Sir John Gielgud
(1904-2000)
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Not many actors rack up film credits over eight decades, and especially not when it takes them half their lives to believe fully in film as an actor's medium. One of the theatre's greatest legends, Sir John Gielgud spent almost 80 of his 96 appearing in countless plays that saw him portray every major Shakespearean role. The last surviving member of a generation of classical actors that included Laurence Olivier, Peggy Ashcroft, and Ralph Richardson, Gielgud worked up to a month before his death, performing in over 50 films and numerous television productions when he wasn't busy with his stage work.

Born to a famous acting family - his great-aunt was the celebrated Ellen Terry; great-uncle Fred Terry came to fame as The Scarlet Pimpernel, his brother Val Gielgud, was a playwright and (mainly radio) producer who appeared in a few films - he was stagestruck from the first. John was born in London on August 14, 1904. He received his education at Westminster School and would have studied to be an architect had he not rebelled against his parents by announcing his plans to be an actor. Persuading his parents to let him train at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, Gielgud promised them that if he had failed to make a stage career by the age of 25, he would become an architect.

The stage was the great allegiance of his life and he played a huge range of classical and modern roles, his theatrical career occupying eight columns in the last volume of Who's Who in the Theatre (1972). He was not an impressive young romantic lead (his 1924 Romeo was all poetry and too little passion) and the physicality of Othello (1961) was beyond him. Not much else was though, and in 1970, a decade after Olivier had embraced the 'Angry Young Men', Lindsay Anderson co-starred him with Ralph Richardson in David Storey’s play, Home. In one great leap, he had moved conclusively into the modern idiom.

By the end of his life (and he was still acting right up to the end), crossly changing his agent at 96 because of a failure to cast him in a TV version of David Copperfield), he was a consummate screen actor. He had won an AA for his butler in Arthur (1981), but this engaging bit of froth obscures the real greatness of his film work, above all in his Shakespearean roles. These latter included: the austere, conspiratorial Cassius in 'Julius Caesar' (1953), stealing the notices from an all-star cast; an affecting Clarence in his 'Richard III' (1955); an unforgettably poignant Henry IV, chilled with pain, age and disappointment, in Welles elegiac 'Chimes at Midnight' (1966). He reached an apotheosis in Peter Greenaways audacious reworking of 'The Tempest' as Prospero's Books (1991), in which his Prospero, bravely naked for some of the time, set the seal on a lifetime's achievement in bringing Shakespeare, and this role in particular, to life.

As it turned out, Gielgud was playing Hamlet by the time he was 26, having made his stage debut eight years earlier at the Old Vic. His reputation was made in 1924, when he played Romeo to rave reviews; in addition to Hamlet, roles in plays by Chekov and Ibsen followed, and in 1928, Gielgud traveled to the U.S. for the first time to play the Grand Duke Alexander in 'The Patriot'. The epitome of the kind of old-school Englishness associated with the Victorian theatre, he went on to break theatre box office records when he brought his Hamlet to Broadway in the 1930s.

 













 

 

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