O mihi tum longae maneat pars ultima vitae,
Spiritus et quantum sat erit tua dicere facta
[To sing thy praise, would heaven my breath prolong,
Infusing spirits worthy such a song]
When it comes to finding connections between actors, Kevin Bacon gets some pretty heavy competition from Emperor Claudius.
There were whispers, much like the ones oft heard around Capitoline Hill following every decree the Imperator made, about how a few actors in a favorite genre production (horror, sci-fi, fantasy, mysteries/spy stories, music-related) shared some screen time with each other on the BBC’s miniseries I, Claudius, which first aired in the UK in 1976 and found its way to American televisions via Masterpiece Theatre in 1978. The series was the Game of Thrones of its day, drawing in casual viewers with its daring depictions of sex and violence, who then stayed for its epic dynastic politics and high quality. Claudius would often show up on an actor’s resume here and there when fans of a particular star delved a little deeper into what other work he or she had done.
A considered analysis, however, shows just how far afield into genre productions the cast ether came from or went. There are decades of work covered by the list of actors and actresses who donned togas and sandals for some of those 13 hours of the series (some of whom found themselves shorn of such, giving the series a racy reputation that PBS wasn’t entirely sure how to handle back then). The list below is by no means exhaustive, but does try and demonstrate the breadth of connection with genre productions this miniseries had.
Below are many of the actors in the production, the genre roles they were better known for, and a few details as to whom they played on I, Claudius, given in order of their credits as presented for the broadcasts. Please don’t think of these details from a television show from 1976, based on a series of books by Robert Graves from 1934-5, tied to historical figures who lived 2000 years ago, as “spoilers;” consider them more as “study notes for your next Roman history class.”
BETTER KNOWN FOR: Caron in The Day of the Jackal, Klaus Wenzer in The Odessa File, Nicodemus in The Secret of Nimh, Franklyn Madison on Dead Again, Brother Cadfael in Cadfael, Professor Yana/The Master in Doctor Who (“Utopia”), The Magisterial Emissary in The Golden Compass, and way, way more than just this
PLAYED: Claudius, Emperor of Rome, CE 41-54. Impeded by a stutter as a boy and considered simple by his family, Claudius rises to become Imperator by sake of being the last man standing, as described later on. While his contemporaries thought him a fool and not entirely focused, he is presented by Graves and the miniseries as an introspective who keeps his counsel to himself and shares his brilliance with very few. Simple or concealing his cunning, what is indisputable is the act that probably made him the focus of the piece: his sending the legions to conquer Britannia in CE 50, making England a part of the Roman Empire.
BETTER KNOWN FOR: Cassiopeia in Clash of the Titans (the 1981 version)
PLAYED: Livia Drusilla, wife of Augustus, mother of Tiberius, grandmother to Claudius, great-grandmother to Caligula, great-great-grandmother to Nero — in short, bound by blood to most of the Julio-Claudan line of Emperors. According to Graves (and in contrast to contemporary accounts), she was a schemer and conniver who looked for inheritors to the office that she could more fully control and was not above hiring assassins and using poison to remove meddlesome obstacles from her path, such as daughters-in-law, children, and husbands.
BETTER KNOWN FOR: Number 2 in The Prisoner (“Arrival”), Sir Hillary Bray in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, George Baker in Survivors (“Genesis”), Captain Benson in The Spy Who Loved Me, Logan in Doctor Who (“Full Circle”)
PLAYED: Tiberius, Emperor of Rome, CE 14-37. Successor to Augustus, through marriage to his daughter Julia the Elder, and Livia’s son with another husband, he got the job when the other two candidates before him died in Gaul due to accidents (supposedly). Once in power, he leaves the day-to-day running of affairs to the head of the Praetorian Guard, Sejanus (described below) while he forced young men and women to join orgies at his palace on the island of Capri. When Tiberius died after being smothered by pillow, the citizens of Rome rejoiced, thinking that the next Imperator was going to be an improvement; unfortunately, that did not turn out well…
BETTER KNOWN FOR: Kane in Alien (and Spaceballs), John Merrick in The Elephant Man, Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four (the 1984 version), Mr. Ollvander in the Harry Potter series, Adam Sutler in V For Vendetta, the “War Doctor” in Doctor Who (“The Day of the Doctor”)
PLAYED: Caligula, Emperor of Rome, CE 37-41. Remember how the Romans thought the next guy after Tiberius had to be an improvement? Well-l-l-l-l-l… In addition to declaring himself the god Jupiter on earth, suppressing all dissent real and imagined at the point of a sword, forcing Roman Senators and their wives to become prostitutes, and naming his horse to the high Roman office of Counsel, we can add to his atrocities sleeping with his sister Julia Drusilla, with whom (according to Graves) he supposed had a child with, whom he attempted to prevent from being greater than him the same way Saturn consumed his children by ripping the fetus out of his sister’s womb and consuming it. (The committing of this bloody crime only appeared once, during the show’s initial air on BBC; repeats on BBC and subsequent versions for other markets and media excised this gruesome bit.) Oy, talk about god complexes.
BETTER KNOWN FOR: Mentor in Space: 1999 (“The Metamorph”), Brod in Survivors (“Law of the Jungle”), Vargas in BLAKE’S 7 (“Cygnus Alpha”), Prince Vultan in Flash Gordon (the 1980 version), King Yrcanos in Doctor Who (“The Trial of a Time Lord”), Boss Nass in Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, the Nekross King in Wizards vs. Aliens, among a host of credits almost as big as his voice
PLAYED: Augustus, Emperor of Rome, 27 BC – CE 14. The first Imperator, who comes to power before the series starts after avenging Julius Caesar’s murder and defeating Antony and Cleopatra’s uprising, Augustus has plans to reform Roman society and Rome itself; his claim that he “found Rome a city of brick and left it a city of marble” has a solid foundation. His efforts to form a strong family that gives Rome a smooth dynastic succession plan, not so much; between his daughter’s infidelities and his wife’s schemes which bedevil him from the beginning, there’s no chance for his vision of stable one-man rule in Rome, which fills the entire series with schemes and disasters.
BETTER KNOWN FOR: Gurney Halleck in Dune, Dr. Armstrong in Lifeforce, Captain Jean-Luc Piccard in Star Trek: The Next Generation (entire series, subsequent films), Professor Charles Xavier in the X-Men series
PLAYED: Sejanus, head of the Praetorian Guard and right-hand man under Emperor Tiberius. In the name of the Imperator, he consolidated power, much of which he ultimately attempted to wield on his own behalf. On the cusp of his own coup, however, he is arrested and executed in CE 31, along with those who were considered loyal to him. When it came to imposing the will of the Emperor on Rome, he definitely made it so.
BETTER KNOWN FOR: Magenta in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Dr. Nation Mickinley in Shock Treatment, Belazs in Doctor Who (“Dragonfire”)
PLAYED: Livilla, sister of Claudius and former daughter-in-law to Tiberius and lover of Sejanus, who plotted with him to overthrow Tiberius. She was so committed to the cause that she poisoned her husband and daughter, and plotted to kill Tiberius as well before her lover was arrested and executed; hell of a family, this group.
BETTER KNOWN FOR: Polly in The Ghost Goes Gear, Tulip in Mrs. Brown You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter
PLAYED: Messalina, Empress of Rome. Claudius’ third wife, she was carnally insatiable, challenging whores to see how many men she could bed in a row before giving in to exhaustion. Not satisfied with winning these contests, she tried to encourage her lovers to usurp her husband; for her troubles she was put to the sword as Claudius returned from conquering Britannia. Talk about getting things tidied up when you get home.
BETTER KNOWN FOR: One of the Transvestites in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, doing the Time Warp again…
PLAYED: Nero, Emperor of Rome, CE 54-68. Successor to Claudius, the series ends before some of his more notorious acts are committed, such as the burning of Rome and the criminalization of Christianity. Before the series wraps, however, he does get to sleep with his mother and poison his step-father Claudius, setting up his glorious run to ruin as the last Julio-Claudian Emperor.
BETTER KNOWN FOR: Kalas in Highlander: The Series (main villain, season three)
PLAYED: Germanicus, father of Caligula and uncle of Claudius. One of the more normal members of the family, he gains glory and respect by avenging the defeat of the legions at the Battle of Teutoberg Forrest. This puts him in a good position to stand up against Tiberius and Sejanus, so of course Livia has him poisoned.
BETTER KNOWN FOR: Kala (“The Key to Marinus” in 1964) and Lady Peinforte (“The Silver Nemesis” in 1988) in Doctor Who
PLAYED: Agrippina the Elder, wife of Germanicus, mother of Caligula and grandmother of Nero. She seeks justice for the poisoning of her husband; considering how Rome is run during this time, you can imagine how well that goes. She’s referred to as “Agrippina the Elder” so as not to confuse her with the other Agrippina, mother and lover of Nero. Please, do not confuse these two; seriously, just don’t.
BETTER KNOWN FOR: Cassandra in Doctor Who (“The Myth Makers”)
PLAYED: Julia the Elder, daughter of Augustus and wife of Tiberius. Tiberius was actually Julia’s second husband; like her first marriage, this was also arranged by Augustus for political reasons. She was mistreated by Tiberius, leading to his exile for a time, which encourages Livia to ruin her with charges of adultery that force Augustus to banish her. And no, things do not ultimately get better for daddy’s little girl.
BETTER KNOWN FOR: Mr. K in The Martian Chronicles, the Geneva banker in X-Men: First Class, Pope Sixtus IV in DaVinci’s Demons
PLAYED: Herod Agrippa, ruler of Judea CE 41-44. Sent to Rome to grow up after his father’s assassination, he becomes Claudius’ companion and confidante from his youth through his ascension. After Claudius becomes Emperor, he returns to Judea to rule a few years before he drops dead, which makes Claudius a lot sadder than it did the writer of the Book of Acts, who wrote about it after the fact.
BETTER KNOWN FOR: Crewman on HMS Ranger in The Spy Who Loved Me, Hugo Lang in Doctor Who (“The Twin Dilemma”), Joshamee Gibbs in the Pirates of the Caribbean series
PLAYED: Castor, son of Tiberius and husband of Livilla. Also known by the name Drusus Julius Caesar, he objected to Sejanus’ efforts to take control of Rome and was probably not happy to find out his wife was sleeping with him. Or he would have, had she not poisoned him before it got that bad.
BETTER KNOWN FOR: Sallah in Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Professor Arturo in Sliders, Gilim in the Lord of the Rings series
PLAYED: Macro, Praetorian Perfect from CE 31 to 38. An ambitious member of the Imperial security, first he secures Tiberius’ hold on power by slaying Sejanus, then insures Caligula’s orderly succession by using a pillow to smother Tiberius on his deathbed. For his service, and in recognition of his ambition, Macro is allowed an honorable suicide when Caligula indicates that he no longer trusts him, which goes to show what job security under the Emperor was like then.
BETTER KNOWN FOR: Dr. Ed Spencer in Space: 1999, The Caliph in Blake’s 7 (“Dawn of the Gods”)
PLAYED: Cassius, Centurion in the Praetorian Guard. His abuse at the hands of the Emperor Caligula, who disparaged him in various ways by suggesting he was effeminate (including one time making the watch word for the guard “Give us a kiss”), encouraged him to lead a coup that led to the assassination of Caligula and his family. Caligula’s uncle, however, survived the uprising; Claudius reluctantly oversaw Cassius’ execution despite his own misgivings about his predecessor. That’s gratitude for ya.
BETTER KNOWN FOR: Mrs. Treadwell in The Ruling Class, Nursie in Blackadder’s Christmas Carol (and Black-Adder II), Giant Nanny in The Silver Chair
PLAYED: Martina, daughter and poisoner of Germanicus, sister and lover of Caligula. No, not someone you want to accept a dinner invitation from.
BETTER KNOWN FOR: Willi Frisch in The Tomorrow People (“Hitler’s Last Secret”), Dudley in Young Sherlock Holmes
PLAYED: Gaius Caesar, adopted heir of Augustus. He was declared heir of Augustus after Tiberius fell out of favor for abusing his wife Julia, so of course he wasn’t going to be on screen that long.
BETTER KNOWN FOR: Norm in A Hard Day’s Night, Arthur Babcock in Double Trouble
PLAYED: Sargent of the Praetorian Guard. He discovers Claudius hiding during the assassination of Caligula, accepts Claudius’ bribe not to kill him, then convinces the German mercenaries guarding the old Emperor that they were now in the presence of their new Caesar. Mind you, after everything we’ve seen on the series before this, there are worse ways to end up with a new leader.