- Birth name:
- Arthur John Gielgud
- Date of Birth:
- 21 May 1904 South Kensington, London, England, UK
- 5' 11" (1.80 m)
Sir John Gielgud, arguably the greatest Shakespearean actor of the 20th Century, had a theatrical career that spanned 64 years, from a role in a 1924 London production of "The Constant Nymph" to the 1988 production of " Sir Sydney Cockerell: The Best of Friends," and an even-longer film career that lasted 77 years, from his appearance in the 1923 silent Who Is the Man? (1924) to Catastrophe (2000) in the year 2000. He played his first Hamlet in London in 1929, and was hailed by many as the Hamlet of his generation (and in hindsight, of the century). In 1965, his Shakespearean colloquy "The Ages of Man" won him a Tony on Broadway. The great actor, at his best in classical roles, even won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar uncharacteristically playing a butler in the comedy hit Arthur (1981).He was born Arthur John Gielgud on April 14, 1904, in South Kensington, London, to Frank Gielgud, a stockbroker, and his wife, Kate Terry-Lewis Gielgud. On his father's side, his family were Polish immigrants; his great-grandmother had been a Shakespearean actress in Lithuania., and his grandmother, Kate, had played Cordelia at the age of 14. On his mother's side, his great uncle Fred Terry became a stage star acting the role of the Scarlet Pimpernel, and Fred's sister Ellen Terry , the great stage actress who made her fame as Sir Henry Irving 's leading lady, was his great-aunt. (Gielgud's brother, Val Gielgud, became the head of BBC Radio in the 1950s).Arthur John Gielgud attended Hillside prep school, where he had his first stage experience as Shakespeare's Shylock and as Humpty Dumpty, before moving on to the Westminster school in London. He often played hooky from school to attend performances of the Diaghilev Ballet. He was 17 years old when he made his debut as a professional actor at the Old Vic in 1921, playing a French herald in "Henry V." The next year, his cousin Phyllis Neilson-Terry hired him as an assistant stage manager and understudy for "The Wheel." While pursuing his stage career, he studied acting at Lady Benson's Dramatic Academy before attending the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts for a year. He appeared in his first motion picture in 1923 in the silent picture Who Is the Man? (1924).Gielgud's first major role on the London stage was as Trofimov in Anton Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard." In 1924, he understudied Noel Coward in "The Vortex" and "The Constant Nymph," parts he subsequently took over. During the run of "The Constant Nymph," Gielgud met the actor John Perry, who had a walk-on role in Avery Hopwood 's "The Golddiggers" starring Tallulah Bankhead . Gielgud and Perry fell in love, and Perry abandoned his unpromising stage career to live with Gielgud in his flat in Covent Garden.Subsequently, Gielgud joined J. B. Fagan's company that played in Oxford and in the West End, as London's commercial theater district was called. In 1929, Lilian Baylis invited him to join the Old Vic, and he played all the major parts in repertory over the next two seasons, establishing his reputation as a great actor. It was in 1929-30 season that Gielgud first played the title role in William Shakespeare 's "Hamlet," which made theatrical history as it was the first time an English actor under 40 had played the part in the West End. Blessed with what Laurence Olivier called "The Voice that Wooed the World," Gielgud revolutionized the role with the speed of his delivery. Developing his interpretation of Hamlet in subsequent performance over the years, Gielgud would generally be accorded the greatest Hamlet of his generation and of the 20th Century, his facility with the part rivaled only on stage by John Barrymore . But it was his 1929-30 Hamlet and his performance in the title role of Shakespeare's "Richard II," another role he made his own, that earned him the reputation as the premier Shakespearean actor in England.Inspired by Gielgud's performances, a woman wrote, under the pseudonym Gordon Daviot, the play "Richard of Bordeaux" specifically for him, and he starred in and directed the play. "Richard of Bordeaux" was a box-office smash and made him a celebrity. This huge financial success of the play meant that Gielgud could stage classics in the West End. An innovator, Gielgud pioneered the theater company system. He also encouraged a new generation of actors, including Laurence Olivier, Peggy Ashcroft, Edith Evans, Glen Byam Shaw, Anthony Quayle, George Devine, and Alec Guinness, who reportedly saw him in "Richard of Bordeaux" fifteen times. After World War II, Gielgud also proved a mentor to a young de-mobilized R.A.F. enlisted man, Richard Jenkins, who became a star overnight in Gielgud's production of "The Lady's Not for Burning" as Richard Burton. The two remained friends for all of Burton's life, Gielgud directing Burton in his memorable 1964 New York production of "Hamlet."Gielgud was a notorious workaholic and single-mindedly focused on his craft. Beverley Nichols related how Gielgud returned from a village in late 1939, loaded down with newspapers and a worried look. Asked whether war had finally been declared with Germany, Gielgud replied: "'Oh, I don't know anything about that, but 'Gladys Cooper' has got the most terrible reviews."Represented by the theatrical agency H. M. Tennent, whose managing director was the famous Hugh 'Binkie' Beaumont, Gielgud lost the romantic affections of John Perry to Beaumont (they were a committed couple until Beaumont's death). During World War II, acting without Gielgud's knowledge, Beaumont obtained an exemption from military service for Gielgud, who expected to be called up, but had to content himself with being a London fire watch warden. In the post-war theater, Gielgud abandoned the romantic roles that made him a box-office star in favor of character work. He was influenced in that direction by the 25-year-old Peter Brook, who directed him in Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure." (The other great Peter, Peter Hall, who founded the Royal Shakespeare Company, and later succeeded Laurence Olivier as director of the National Theatre, directed Gielgud as Prospero in "The Tempest" in 1973, the first production he directed for the NT on the South Bank.)He became Sir John Gielgud when he was awarded a knighthood in the Coronation Honours list of June 1953. By this time, he had begun a long-term relationship with Paul Anstee. On October 21, 1953, Gielgud was arrested in Chelsea for soliciting a homosexual act in a public lavatory. Arraigned the next morning, he pleaded guilty, apologized to the court, and was fined ten pounds sterling. He had identified himself to the police as "Arthur Gielgud, 49, a clerk, of Cowley Street Westminster." Homosexuality was proscribed by the law in the UK, and Gielgud gave his less common birth name and a phony job description in the hopes that the press would not get wind of his pinch. The police made an attempt to prevent the press from learning of the incident, but an "Evening Standard" journalist was in the court that morning, and for the early afternoon edition, the paper came out with a headline "Sir John Gielgud fined: See your doctor the moment you leave here."Publicly humiliated, Gielgud worried about how the West End audience would react the next time he appeared on stage. Gielgud was advised not to seek work in the United States for at least four years as he likely would be being refused entry by American immigration authorities. In a letter to Lillian Gish at the time (not revealed until after his death), Gielgud told her that he perhaps should have committed suicide. While Binkie Beaumont initially favored keeping Gielgud off the boards, Gielgud's brother Val, then head of BBC Radio, threatened the homosexual Beaumont with exposure if he kept his brother away from acting. A conference of his friends was called by Beaumont to determine how to best handle the crisis as Gielgud was scheduled to open in N. C. Hunter's play "A Day at the Sea" in the West End, which he was also directing. The "war council" included Laurence Olivier, his wife Vivien Leigh, Ralph Richardson (who was homophobic), and Glen Byam Shaw, who was running the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford-Upon-Avon. Only Olivier counseled him to postpone the play; the rest urged him to carry on. Gielgud heeded the advice of the majority, and went ahead with the production. Upon entering the stage the first night, the house was brought down by a standing ovation.Outside the theater, the press whipped up a public backlash over the "homosexual menace." There were fears among the theater's gay community that there would be a police crackdown, leading choreographer Frederick Ashton to say of Gielgud, "He's ruined it for us all." So afraid was his lover Paul Anstee, that he burned all his letters. Gielgud's official biographer, Sheridan Morley, who withheld publication of his authorized biography until after Gielgud's death so as not to broach the subject of the arrest and Gielgud's sexuality during his lifetime, believes that the Gielgud arrest and brouhaha in the press likely were part of an organized campaign against homosexuality that had been festering in Britain since just before World War II.By the mid-1950s, the traditional English stage was stagnating, as susceptible to an insurrection as the theater had been in the '30s, when Gielgud's acting and direction had overthrown the old order. Gielgud's 1955 go at Shakespeare's "King Lear" was a failure, and his style of acting went out of fashion after the kitchen-sink theatrical revolution heralded by the Royal Court's May 1956 staging of John Osborne's "Look Back in Anger". Unlike Olivier, who reinvented himself with his characterization of Archie Rice in Osborne's The Entertainer (directed by kitchen-sink stalwart Tony Richardson), an era of rebellion against the cultural Establishment was at hand, which rendered the current lions of the stage passé. It was a new world in which Gielgud felt he had no place.Gielgud stuck to what he knew. He created a solo recital of Shakespearean excerpts called "The Ages of Man" for the 1957 Edinburgh Festival. The recital proved extremely popular, and he toured with the show for a decade, winning a special Tony Award in 1958 for his staging of the show on Broadway. In the 1960s, he had a notable failure with his "Othello," and he was not a success in Peter Brook's 1968 staging of "Oedipus," two roles that Olivier had excelled in. Laurence Olivier, once his acolyte, was by this time considered the greatest actor in the English language, if not the world. He would become the first actor ennobled when he became Lord Olivier of Brighton in 1970. Gielgud, in contrast, had seemed, like their contemporary Ralph Richardson, to be old-fashioned and behind the times.He was nominated for a Tony as Julian in Edward Albee's willfully obscure "Tiny Alice" in 1965, but Gielgud did not truly begin to transform himself into a contemporary actor until his appearances in Tony Richardson's 1967 film The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968) and in Alan Bennett's 1968 play "40 Years On...." He continued to revitalize his reputation in 1970, when he appeared in David Storey's "Home," and in 1976, when he appeared in Harold Pinter's "No Man's Land." Along with his reclaimed reputation came an appointment as a Companion of Honour in 1977. His career renaissance was ratified by the winning of an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for the film Arthur (1981) in 1981.Although he had appeared in approximately 80 films, his supercilious character did not make him a popular movie actor, or a particularly distinguished one, aside from his brilliant turn as Cassius in the 1953 film adaptation of Julius Caesar (1953) and his gem of a cameo as Clarence in Olivier's Richard III (1955) (1956). His genius was reserved for the stage. (He had even turned down an offer in the mid-1930s from Alexander Korda to film his great Hamlet.) As 'The Times' eulogizes after his death, "To a unique degree his greatest performances coincided with the greatest plays."John Gielgud met his last love, Martin Hensler, at an exhibition at the Tate Gallery in the 1960s. They kept in touch, and Hensler moved in with Gielgud six years later. They remained a couple for over 30 years until Gielgud's death. Despite the publicity surrounding his 1953 arrest and the legalization of homosexuality in the UK in 1967, John Gielgud did not talk publicly about his sexuality, so most of the public did not know that Gielgud was gay. Hensler, with Gielgud's approval, successful lobbied to have the 1988 program notes for Hugh Whitemore's play "Best of Friends" state that he and Gielgud had been a happy couple for many years, but it was not publicized by the press. That play proved to be Gielgud's final appearance in the theater.Gielgud outlived his great contemporaries, Olivier and Richardson, the Three Knights of the Stage, by a decade. Benedict Nightingale wrote of the three, in 'The Times' (May 23, 2000) that, "Laurence Olivier was the most fiery and physically volatile, Ralph Richardson the earthiest and the quirkiest, but Gielgud was the most vocally exquisite, intellectually elegant and spiritually fine."Sheridan Morley, his biographer, said: 'Since 1917, when he started in walk-on parts, he never had more than four weeks without work." In his career on stage, he had played every major Shakespearean role, including his favorite, Prospero in "The Tempest," which he later assayed for director Peter Greenaway in "Prospero's Books".Gielgud could be seen as having made the career of his greatest acolyte, Laurence Olivier, his only rival for the title of Greatest Shakespearean Actor of the 20th Century, a contest most felt that Gielgud won due to the beauty of his phrasing and more cerebral interpretation of Shakespeare. (Olivier was generally considered the better actor in contemporary roles.) A great Richard II (as well as Hamlet), the generous Gielgud made his Bolingbroke possible through both his mentorship of the younger actor at the New Theatre during the 1935 season (where they alternated the roles of Romeo and Mercutio, with Gielgud getting the better reviews), and by reinventing Shakespeare as commercial theater in the 20th century. The modern, revitalized Shakespearean stage willingly embraced the more physical Olivier.Director Sir Peter Hall, in eulogizing the great man, said. "His work at the Vic in the 1930s, then with his own company, was trailblazing. He was not an old-style actor wanting inferior actors around him so he would look the star, which was what happened in a lot of companies. He wanted to be around people who were better than he was. He believed in that kind of humility. His companies were very happy places, with one humorous qualification - that mercurial mind meant as a director he was always changing it."Thus, Gielgud's greatest legacy was his work as an actor-manager in the 1930s and 1940s, a time when the commercial West End theater was generally frivolous and its Shakespeare as caught in amber as a D'Oyly Carte production of a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta. Gielgud created classical companies that laid the foundations for the great renaissance of British theater that blossomed after the War, doing the groundwork at the New Theatre in 1935, at the Queen's Theatre in the 1937 and '38 seasons, and at the Haymarket in 1944. His companies featured in repertory Shakespeare, Sheridan, Congreve, and Chekhov, and his patronage of the design team Motley reinvented the look of British theatrical staging. Aside from Olivier, who went on to found the National Theatre, George Devine founded the English Stage Company in 1956, and Anthony Quayle and Glen Byam Shaw revitalized Stratford during the 1950s.Without Gielgud, those paragons of the modern English theater, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre, likely would not have come into existence. 'Percy' Harris, one of the Motley theatrical design team, said, "I think he single-handedly put English theater back on the map. Larry [Olivier] gets all the credit and John doesn't, which I think is a sign of John's innate modesty."Gielgud wrote many books in his career, starting with a 1939 autobiography entitled "Early Stages." This was followed by "John Gielgud: An Actor's Biography in Pictures" in 1952, "Stage Directions" in 1963, "Distinguished Company" in 1972, the new autobiography "An Actor in His Time" in 1979 (revised 1989), "Backward Glances: Part One, Time for Reflection: Part Two, Distinguished Company" in 1989, "Teach Yourself" in 1990, and a primer for Shakespearean actors, "Shakespeare - Hit or Miss?" in 1991 (re-published as "Acting Shakespeare" in 1992). In 1994, "Notes from the Gods: Playgoing in the Twenties," based on Gielgud's annotated theater programs from the London theatrical productions from 1919 to 1925, was published.The lifetime awards began to pile up: a BAFTA fellowship award for his lifetime contribution to show business in 1992, the renaming of the Globe Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue in London's West End as the Gielgud Theatre in 1994, and his appointment to the Order of Merit in 1996.Gielgud and Hensler lived together in his later years at their country house, South Pavilion, at Wotton Underwood, near Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, where he died "simply of old age" on 21st May 2000, at the age of 96. That night, the lights at the Gielgud Theatre and 12 others in Andrew Lloyd Weber's Really Useful Group were dimmed for three minutes in tribute to the passing of the man acclaimed as the greatest Shakespearean actor of the century. At a small memorial service in Buckinghamshire, Sir Alec Guinness , Sir John Mills, Dame Maggie Smith and Lord Richard Attenborough were among those whom paid their respects to the legendary actor. His body was later cremated at a ceremony witnessed by a small group of those closest to him. A year after the death of Sir John Gielgud, an archive of letters chronicling his personal and professional life was bequeathed to the nation and housed at the British Library."Style," the great Gielgud once said, "is knowing what sort of play you're in."