He wrote me back. Or someone did with a lovely note of thanks written on that thrilling light blue tissue paper once used for international mail. By the time it arrived, however, embarrassment had trumped epiphany.

I am not a poet nor a Shakespearean scholar, nor was I meant to be. In the years that followed I became far more concerned with the oppression of Shakespeare's imagined sister than his works. But I always loved Jacobi, because that moment wasn't just a moment, it's what he does. Every time.

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Just out of college and living in New York, I scraped together enough money to buy a good seat to "Breaking the Code," and the moment Jacobi appeared, the term "took the stage" suddenly became clear. When he was in front of the audience, the stage and all its artifice vanished, the play became real.

Though obviously rigorous about his craft, Jacobi's power as an actor is his ability, and willingness, to surrender. No matter what sort of person he plays, an essential humanity inevitably splits him open. His eyes grow wide with it, his mouth softens at the wonder/confusion/horror of being human before whatever intent or flaw peculiar to the character takes over.

And despite a pedigree that all but defines "thespian" — he recently redefined "King Lear" as thoroughly as he did "Hamlet" — he has always been willing to do just about anything. His list of television and film credits is Homeric and still growing.

Hitler, Francis Bacon, the crusader turned Benedictine sleuth in "Cadfael," a jolly mortician's assistant in "Nanny McPhee," a nervous butler in "Gosford Park," an archbishop in "The King's Speech." He's guest-starred on "Miss Marple," "Doctor Who," "The Borgias" and "Frasier" (therein mocking his own Hamlet and winning an Emmy).

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He has explained Shakespeare and the theater in a variety of films, lent his voice to projects as diverse as "The Civil War" and "Angelina Ballerina." I confess I have not made it through his narration of "The Iliad" or "The History of English Poetry," but his reading of C.S. Lewis' "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader" may be the reason books on tape were invented.

At age 74, he is currently starring in two shows on British television — "Vicious," a broad comedy about a tart-tongued, longtime gay couple (his costar is Ian McKellen), and "Last Tango in Halifax," in which he plays a straight salt o' the earth Yorkshire man rediscovering true love. "Last Tango" premieres Sunday night on PBS, and if you don't see it, you're missing the best new show of the fall.

In that role, Jacobi reminds us why human beings thought to act, or write, or paint, or play music, in the first place. To share who we are and what we know and how we learned it.

There is plenty of great art to be found at eye-level, but some shines from a place too distant or lies scattered among the weeds. If you are very lucky, you may happen upon an artist who is also a guide, a creative mind neither afraid of heights nor too taken with them to remember the beauty of the back garden or the kitchen sink. Someone who seems happy to share the pleasure and importance of both.

I have written exactly one fan letter in my life, and that was to Derek Jacobi.

Now I have written two.

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com