Actor John Gielgud dies at 96

Monday, May 22nd 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

LONDON – Sir John Gielgud, the patrician actor who won critical adulation as Hamlet and an Oscar as the impish butler to Dudley Moore in "Arthur," died Sunday at the age of 96.

Gielgud died peacefully at his home near Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire, west of London, his former agent, Laurence Evans, said today.

The last of a trio of actor-knights who dominated the British stage, Gielgud held his place alongside Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson. His Hamlet was regarded as the finest of the 20th century.

"Everybody currently working in the theater will agree that his death is the end of an era,'' said Trevor Nunn, director of the Royal National Theatre. "As Shakespeare said, 'There's a great spirit gone.' ''

"He was the greatest actor and his life was exactly the history of British theater in the last century,'' said Sheridan Morley, Gielgud's official biographer.

Gielgud's matchless range of Shakespearean roles stretched from the octogenarian Lear, performed at the age of 27, to playing Prospero in his own old age.

Late in life, he took up screen comedy as Hobson the butler in "Arthur'' and won an Academy Award for it. He touched audiences with his tender patience toward his drunken playboy employer – and with the impishness for which he also was known off screen.

"I have been extraordinarily lucky,'' Gielgud told The Associated Press in a 1991 interview. "I've had sort of three goes, which is rare, very fortunate for an actor, and in every kind of work.''

Gielgud's stage career embraced the classics and provocative new works, and his films ranged from Alain Resnais' intellectual "Providence'' (1977) to Bob Guccione's trashy, soft-porn "Caligula'' (1979).

On television, he shone in "Brideshead Revisited'' (1981), playing Jeremy Irons' eccentric father, and in "Summer's Lease'' (1990), as the randy columnist Haverford Downs.

He continued to act right up to the end, including a role in the 1998 film "Elizabeth.''

"It's my whole life. It's all I can do,'' he once said.

Gielgud was born April 14, 1904, in London, the third of four children. His great-aunt was the celebrated stage actress Ellen Terry.

He was, as he wrote in his 1979 memoir, "An Actor and His Time,'' "theatrically englamored by my family.''

He intended first to be a stage designer, but turned to acting "only to please my parents.''

Gielgud won a scholarship to London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and made his professional debut in 1921, playing a French herald in Shakespeare's "Henry V.''

His first major London role was as Trofimov, the perpetual student, in a 1925 staging of Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard.''

In the 1991 interview, he reflected unsparingly on his early days: "I spoke rather well but rather too well, and fell in love with my own voice. All that took me years to get away from.''

But before long, his reputation for Shakespeare grew. In 1930, he acted the first of his many Hamlets, a part he played more than 500 times.

Gielgud's Shakespeare repertory included Cassius, Benedick, Leontes and Richard II, as well as Prospero in "The Tempest'' – a role that obsessed him throughout his career.

In 1991, he played Prospero in the Peter Greenaway movie "Prospero's Books,'' calling it "the best part I've had, ever.''

Gielgud's work in modern plays included Alan Bennett's "Forty Years On'' and two standout parts in the 1970s – the aging Harry, confined to a rest home, in David Storey's "Home'' (1970) and the seedy poet Spooner in Harold Pinter's "No Man's Land'' (1975).

His final stage role was as Sir Sydney Cockerell, friend of George Bernard Shaw, in Hugh Whitemore's "The Best of Friends'' (1989). He played the part on radio and TV as well.

Gielgud never ceased to take his craft seriously, even when age left him with occasional memory problems.

"I've been able to take no notice of the flattery and praise and concentrate on the things that were wrong,'' he said. "I'm frightened, now that I'm old, that people will be so respectful.''

He said there was a danger that old actors will fall back on old tricks: "One must guard all the time against that and try and find a fresh approach.''

Gielgud made his Broadway debut in 1928 in Alfred Neumann's "The Patriot'' and returned to the New York stage regularly throughout his life. He acted Hamlet there in 1936 and triumphed with his solo recital, "The Ages of Man,'' in 1958 and again in 1963. His last New York appearance was in "No Man's Land,'' in 1977.

Gielgud's directing credits started with Shakespeare ("The Merchant of Venice'' and "Romeo and Juliet'' in 1932) and went on to include Tennessee Williams ("The Glass Menagerie'' in 1948) and Edward Albee ("All Over'' on Broadway in 1971).

He won the best director Tony Award for Hugh Wheeler's "Big Fish Little Fish'' in 1961 and also directed opera in Britain.

Gielgud made his film debut in 1924 in "Who Is the Man?'', going on to play Benjamin Disraeli in "The Prime Minister'' (1941) and Clarence to Laurence Olivier's Richard in "Richard III'' (1955).

He spoke frankly about the ways in which he and Olivier differed: "He was very much more extrovert. He had a tremendous actual physical side of acting, which I'm not good at all.''

It was at the age of 77 that Gielgud reached his broadest public as the quintessential English butler opposite Dudley Moore in "Arthur.''

"It brought me fan mail from all over the world. It still does, which is extraordinary, really,'' said Gielgud, who almost passed up the role.

"I turned it down a couple of times. ... I thought ... (the script) was rather smutty, rather common,'' he said.

Other film credits included "Murder On the Orient Express'' (1974), "The Shooting Party'' (1984) and "Plenty'' (1985).

Gielgud lived most of his life in London. He moved in 1976 to an elegant 1690s carriage house west of London, where he enjoyed gardening and catching up on his reading between roles.

"One's had the odd horror and mishap, but on the whole I have very, very much to be thankful for,'' he said when he was 87. "And that I can still go on working at this age is extraordinary really; the only sadness is so many of my contemporaries are gone. Most of the actors that I knew well and worked with have died.''

He leaves no survivors.