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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
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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.
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