John Gielgud, Towering Theatre Figure, Is Dead at 96

Obituaries   John Gielgud, Towering Theatre Figure, Is Dead at 96
John Gielgud, one of the greatest actors of the 20th century, died in his home near London on May 22. He was 96.
John Gielgud in the New York and London hit, Home.
John Gielgud in the New York and London hit, Home.

John Gielgud, one of the greatest actors of the 20th century, died in his home near London on May 22. He was 96.

For much of his life, Mr. Gielgud stood as one of only a handful of actors who could be called the best the Western stage had to offer, among them Sir Ralph Richardson and Sir Laurence Olivier. Together, the three performers fairly dominated the British stage in the decade before and for many years after World War II.

Mr. Gielgud was the most long-lived of the trio. He was born in London on April 14, 1904, and began his theatre career on Nov. 7, 1921, on the stage at the Old Vic as the Herald in Shakespeare's Henry V. It was a fateful debut: Shakespearean roles were to make up a significant portion of Gielgud's acting credits. He would return to such parts as Hamlet, Macbeth and King Lear again and again during his career, making critical and commercial successes out of the productions in which he appeared -- and often directed and produced as well.

His first London success, however, would be as Trofimov in a 1925 staging of The Cherry Orchard, by Anton Chekhov -- another favorite author. Before he was 25, Gielgud would appear in The Seagull and Three Sisters.

From the first, audiences and critics alike were drawn to his voice, emotive, clear as a bell and with impeccable diction ideally suited to the classical roles he routinely essayed. If Olivier was primarily known as a fiery, physical actor, Gielgud's performances were more cool and cerebral, almost artificial. Indeed, years later, the critic Kenneth Tynan would quip that Gielgud "was the finest actor on earth, from the neck up." That neck was plainly visible in most of his stage turns, as Gielgud's characteristic pose included a head held high, chin leading and small eyes peering down the patrician nose. As for the rest of the body, it was lean and linear until his last days. Mr. Gielgud achieved his first great popular success on the West End in Gordon Daviot's Richard of Bordeaux in 1932, a show he also directed. The production ran for over a year.

His obvious gifts for intelligence and wit made him an ideal interpreter of such urbane modern authors as Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward. He succeeded Coward in the leading role of Nicky Lancaster in The Vortex, Coward's 1925 breakthrough play. As for Wilde, John Worthing in The Importance of Being Earnest would become one of Mr. Gielgud's signature roles. He first took the part in 1930. He played it again twice in 1939, once in 1941, and, in 1947, toured Canada and the U.S. with Earnest. The North American touring company won a special Tony Award in 1948.

Mr. Gielgud made his first Broadway appearance in The Patriot, a venture which lasted 12 shows in 1928. He joined the Old Vic one year later and began playing the great roles, including Romeo, Richard II, Macbeth, Antonio in The Merchant of Venice and Mark Antony in Julius Caesar. That same year, he also played Hamlet for the first time and thus became one of the most famous, and most frequent, interpreters of the role in theatre history. When his Hamlet came to New York in 1932 (with Judith Anderson as Gertrude, whom Mr. Gielgud would later direct in Medea), New York Times critics Brooks Atkinson called it "a sensitive and cultivated Hamlet -- a little overcivilized perhaps... But there was no one else who could play with so much delicacy of feeling and patrician authority."

"He was a great actor," said Sir Peter Hall in a statement, "perhaps the most perfect Hamlet I have ever seen -- and the most musical and witty of speakers of Shakespeare. He was also an inspirer of actors as a director and supreme man of the theatre. He had the confident conceit of all great talent. But because he was such a gentle and humble man, he, by example, reminded every actor that the essence of theatre is co-operation and mutual support."

Tony Church, a founding member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, who is performing his one-man show Give 'Em a Bit of Mystery: Shakespeare and the Old Tradition at the Denver Center Theatre Company, said, "I first saw Sir John play Hamlet in 1945 at the Haymarket Theatre in London when I was just 15 and have loved him ever since. In 1961, I understudied him as Othello in a disastrous production of the Shakespeare classic at Stratford-upon-Avon that received very bad notices. I saw him courageously rework his performance of the role into a performance which worked in only 13 performances."

Mr. Gielgud played the melancholy Dane again in London in 1934, also directing. The production would go on to the second longest run of the play on record at the time.(In all, Gielgud would play Hamlet more than 500 times). One year later he would similarly propel his Romeo and Juliet to the longest run -- 186 performances -- ever recorded for that tragedy.

During this time, Mr. Gielgud began a film career, but was never as lucky on the screen as he was on the stage. His best known early movie was Alfred Hitchcock's "Secret Agent" in 1936. He also appeared in film versions of "Romeo and Juliet," "Julius Caesar" and "Richard III." His greatest cinematic triumphs, however, would not come until the last decades of his life.

Following World War II, Mr. Gielgud began to champion the work of modern playwrights, including Terrence Rattigan, Christopher Fry and Graham Greene. In 1964, he directed and starred in the Broadway mounting of Edward Albee's Tiny Alice. As he reached the age when most men retire, he enjoyed two of his greatest stage triumphs. In 1970, he appeared as Harry in David Storey's Home. The play began at the Royal Court in London and transferred to the Morosco on Broadway. He and his co-star, Ralph Richardson, were nominated for Tony Awards for their work.

Richardson was again his co-star in Harold Pinter's No Man's Land, a cryptic stand-off between a powerful literary eminence (Richardson) and Spooner, a pathetic poet (Gielgud). The play opened at the Royal National Theatre in 1975 and was later filmed.

A few years after, as Mr. Gielgud's name was beginning to fade from the public consciousness, he appeared in a little-heralded Dudley Moore comedy called "Arthur." In the film, he was an ultra-imperious and dryly witty English butler, ministering to the every whim of Moore's drunken playboy millionaire. The performance was widely acclaimed and won him an Academy Award for best supporting actor. (He had previously been nominated for an Oscar for 1964's "Becket.")

From then on, Mr. Gielgud took small roles in a variety of films, often playing kings, popes, magistrates and other wry figures of authority. Among his credits were "Chariots of Fire," "Ghandi," "Plenty," Kenneth Branagh's "Hamlet," and as Prospero in Peter Greenaway's "Prospero's Books." His final film appearance was as Pope Paul IV in "Elizabeth."

He also penned several volumes of reminiscences, including "Early Stages" (1939), "Stage Directions" (1963), "Distinguished Company" (1972) and "An Actor and His Times" (1979).

Mr. Gielgud, who was knighted in 1953, did not come upon his passion and talent for acting by accident. A grand-nephew of Ellen Terry, he often met the legendary actress when she visited his parents' home. Once she asked the boy, "Do you read your Shakespeare?" He replied "no." Evidently, he corrected this omission in his knowledge soon afterwards.

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