s, with roles spanning from a part in Kenneth Clark's Civilisation television series, as the gravedigger, in a re-enactment of the gravedigger scene from Hamlet, with Ian Richardson as Hamlet and Patrick Stewart as Horatio, to a guest shot as the "Strange Young Man" in The Avengers episode "The Joker", and as Harris in the sitcom Porridge, with the latter finally landing him in the role for which his unusual physical characteristics could be repeatedly used to full advantage.
Disappointed with his acting career by the late 1970s, he began to consider starting a talent agency. Spielberg then cast him as the Nazi agent Arnold Toht in Raiders of the Lost Ark. He followed this with a series of various villain roles for the next five to six years: Sahara with Brooke Shields, and 1985's Red Sonja with Arnold Schwarzenegger, in addition to 1982's Firefox with Clint Eastwood, in which he played a Russian scientist helping the West behind the Iron Curtain.
He then made two movies for Ice International Films: Assassinator starring alongside John Ryan and George Murcell, and Into the Darkness, starring with Donald Pleasence, John Ryan, and Brett Paul. He performed comic monologues on The Green Tie on the Little Yellow Dog, which was recorded 1982, and broadcast by Channel 4 in 1983.
Lacey played a number of villainous roles and was known for his trademark smile, which would turn into a gleaming malicious leer. He also had a rather large mole on his left cheek, which he chose not to have removed, as well as a highly distinctive voice. In 1983's Trenchcoat, he used the mole as a beauty mark in his role as Princess Aida, a mysterious and sleazy drag queen on the island of Malta. His other drag role was in Invitation to the Wedding from 1985, in which he played a husband/wife couple.
Lacey married twice, first to the actress Mela White in 1962 (she married him under the name Brompton as this was her second marriage). They had two children, actors Rebecca Lacey and Jonathan Lacey. Following their divorce, he married Joanna Baker in 1972, with whom he had a son.
Lacey was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer on 25 April 1991. He died less than one month later, on 15 May 1991, at the age of 55.