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John Gielgud

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Also Known As: Arthur John Gielgud, Sir John Gielgud Died: May 21, 2000
Born: April 14, 1904 Cause of Death:
Birth Place: London, England, GB Profession: actor, director, author

Biography CLOSE THE FULL BIOGRAPHY

Widely considered one of the finest actors of the 20th-Century, the versatile and prolific Sir John Gielgud fashioned an astounding career that spanned nearly 80 years. Born into a renowned English theater family, Gielgud began performing on stage in 1921 and was soon touted as one of the leading Shakespearian actors of his day. His continued efforts producing other classic works at the renowned Queen's Theatre throughout the 1930s and 1940s further solidified his growing reputation. Gielgud's film output began to increase mid-century with notable productions like "Julius Caesar" (1953) and "Richard III" (1955), in addition to a growing recognition on the stages of Broadway for such productions as "Ages of Man" and "Little Fish, Big Fish," both of which earned him a Tony Award. Modern-era works by the likes of David Storey and Harold Pinter occupied Gielgud's time throughout much of the 1970s, but it was near the dawn of the following decade when the heralded stage actor also became one of the most respected film actors ever to grace the screen. Following acclaimed performances in efforts like Alain Resnais' "Providence" (1977), the septuagenarian actor won an Oscar for his supporting role as the...

Widely considered one of the finest actors of the 20th-Century, the versatile and prolific Sir John Gielgud fashioned an astounding career that spanned nearly 80 years. Born into a renowned English theater family, Gielgud began performing on stage in 1921 and was soon touted as one of the leading Shakespearian actors of his day. His continued efforts producing other classic works at the renowned Queen's Theatre throughout the 1930s and 1940s further solidified his growing reputation. Gielgud's film output began to increase mid-century with notable productions like "Julius Caesar" (1953) and "Richard III" (1955), in addition to a growing recognition on the stages of Broadway for such productions as "Ages of Man" and "Little Fish, Big Fish," both of which earned him a Tony Award. Modern-era works by the likes of David Storey and Harold Pinter occupied Gielgud's time throughout much of the 1970s, but it was near the dawn of the following decade when the heralded stage actor also became one of the most respected film actors ever to grace the screen. Following acclaimed performances in efforts like Alain Resnais' "Providence" (1977), the septuagenarian actor won an Oscar for his supporting role as the less-than-amused butler in the hit comedy "Arthur" (1981). Accolades continued to come for his work on such miniseries as "Brideshead Revisited" (PBS, 1982), as well as on radio plays alongside protégé Kenneth Branagh. One of the few performers to win an Oscar, Tony, Emmy and Grammy, Gielgud's placement in the pantheon of all-time greats was inarguably secure.

Born Arthur John Gielgud on April 14, 1904 in South Kensington, London, U.K., he was the son of Kate and Franciszek "Frank" Gielgud, the latter a descendent of Polish nobility. On his mother's side, he was the scion of an illustrious acting family, with his grandmother, Kate Terry, great-aunt, Ellen Terry, and great-uncle, Fred Terry, all being luminaries of the London stage. After completing studies at Westminster School, Gielgud trained on a scholarship at Lady Benson's Acting School and at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art before making his stage debut in 1921 at the Old Vic with a single line as a herald in Shakespeare's "Henry V." Less of a physical presence than Olivier and underwhelming as a romantic lead, his rich, deeply emotive voice allowed him to excel in virtually any other type of role, especially when it came to the works of the Bard. Gielgud soon came to be regarded as one of the foremost interpreters of Shakespeare, delivering definitive interpretations of Romeo, Richard II, Macbeth, Prospero and Antony, to name a few.

Gielgud made his Broadway debut in a 1928 production of the original drama "The Patriot" prior to playing Hamlet for the first time in 1930, a character he would later revive on Broadway and reprise more than 500 times during his career. Although he had made his film debut in a silent movie years earlier, few of Gielgud's early screen roles - the exception being a rare romantic lead in Alfred Hitchcock's "Secret Agent" (1936) - were particularly memorable. A lauded actor, Gielgud subsequently established himself as a respected stage director, launching his own company in 1937 at the West End's Queen's Theatre, where he mounted productions of Shakespeare and other classics works, such as Sheridan's "School for Scandal," Chekhov's "Three Sisters" and later, Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest." Over the course of two decades, Gielgud firmly established his position as one of the most respected English thespians ever to grace the stage.

Outside the glow of the theater, however, life was not always filled with such accolades. Knighted earlier in the year, Gielgud ultimately survived the temporary scandal caused by homosexual solicitation charges - quite serious, considering the social morays of the time - filed against him in 1953. Although the actor had never sought to explicitly deny his sexuality, the incident continued to be a source of great embarrassment and sadness for him in the years that followed. Despite the potential damage to his career, Gielgud began making in-roads as a supporting actor in film, most notably with his appearance as Cassius opposite Marlon Brando in "Julius Caesar" (1953) and as the Duke of Clarence in the Olivier-directed "Richard III" (1955). Nonetheless, throughout the first half of his lengthy career, the theater remained his primary focus, both in his native London and on Broadway, where he won three Tony Awards. The first being a special award for his insights into Shakespeare with his one-man show, "Ages of Man" in 1959, followed by another for his direction of the 1961 play "Big Fish, Little Fish." Also on Broadway, Gielgud later directed fellow English classicist Richard Burton in a 1964 production of "Hamlet" and appeared opposite the star in a filmed adaptation of "Becket" (1964) that same year.

Despite appearances to the contrary, Gielgud did not limit himself solely to the classics; he remained current with the times, appearing in plays by such varied literary voices as Noel Coward, N.C. Hunter and Graham Greene during the '50s and gracing the angry-young-man projects of avant-garde figures as Edward Albee, Lindsay Anderson and Peter Hall throughout the 1960s. His starring turn opposite Sir Ralph Richardson on Broadway in David Storey's "Home" (1970) earned Gielgud a Drama Desk Award. To the delight of audiences and critics alike the pair reteamed to overwhelming success in Harold Pinter's "No Man's Land" (1975-76), earning Gielgud another Drama Desk Award. Hitting his stride as a screen actor at the spry age of 73, he won a New York Film Critics Circle Award as Best Actor for his impassioned portrayal of a dying writer in Alain Resnais' "Providence" (1977). He also impressed that year with a turn as a priest in the adaptation of James Joyce's "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" (1977), prior to making his American TV-movie debut in an adaptation of "Les Miserables" (CBS, 1978). The following year, Gielgud won a Grammy for Best Spoken Word Recording when he revisited his acclaimed one-man ode to the Bard with Ages of Man - Recordings from Shakespeare.

Approaching his 80th birthday, Gielgud picked up a Best Supporting Actor Oscar as Dudley Moore's ever-patient manservant, Hobson, in the smash romantic-comedy "Arthur" (1981). Stealing every scene he was in with his dry, caustic observations, Gielgud's complex portrayal of the loyal father figure to the alcoholic millionaire won him a new generation of fans unfamiliar with his Bard work. The following year, he gave a memorable performance as Jeremy Irons' eccentric father in the revered British miniseries "Brideshead Revisited" (PBS, 1982) and later portrayed an aging career diplomat in the film version of David Hare's "Plenty" (1985). No longer confident in his physical stamina or ability to remember lines, Gielgud retired from the stage after "The Best of Friends" (1988), but continued to work energetically in radio, television and film. He garnered a Golden Globe Award as Best Supporting Actor in the acclaimed miniseries "War and Remembrance" (ABC, 1988) and picked up an Emmy as Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries for the "Masterpiece Theatre" presentation of "Summer's Lease" (PBS, 1991).

Gielgud returned to Shakespeare for a daring adaptation of "The Tempest" in Peter Greenaway's "Prospero's Books" (1991), thus achieving his lifelong goal of bringing the character - which he had essayed four times on stage - to life on the big screen. On radio, he collaborated with Kenneth Branagh in presenting "Hamlet," "Romeo and Juliet" and "King Lear," in addition to acting in Branagh's Oscar-nominated "Swan Song" (1992). Adapted from a play by Chekhov, the short film centered on Gielgud's poignant performance as an aging actor recalling his brilliant past and dim future on an empty stage. He remained surprisingly busy in film throughout the 1990s, at one point appearing in as many as three high-profile movies in a single year. There was a cameo as Priam in Branagh's "Hamlet" (1996), then a turn as Nicole Kidman's benefactor in Jane Campion's "The Portrait of a Lady" (1996) and finally, as David Helfgott's (Geoffrey Rush) teacher in Scott Hicks' "Shine" (1996). Having outlived many of his esteemed contemporaries - Burton, Olivier and Richardson among them - Gielgud continued to add to his legacy as one of the century's truly great actors up until his passing on May 21, 2000 from complications due to a respiratory infection. Sir John Gielgud was 96 years old.

By Bryce Coleman

VIEW THE FULL BIOGRAPHY

Filmographyclose complete filmography

DIRECTOR:

1.
  Hamlet (1964) Staged by

CAST: (feature film)

1.
 Quest for Camelot (1998) Voice Of Merlin
2.
 Elizabeth (1998) The Pope
3.
 Tichborne Claimant, The (1998) Lord Chief Justice Cockburn
4.
 Edward the King (1998) Disraeli
5.
 MERLIN (1998) King Constant
6.
 Leopard Son, The (1996) Narration--Voice Of Hugo Van Lawick
7.
 Shine (1996) Parks
8.
 Portrait of A Lady, The (1996) Mr Touchett
9.
 Looking for Richard (1996) Himself
10.
 Hamlet (1996) Priam
VIEW THE FULL FILMOGRAPHY

Milestones close milestones

1921:
Stage acting debut at Old Vic with one-line role in "Henry V"
1924:
Feature debut in a silent film, "Who Is The Man?"
1928:
Made New York acting debut, "The Patriot"
1929:
Joined Old Vic Theatre Company
1932:
Feature debut in a sound film, "Insult"
1937:
Took over Queen's Theatre and launched his own company
1939:
Published "Early Stages"
1948:
Won first Tony for "The Importance of Being Earnest"
1953:
Knighted by Queen Elizabeth
1953:
First appearance in a feature after 12-year absence, "Julius Caesar"
1953:
Arrested in October for "importuning"
:
American TV debut on "DuPont Show of the Month" in the late 1950s
1955:
Had featured role in Laurence Olivier's "Richard III"; first time Gielgud, Olivier and Ralph Richardson appeared in the same film
1961:
Broadway directing debut, "Big Fish, Little Fish"
1963:
Published "Stage Directions"
1964:
Directed modern dress version of "Hamlet" on Broadway starring Richard Burton; filmed for theatrical release; Burton's contract stipulated that the film would be desstroyed after its initial release, but at least two copies are extant
1965:
Co-starred in the Broadway production of Edward Albee's "Tiny Alice"
1967:
Played Henry IV in Orson Welles' "Chimes at Midnight", adapted from Shakespeare's "Henry IV, Parts I and II"
1970:
Returned to American TV after 15 year absence as the Ghost of Hamlet's father in "Hamlet"
1970:
Had title role in feature version of "Julius Caesar"
1970:
Co-starred with Ralph Richardson in David Storey's "Home" on the London stage and on Broadway
1972:
Published "Distinguished Company"
1973:
Debut in a US TV miniseries, "Frankenstein: The True Story"
1974:
Co-starred in the ABC miniseries "QB VII"
1974:
Was featured in the all-star cast of Sidney Lumet's "Murder on the Orient Express"
1977:
Host of short-lived TV series, "The Pallisers"
1977:
With Richardson, appeared in the stage production "No Man's Land"
1978:
American TV-movie debut, "Les Miserables"
1979:
Earned Grammy Award, Best Spoken Word, Documentary or Drama Recording for "Ages of Man (Readings from Shakespeare)"
1981:
Won Best Supporting Actor Oscar for "Arthur"
1982:
Played Edward Ryder, father of Jeremy Irons' Charles Ryder, in the British miniseries "Brideshead Revisited" (shown on PBS in the USA)
1986:
Had title role in the syndicated TV-movie "The Canterville Ghost"
1988:
Last appearance on stage in "The Best of Friends"; filmed in 1992
1988:
Assumed the role of Aaron Jastrow (originated by John Houseman) in the ABC miniseries "War and Remembrance"
1989:
Made first honorary fellow of RADA on November 17
1991:
Received an Emmy as Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or Special for "Summer's Lease" (PBS' "Masterpiece Theatre")
1991:
Played Prospero in "Prospero's Books", Peter Greenaway's experimental adaptation of Shakespeare's "The Tempest"
1992:
Starred in Kenneth Branagh's Oscar-nominated short "Swan Song"
1994:
Honored with the renaming of the Globe Theatre to the Gielgud Theatre
1994:
Co-starred in the CBS miniseries "Scarlett"
1996:
Received the Order of Merit from Queen Elizabeth II
1996:
Had featured roles in Jane Campion's "The Portrait of a Lady" and Scott Hicks' "Shine"
1996:
Appeared briefly as Priam in Branagh's full-length filming of "Hamlet"
1996:
Narrated the documentary "The Leopard's Son"
1998:
Voice character of Merlin in the animated "The Quest for Camelot"
1998:
Made brief cameo as the Pope in the historical drama "Elizabeth"
:
Made final screen appearance opposite Harold Pinter in "Catastrophe", a Samuel Beckett play directed for TV by David Mamet; filmed on Gielgud's 96th birthday in 2000
VIEW ALL MILESTONES

Education

Westminster School: London , England -
Lady Benson's Acting School: -
Royal Academy of Dramatic Art: London , England - 1921

Notes

Gielgud was one of only eight individuals (Rita Moreno, Richard Rodgers, Audrey Hepburn, Helen Hayes, Marvin Hamlisch, Mel Brooks and Mike Nichols are the others) to have won all four of the major entertainment awards (Oscar, Tony, Grammy and Emmy) in competition.

The Globe Theater was renamed the Gielgud in October 1994, in tribute to his 90th birthday.

Holds honorary Doctorates of Law at St. Andrew's University and Brandeis University (also a Brandeis University Companion), a Doctor of Literature at Oxford, and is a Chevalier of France's Legion d'Honneur

In 1996, Gielgud received the Order of Merit from Queen Elizabeth II. He is only the second actor ever to be so honored.

"I had terrible trouble with my movement when I was young because I never did any sports. I can't swim, I can't ride. I should have forced myself. And I got much too fond of my voice. I sang all my parts." --Sir John Gielgud to The New York Times, October 28, 1993

Despite the urgings of gay activist Ian McKellen to be more public about his decades-old relationship, Gielgud preferred to keep his romantic life private. "I always thought of it [my homosexuality] as being something lacking in my nature." --quoted in USA Today, March 6, 1997

Alec Guinness described Gielgud's voice as "a silver trumpet muffled in silk."

"When John Gielgud says 'Ohhhhhhh for a muse of fire ...' That's not an affectation. That's him. He and Judi Dench do have access to the poetic spirit, which nowadays has become a kind of embarrassment. Gielgud has a poetic soul. Unadulterated." --actor Ralph Fiennes to Gielgud's biographer Julie Kavanagh reprinted in the London Times, May 23, 2000.

Companions close complete companion listing

companion:
John Perry. Irish; reportedly Gielgud's first long-standing relationship.
companion:
Paul Anstee. Involved in the 1950s.
companion:
Martin Hensler. Met in 1963 died of cancer in March 1999.

Family close complete family listing

great-aunt:
Ellen Terry. Actor.
great-grandmother:
Aniela Aszpergerowa. Actor. Famed Lithuanian performer.
mother:
Kate Gielgud.
father:
Frank Gielgud. Stockbroker. Married 1893.
brother:
Lewis Gielgud. Older.
brother:
Val Gielgud. Executive. Older; Head of Sound and Drama at BBC for over thirty years.
sister:
Eleanor Gielgud. Born in 1907; died in 1999.
VIEW COMPLETE FAMILY LISTING

Bibliography close complete biography

"Early Stages 1921-1936" Macmillan
"Stage Directions" Hodder & Stoughton
"John Gielgud" William Heinemann
"Distinguished Company" William Heinemann
"An Actor and His Time" Sidgwick & Jackson
"Backward Glances" Hodder & Stoughton
"Shakespeare-Hit or Miss" Sidgwick & Jackson
"Notes from the Gods" Consortium Books
"Gielgud: A Theatrical Life" Methuen
"John G: The Authorised Biography of John Gielgud" Hodder & Stoughton
VIEW COMPLETE BIBLIOGRAPHY

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