Shane Jacobson remembers the thrill of getting his own business card. At 17, he had turned up at the offices of Westpac and, without an appointment, not only managed to talk his way into seeing the human resources manager, but convince him to give him a job.
It was the late ’80s and the sensible life choice for a young man from Avondale Heights involved getting a secure job, and a bank job was highly valued – solid and dependable.
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Mother & Son at the Comedy Theatre
Geoffrey Atherden penned the first episodes of Mother & Son in 1984 creating an instant classic. Now, 30 years later, he has done it again.
‘‘I did like the idea of being on a tram, in a suit, with a briefcase,’’ says Jacobson. ‘‘That’s what grown-ups did.’’
And, of course, they had their own business cards, that formal, printed confirmation that you existed in the adult world. Jacobson recalls the moment: ‘‘My name is on a small piece of card – like the grown-ups.’’
That might have been it, with him swallowed up by the credit card services department, replete with business cards, suit and briefcase, confident he was now grown-up. Yet there was always another calling. He loved acting, performing. At weekends hewas heavily involved in the Gang Show, the scouting movement’s musical production. He was also thelead singer in a cover band.
Sensible bank job by day, the electric buzz of performance at night. Surely, he would discard the thin leather tie, hurl his briefcase off the tram and follow the dream? That would have been the appealing plot of what could be a more than respectful Australian feature film.
Yet life is a little more complex, as is Jacobson. He would eventually leave the bank. The dream would be realised, but it would take the best part of 20 years for his business card, if he had one, to read ‘‘actor’’.
Instead, he would oscillate between performance – the warm-up guy for TV shows, for instance – and business, albeit on the production side of the entertainment industry, including fireworks shows, event management and senior jobs at Premier Lighting.
All the while, he was being reminded of what could be. His brother, Clayton, who had forged asuccessful career as a movie director, kept urging him to emerge from the shadows of backstage. ‘‘It drove him mad,’’ says Jacobson.
There was a certain symmetry, then, when the big leap into the spotlight came through ajoint project with his brother, the 2006 hit movie Kenny, the mockumentary about Kenny Smyth, a plumber with a lisp who runs a portaloo company. The genesis was when Jacobson was managing events, watching the Splashdown portaloo company in operation. Clayton saw the potential for a short film, which would become a feature.
Since then, there has been no turning back, as Jacobson has built a formidable career on screen and stage. He can act, he can dance, he can sing and is good, really good.
‘‘Now that I’m doing it, he’s not pushing me,’’ says Jacobson of his brother. ‘‘He’s just sitting back going, ‘There you are’.’’
And here he is, sitting on a weekday morning in the Savoy Tavern in Spencer Street, the old pub that lay fallow for years, now with the hoardings down and made respectable. It’s just after 11am and the hotel is starting to stir. Coffee in hand, we watch the early lunch crowd filter in.
We are talking because Jacobson is appearing in the stage version of Mother and Son, the hugely successful ABC sitcom thatran for a decade. Jacobson plays Robert, the often absent but favoured dentist son.
It’s also a chance to look a little more deeply into the Jacobson story, helped in part by his recent memoir, The Long Road to Overnight Success. A breezy and easy read, the title effectively captures his story and the dirt tracks he has travelled rather than the highway.
He is pleased to hear what I think, which is a common response. ‘‘I hope this isn’t offensive,’’ people will tell him, ‘‘but it’s an easy read.’’
‘‘I think it’s a great compliment,’’ he says. ‘‘Ido want it to be an easy read, the same way ajoke should be easy to laugh at, a song should be easy to the ears and a great landscape should be beautiful to the eyes. I’d love to think the book that I write should be an easy read. AndI’m not Shakespeare.’’
As a child, Jacobson was a natural performer. His father, Ron, came from a carnival family and did some stand-up comedy, while his mother, Jill, taught calisthenics. The recollection is of a happy childhood, even though his parents separated when he was four.
When the book was released, one reviewer questioned how Jacobson could have gone through such upheaval unscathed, and that surely everyone in his life couldn’t be as nice as he portrayed them. Jacobson had never spoken to a critic, but this time he did.
Jacobson told the critic that as an expert, he had more right to criticise the book than anyone, and that he wasn’t calling to have a go. ‘‘But the only thing I wanted you to know is that I’m not affected badly by the break-up, because my parents did such a good job and I idolise them for it. I’m very proud to tell you that it’s true.’’ And he was blessed with good friends.
Growing up, Jacobson was into everything. The Scouts played a big role and the Gang Show revues gave him the opportunity to express his talents, both on stage and off. Notonly did he love the spotlight, but he knew how to operate one.
There was also the influence of his father anduncles, the stories they would tell. ‘‘If they had worked in kitchens all their lives, I’m now achef as a result of their recipes. But I’m not a chef, I’m an entertainer. They’re the ones who taught me the herbs and spices to throw in.’’
Then there was his mother and her calisthenics school. His first proper performance was when he was eight, as a cowboy alongside the dancers in a concert. Hisrole was to walk on the stage, look at the girls, pull out his two guns, shoot himself and fall backwards in an overacted death. It was brief, but as he writes in his book, the buzz lasted. People who had seen his part would come up after the concert.
‘‘For a moment, I felt like a star. I instantly loved being on stage, right from that moment.’’
In a theme that was to emerge as a constant in his life, Jacobson was involved in anything going, any committee that moved.
A priest who knew him through scouting made his views known. He was a fairly straight shooter, says Jacobson, who would hit you in the chest if you blasphemed, just hard enough to shock the blasphemer and provoke the reaction, ‘‘I just got hit by a priest’’.
The priest told Jacobson that if he didn’t slow down, he would be dead by 28. Naturally, Jacobson paid no attention. ‘‘I hate to think what he’d say now, because I’m far busier now than I was back then,’’ says Jacobson, who has made it to a robust-looking 44.
Busy is something of an understatement. A visit to his website, shanejacobson.com.au, reveals a remarkable breadth of work, completed and continuing. Click on the projects tab and each year reveals itself as along list of movies, plays and TV work. The shortest entry is 2006 – Kenny.
Along with the movie that really began it all, there are eight feature films, including The Bourne Legacy in 2012 and Charlie & Boots with Paul Hogan in 2009.
He is now filming a new comedy drama, Oddball, in country Victoria, based on a true story. He plays an eccentric chicken farmer who saves a colony of penguins when he puts his sheep dog on their island. On this day at the Savoy, he is wearing a ‘‘ridiculous’’ perm for the part.
As for the smaller screen, we have seen him recently in Peter Temple’s Jack Irish: Dead Point, completely nailing the role of the face-feeding detective Barry Tregear. A second series of the widely praised The Time of Our Lives is now screening on ABC1.
He is also the executive producer and a co-host of Manspace, which is tied in with the men’s magazine of the same name. The show goes in search of ‘‘man caves’’ and collections, an echo of his stint as a host of Top Gear Australia. He also hosted and produced a documentary on the life of Paul Hogan.
Then there is his stage work, including Guys and Dolls, The Drowsy Chaperone, Shane Warne: The Musical and now Mother and Son. He also does corporate events. This is just a sample. The priest would be having conniptions.
‘‘If I was a farmer,’’ says Jacobson, ‘‘you plant seeds, expecting some to die. You’ve got to plant more than you need, because they won’t all grow. But bugger me dead, they just did.’’
Extending that analogy, for most of the time, in most countries, the entertainment industry is permanently in drought. ‘‘Everyone knows that, because everyone says, ‘Take it while it’s there’,’’ he says. ‘‘Everything is spoken about interms of it is all just about to go. So you’ve gotto grab it while you can.’’
In part, the explanation may lie in his business background, for there appears to be astrong entrepreneurial streak in the way Jacobson approaches his career, and his previous existence and skills are never far fromthe surface.
When he was performing in Guys and Dolls, a lamp blew during a technical rehearsal and the crew began looking for glass on the stage. Jacobson told the young crew member there wouldn’t be any, because the lamp was encased in a light curtain. He was right. A ‘‘Thanks, Shane!’’ came from the front-of-house lighting console.
The young crew member asked how Jacobson knew. ‘‘Because he gave me my first job in lighting,’’ an older crew member explained.
Jacobson also knows when to say no and not to let the entertainment own him, sucking him into a vortex, luring him to catch a flight for the appearance on the big show, the big event. The father of three young children, he is determined not to end up as the cliched absent father in the song Cat’s in the Cradle.
‘‘And I just don’t want to do that,’’ he says. ‘‘Every now and then, I realise that a big event is playing Lego on the lounge room floor.
‘‘At times, I realise you have to actually say, ‘No, I’m working on that day’. The only thing you can’t say is, ‘I’m working at being a good parent’.’’
There is another explanation for the mountain of work he has built. Remarkably, given his diverse talents, he has yet to shake off the feeling he has something to prove.
His manager and friend, Deb Fryers, thinks he needs to keep proving that not only is he more than the character Kenny, but he can act.
‘‘I do remind him every now and then that you no longer need to do that – just keep doing what you are doing and keep on enjoying it. Youdon’t need to prove anything any more,’’ she says.
She is staggered by the amount of work hedoes and the variety, but he has the talent. Atthe end of the day, she says, he simply loves to entertain.
‘‘When I first met Shane, I said to him, ‘Youhave the qualities and talents of a Robin Williams or a Billy Crystal’, and I still believe that. Australian audiences have not yet seen half of what he has to offer.’’
Jacobson will continue to offer it, believing that it is his responsibility to take new work to audiences. He doesn’t assume that they should be seeking it out. ‘‘It’s not their job to find it. It’snot their job to watch you.’’
As Jacobson points out, crowds don’t gather outside schools at the end of the day to applaud teachers for the work they are doing in educating children, or hospitals when doctors and nurses emerge from saving a life.
There is no doubt that part of his motivation is to show people he is much more than Kenny. ‘‘I do always say it’s better to be remembered for something you’ve done than forgotten for everything you’ve tried,’’ he says.
‘‘I had to give myself that to say out loud, because part of my drive was to prove to people I was more than Kenny.’’
Jacobson has clearly done that, but, for many, of course, he will always be Kenny Smyth. No one comes up to him and talks abouthis role in The Bourne Legacy.
‘‘But they will go, ‘You’re the toilet guy’. I’m stoked they saw it.’’
Mother and Son (motherandsononstage.com.au) is at The Comedy Theatre, Melbourne, from July 18. The Time of Our Lives screens on ABC1 on Thursdays at 8.30pm.