Sir John Gielgud


Gielgud continued to appear onscreen until the year preceding his death, making enthusiastically-received turns in Shine (1996), in which he played pianist David Helfgott's mentor; Al Pacino's Looking for Richard (1996); and Shekhar Kapur's Elizabeth (1998), in which he made a brief appearance as the Pope.

Gielgud also did notable work on television, particularly in Brideshead Revisited (1981), which cast him as a stodgily eccentric patriarch, and Merlin (1998), a lavish and well-received take on Arthurian legend. He wrote several books as well, including an autobiography entitled 'Early Stages'. Gielgud was knighted in 1953 and was honored on his 90th birthday with the decision to rename the West End's Globe Theatre as the Gielgud Theatre. In terms of the performing arts, it is no exaggeration to say that he towered over the century; cinema was lucky to secure its share of his last few decades. He died on May 21, 2000, at the age of 96, having spent the last 25 years of his life with his partner.

Some 20 years ago, Harold Pinter directed a gala to raise funds for imprisoned writers. Gielgud was to speak Richard II's great soliloquy. He had just finished. There was a brief silence, then Pinter stepped forward.

'Lovely, John, bit sentimental...'

"Oh dear," said Gielgud, "That's always been my downfall.

Thank you, Harold. I do so need to have people to tell me these things."

So on the night, the speech was indeed more restrained and finally more effective; but the over-generosity of that private performance was of the essence of the man. A knight of the realm for nearly 50 years, one of the top three stage actors of all time and yet the humility to admit how reality that he was wrong.

Acting is half shame, half glory. Shame at exhibiting yourself, glory when you can forget yourself.

Before you can do something you must first be something.

Your English style will no doubt put all the other gentlemen to bed. I speak figuratively, of course.

Early Stages

Suggested films to see:

Arthur (1981)
Beckett (1964)
Gandhi (1982)

Brideshead Revisted (1981) TV



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