Sir Arthur John Gielgud, OM, CH (14 April, 1904 – 21 May 2000), known as Sir John Gielgud, was an English theatre and film actor particularly known for his warm expressive voice, which his colleague Sir Alec Guinness likened to "a silver trumpet muffled in silk." Gielgud is a member of the short list of entertainers with the distinction of having won an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony award.
Arthur John Gielgud
was born in South Kensington
to a Protestant
mother, Kate Terry, and a Catholic
father, Frank Gielgud, and was raised a Protestant. Gielgud had a head start in the theatrical profession, being a great nephew of Dame Ellen Terry
. His elder brother was Val Gielgud
who was a pioneering influence in BBC Radio
. His niece is Maina Gielgud
, dancer and one time artistic director of The Australian Ballet
and the Royal Danish Ballet
After Westminster School
, where he gained a King's Scholarship, Gielgud trained at RADA
and had his initial success as a stage actor in classical roles, first winning stardom during a successful two seasons at the Old Vic Theatre
from 1929 to 1931 where his performances as Richard II
were particularly acclaimed, the latter being the first Old Vic
production to be transferred to the West End
for a run. He returned to the role of Hamlet
in a famous production under his own direction in 1934 at the New Theatre
in the West End. He was hailed as a Broadway
star in Guthrie McClintic's
production in which Lillian Gish
in 1936 (and which was assisted by a rival staging starring Leslie Howard
that opened shortly afterwards and failed badly by comparison), a 1939 production that Gielgud again directed that was the last play performed at Henry Irving
's Orpheum Theatre
and was later taken to Elsinore Castle
(the actual setting of the play), a 1944 production directed by George Rylands
, and finally a 1945 production that toured the Far East under Gielgud's own direction. In his later years, Gielgud would play the Ghost of Hamlet's Father in productions of the play, first to Richard Burton
's Melancholy Dane on the Broadway
stage which Gielgud directed in 1964, then on television
with Richard Chamberlain
, and finally in a radio production starring Gielgud's protégé Kenneth Branagh
Gielgud had triumphs in many other plays, notably his greatest popular success Richard of Bordeaux (1933) (a romantic version of the story of Richard II), The Importance of Being Earnest which he first performed at the Lyric Hammersmith in 1930 and which would remain in his repertory until 1947, and a legendary production of Romeo and Juliet (1935) which Gielgud directed and alternated the roles of Romeo and Mercutio with a young Laurence Olivier in his first professional Shakespearean leading role. Olivier's performance won him an engagement as the leading man of the Old Vic Theatre the following season, starting his career as a classical actor, but he was said to have resented Gielgud's direction and developed a wary relationship with Gielgud which resulted in Olivier turning down Gielgud's request to play the Chorus in Olivier's film of Henry V and later doing his best to block Gielgud from appearing at the Royal National Theatre when Olivier was its director..
Queen's Theatre season
Gielgud had hoped to stay in America
after his Broadway
performance as Hamlet
in 1936 to play Richard II
in New York
, but director Guthrie McClintic
was so certain that the production would fail in the U.S.
that Gielgud gave up the idea (and was dismayed when Maurice Evans
had a legendary success in the play on Broadway
after Gielgud gave him his blessing to mount it when he decided not to). Instead, Gielgud returned to London
in 1937 and had an enormous influence on the development of English Theatre when he produced a season of plays at the Queen's Theatre
in 1937/38, presenting the aforementioned Richard II, The School for Scandal, The Three Sisters,
and The Merchant of Venice
with a permanent company (that included Peggy Ashcroft
, Michael Redgrave
and Alec Guinness
) that would shape the development of such theatrical institutions as the Royal Shakespeare Company
and the Royal National Theatre
. Gielgud acted in all four productions and directed the two Shakespeare
plays, while Tyrone Guthrie
directed The School for Scandal
and Michael Saint-Denis
staged The Three Sisters. Laurence Olivier
said that Gielgud's performance in The School for Scandal
was "the best light comedy performance I have ever seen - or ever shall!" and considered his Shylock
to be among his greatest impersonations, but the greatest success of the season was the production of The Three Sisters,
with Gielgud's performance as Vershinin, coupled with his successes in The Seagull
(1929 and 1936), The Cherry Orchard
(1954), and Ivanov
(1965) establishing Chekhov's
acceptance on the English-speaking stage.
It would always be, however, for his Shakespearean work that Gielgud would be best known. In addition to Hamlet which he played over 500 times in six productions, he gave what some consider definitive performances in The Tempest (as Prospero) in four productions (and in the 1991 film Prospero's Books), as well as in other roles - Richard II in three productions, Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing which he first played in 1930 and revived throughout the 1950s, Macbeth and Oberon in A Midsummer Night's Dream twice, Romeo three times, and King Lear four times (as well as taking on the part for a final time in a radio broadcast at the age of 90). He also had triumphs as Malvolio in Twelfth Night (1931), Shylock in The Merchant of Venice (1937), Angelo in Measure for Measure (1950), Cassius in Julius Caesar (1950) (which he immortalized in the 1953 film), Leontes in The Winter's Tale (1951), and Cardinal Wolsey in Henry VIII (1959) (although his 1960 performance as Othello was not a success). It became rumored that Gielgud also provided the voice for the uncredited role of the Ghost of Hamlet's Father in Laurence Olivier's 1948 film version, but the voice was actually that of Olivier, electronically distorted. Gielgud did play the Ghost in his own film of the play in 1964 and in the 1970 Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation starring Richard Chamberlain.
Gielgud's crowning achievement, many believe, was Ages of Man, his one-man recital of Shakespearean excerpts which he performed throughout the 1950s and 1960s, winning a Tony Award for the Broadway production, a Grammy Award for his recording of the piece, and an Emmy Award for producer David Susskind for the 1966 telecast on CBS. Gielgud made his final Shakespearean appearance on stage in 1977 in the title role of John Schlesinger's production of Julius Caesar at the Royal National Theatre. He also made a recording of many of Shakespeare's sonnets in 1963. Among his non-Shakespearean Renaissance roles, his Ferdinand in John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi was well-known.
Later stage work
As he aged, Gielgud began to adapt more to changing fashions in the theatre, appearing in plays by Edward Albee
), Alan Bennett
(Forty Years On
), Charles Wood
), Edward Bond
, in which Gielgud played William Shakespeare
), David Storey (Home
), and Harold Pinter
(No Man's Land
), the latter two in partnership with his old friend Ralph Richardson
, but he drew the line at being offered the role of Hamm in Beckett's Endgame,
saying that the play offered "nothing but loneliness and despair. It looked as though Gielgud would retire from the stage after appearing in Half Life
at the Duke of York's Theatre in 1978, but he made a successful comeback in 1988 in Hugh Whitemore
's play The Best of Friends
as museum curator Sydney Cockerell
Gielgud was almost as highly regarded for his work as a theatre director as for his acting, having staged his first production as a guest director of the Oxford University Dramatic Society
production of Romeo and Juliet
in 1932. The custom of OUDS at the time was to cast student undergraduates in the male roles and professional actresses in the female roles. Gielgud engaged Peggy Ashcroft
and Edith Evans
as the nurse, who would play the same roles three years later in his legendary production of the play at the New Theatre
Gielgud quickly rose to the status of being one of the top directors for the H.M. Tennent, Ltd. production company in London's West End Theatre and later on Broadway, his productions including Lady Windermere's Fan (1945), The Glass Menagerie (1948), The Heiress (1949), his own adaptation of The Cherry Orchard (1954), The Potting Shed (1958), Five Finger Exercise (1959), Peter Ustinov's comedy Half Way Up a Tree (1967), and Private Lives (1972). Gielgud won a Tony Award for his direction of Big Fish, Little Fish in 1961, the only time he won the award in a competitive category (having won honorary awards for "Best Foreign Company" for his 1947 production of The Importance of Being Earnest and for his one-man show Ages of Man). He also directed the operas The Trojans in 1957 and A Midsummer Night's Dream in 1960.
Gielgud directed other actors in many of the Shakespearean roles that he was famous for playing, notably Richard Burton as Hamlet (1964), Anthony Quayle as Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing (1950), and Paul Scofield as the title role in Richard II (1952). But Gielgud didn't always have the magic touch, staging a disappointing revival of Twelfth Night with Laurence Olivier and Vivian Leigh in 1955 and a disastrous production of Macbeth with Ralph Richardson in 1952.
But Gielgud was best known for directing productions in which he also starred, including his greatest commercial success Richard of Bordeaux (1933), his definitive production of The Importance of Being Earnest (1939, 1942, 1947), Medea with Judith Anderson's Tony Award-winning performance of the title role with Gielgud supporting her as Jason (1947), The Lady's Not for Burning (1949) that won Richard Burton his first notoriety as an actor, and Ivanov (1965). But many believed that his greatest successes were in Shakespearean productions in which he both directed and starred, especially Romeo and Juliet (1935), Richard II (1937, 1953), King Lear (1950, 1955), Much Ado About Nothing (1952, 1955, 1959) and his signature role of Hamlet (1934, 1939, 1945).
Gielgud's brother Val Gielgud
became the head of BBC
Radio Production in 1928, and John made his radio debut there the following year in a version of Pirandello's The Man With the Flower in His Mouth
, which he was then performing at the Old Vic Theatre
. In the ensuing years, John played many of his greatest stage roles on BBC Radio including Richard of Bordeaux, The Importance of Being Earnest, The Tempest,
, one production of which featured Emlyn Williams
as Claudius, Celia Johnson
as Ophelia, and Martita Hunt
as Gertrude (the part she played in Gielgud's debut in the role at the Old Vic in 1930). He also played some Shakespearean
roles which he would never essay on stage, such as Iago
in a 1932 broadcast of Othello
opposite Henry Ainley
as the Moor, Buckingham (1954) and Cranmer (1977) in Henry VIII
, and Friar Laurence in Romeo & Juliet
for the first time when he was eighty-nine.
John Gielgud played Sherlock Holmes for BBC radio in the 1950s, with Ralph Richardson as Watson. Gielgud's brother, Val Gielgud, appeared in one of the episodes, perhaps inevitably, as the great detective's brother Mycroft. This series was co-produced by the American Broadcasting Company. Orson Welles appeared as Professor Moriarty in The Final Problem.
Gielgud gave one of his final radio performances in the title role of an All Star production of King Lear in 1994 that was mounted to celebrate his 90th birthday. The cast included Judi Dench, Kenneth Branagh, Derek Jacobi, and Simon Russell Beale.
Although he began to appear in British films as early as 1924, making his debut in the silent movie Who Is the Man?
, he would not make an impact in the medium until the last decades of his life. His early film roles were sporadic and included the lead in Alfred Hitchcock
's Secret Agent
(1936), Benjamin Disraeli
in The Prime Minister
(1940), Cassius in Julius Caesar
(1953) (BAFTA Award
for Best British Actor), George, Duke of Clarence
to Olivier's Richard III
(1955), and Henry IV
to Orson Welles
in Chimes at Midnight
(1966). But he lost his aversion to filming in the late 1960s, and by the 1980s and 1990s he had thrown himself into the medium with a vengeance, so much so that it was jokingly said that he was prepared to do almost anything for his art. He won an Academy Award
for his supporting role as a sardonic butler in the 1981 comedy Arthur
, starring Dudley Moore
and Liza Minnelli
, a New York Film Critics Circle Award
(1977), and a BAFTA Award
for Murder on the Orient Express
(1974), and his performances in The Charge of the Light Brigade
(1968), The Elephant Man
(1981), and Shine
(1996) were critically acclaimed. In 1991, Gielgud was able to satisfy his life's ambition by immortalizing his Prospero
on screen in the film Prospero's Books.
Television also developed as one of the focal points of his career, with Gielgud giving a particularly notable performance in Brideshead Revisited (1981). He won an Emmy Award for Summer's Lease (1989) and televised his stage performances of A Day by the Sea (1957), Home (1970), No Man's Land (1976) and his final theatre role in The Best of Friends as Sydney Cockerell in the 1991 Masterpiece Theatre Production, along with Patrick McGoohan and Dame Wendy Hiller. In 1983, he made his second onscreen appearance with fellow theatrical knights Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson (following Olivier's own Richard III) in a television miniseries about composer Richard Wagner. In 1996 he played a wizard in the TV adaptation of Gulliver's Travels. Gielgud and Ralph Richardson were the first guest stars on Second City Television. Playing themselves, they were in Toronto during their tour of Harold Pinter's No Man's Land. According to Dave Thomas, in his book, SCTV: Behind the Scenes, their sketch stank and the actors gave a bad performance. Gielgud's final television performance was on film in Merlin in 1998, his final television studio appearance having been in A Summer Day's Dream recorded in 1994 for the BBC 2 Performance series.
Gielgud was one of the few people who has won an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony Award.
Gielgud's final onscreen appearance in a major release motion picture was as Pope Paul IV in Elizabeth which was released in 1998. His final acting performance was in a film adaptation of Samuel Beckett's short play Catastrophe, opposite longtime collaborator Harold Pinter and directed by American playwright David Mamet; Gielgud died mere weeks after production was completed at the age of 96 of natural causes.
Origins and personal life
father, Franciszek Giełgud, born 1880, was a descendant of a Lithuanian noble family
residing at Gelgaudiškis
manor dating back to Grand Duchy of Lithuania
(now a town in Marijampolė County
). The Lithuanian form of the name Giełgud is Gelgaudas
. Sir John's grandfather was Adam Giełgud (1834-1920), married to Leontyna Aniela Aszperger. Adam Giełgud's father's (Jan Giełgud's) mother was Countness Eleonora Tyszkiewicz-Łohojski, Clan Leliwa
(by heraldic adoption). As a descendant of Tyszkiewicz
he was related to many well-known Polish and Lithuanian personalities, including actress Beata Tyszkiewicz
and other Lithuanian noble families
In Gielgud's memoirs he makes no mention whatsoever of any 'Lithuanian' background, stating clearly and repeatedly that his father was Polish Catholic.
Gielgud was convicted of "persistently importuning for immoral purposes" (cottaging
) in a Chelsea mews
in 1953. Instead of being rejected by the public, he received a standing ovation at his next stage appearance. Biographer Sheridan Morley
writes that while Gielgud never denied being homosexual, he always tried to be discreet about it and felt humiliated by the ordeal. Some speculate that it helped to bring to public attention a crusade to decriminalise homosexuality in England and Wales. Longtime partner Martin Hensler, 30 years his junior, died just a few months before Gielgud's own death in 2000. He only publicly acknowledged Hensler as his partner in 1988, in the programme notes for The Best of Friends
which was his final stage performance., Gielgud would avoid Hollywood for over a decade for fear of being denied entry because of the arrest.
The 'Gielgud case' was dramatised by critic turned playwright Nicholas de Jongh in the play Plague Over England and performed at the Finborough, a small London theatre, in 2008 with Jasper Britton as Gielgud.
In Curtain (1991), Michael Korda's novel based on the marriage of Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, Gielgud becomes Philip Chagrin.
Another fictionalised Gielgud - this time given the family name John Terry - appeared around the same time as de Jongh's play in Nicola Upson's detective novel An Expert in Murder, a crime story woven around the original production of Richard of Bordeaux.
John Gielgud was cremated at Oxford Crematorium.
Awards and honours
Laurence Olivier Awards
- 1959: Nominated for Best Documentary or Spoken Word Recording, for Ages of Man
- 1960: Nominated for Best Documentary or Spoken Word Recording, for Hamlet with Richard Burton, Hume Cronyn, Alfred Drake, George Voskovec, Eileen Herlie, William Redfield and George Rose
- 1964: Nominated for Best Documentary or Spoken Word Recording, for Ages of Man, Volume 2 (One Man in His Time) Part Two - Shakespeare
- 1979: Winner for Best Spoken Word, Documentary or Drama Recording, for Ages of Man - Recordings from Shakespeare
- 1982: Nominated for Best Spoken Word, Documentary or Drama Recording, for No Man's Land with Ralph Richardson
- 1983: Nominated for Best Spoken Word or Non-Musical Recording, for Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats with Irene Worth
- 1986: Nominated for Best Spoken Word or Non-Musical Recording, for Gulliver
- 1988: Nominated for Best Spoken Word or Non-Musical Recording, for A Christmas Carol
- 1989: Nominated for Best Spoken Word or Non-Musical Recording, for Sir John Gielgud Reads Alice in Wonderland
- 1991: Nominated for Best Album for Children, for The Emperor's New Clothes with Mark Isham
New York Film Critics Circle Awards
Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards
- 1981: Best Supporting Actor, for Arthur
- 1985: Best Supporting Actor, for Plenty
There is also the Sir John Gielgud Award for "Excellence in the Dramatic Arts" presented by the US-based Shakespeare Guild. Past winners include Ian McKellen, Kenneth Branagh, Glen Joseph, Kevin Kline and Judi Dench
Sir John Gielgud believed that animals should not be exploited. He was particularly fond of birds and joined PETA
's campaign against the foie gras
industry in the early 1990s, narrating PETA's video exposé of the force-feeding of geese and ducks. Many chefs and restaurateurs who saw that video dropped foie gras from their menus. Sir John received PETA’s Humanitarian of the Year Award twice, in 1994 and 1999.
He also authored several books, including his memoirs in An Actor and His Time, Early Stages and Distinguished Company. He also co-wrote, with John Miller, Acting Shakespeare.
John Gielgud in popular culture
Gielgud is referenced in Bruce Robinson's 1986 cult film Withnail and I. In an early scene in which Withnail is complaining about his lack of work as an actor, Marwood attempts to console him by suggesting that September is a "bad patch" for actors. Withnail responds by saying "Rubbish! Haven't seen Gielgud down the labour exchange. Why doesn't he retire?"
- Notes From The Gods (1994), John Gielgud, Ed.Richard Mangan, Nick Hearn Books
- Gielgud's Letters (2004), Ed. Richard Mangan, Weidenfeld and Nicolson
- Young, Jordan R. (1989). Acting Solo: The Art of One-Person Shows. Beverly Hills: Past Times Publishing Co.