John Gielgud (1904 - 2000)



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John Gielgud
Born April 14, 1904 in South Kensington, London, England, UK
Died May 21, 2000 in Wotton Underwood, Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, England, UK (natural causes)
Birth Name Arthur John Gielgud
Nickname Johnny G.
Height 5' 11" (1.81 m)
Born in London, England, John Gielgud trained at Lady Benson's Acting School and RADA, London. Best known for his Shakespearean roles in the theater, he first played Hamlet at the age of 26. He worked under the tutelage of Lilian Bayliss with friend and fellow performer Laurence Olivier and other contemporaries of the National Theatre at the "Old Vic" in London. He made his screen debut in 1924. Academy Award Best Supporting Actor, 1981, for Arthur (1981), Academy Award Nomination, 1964, for Becket (1964).
Sir John Gielgud is a highly distinguished and prolific performer who is considered to be one of the finest actors of his generation. A graduate of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, Gielgud played his first Hamlet in 1930 and quickly established himself as one of the most eminent Shakespearean interpreters of his time, as well as a respected director. He made his screen debut in 1924 in Who Is the Man? (1924) and appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's Secret Agent (1936) in 1936 as well as several Shakespearean adaptations such as Julius Caesar (1953) in 1953 and Olivier's Richard III (1955) in 1955. Since the late 1960s he has increasingly appeared in character roles. Other film credits include: Becket (1964) (for which he was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of King Louis VII of France); The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968) ; Oh! What a Lovely War (1969); A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1977); The Elephant Man (1980); Arthur (1981); Chariots of Fire (1981); Gandhi (1982); Scandalous (1984); The Shooting Party (1985); The Far Pavilions (1984); Plenty (1985); The Whistle Blower (1986); Barbablù, Barbablù (1987); Arthur 2: On the Rocks (1988) Sir John also wrote three novels - Early Stages (in 1939), Stage Directions (in 1963) and Distinguished Company (1972).
Sir John Gielgud, 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 Franciszek/Frank Henry Gielgud, a stockbroker, and his wife, Kate Terry-Lewis Gielgud. His father was of Polish ancestry, with distant Lithuanian roots, while his mother was English. His paternal great-grandmother, Aniela (Wasinskiej) Aszperger, had been a Shakespearean actress in Poland, and his maternal grandmother, Kate Terry, had played Cordelia at the age of 14. Also 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 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 under the pseudonym Gordon Daviot, wrote 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, 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 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). 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." 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 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. As 'The Times' eulogizes after his death, "To a unique degree his greatest performances coincided with the greatest plays."

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Greater London County, England United Kingdom


Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire County, England United Kingdom

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1904 - In the year that John Gielgud was born, the first underground line of the New York City subway system opened. London's underground system was opened in 1863 and Boston opened one in 1897, but New York quickly became the largest system in the U.S. More than 100,000 people paid 5 cents to ride under Manhattan that first day.

1909 - John was just 5 years old when explorer Robert Peary, a Rear Admiral in the U.S. Navy, claimed to have been the first to have reached the geographic North Pole. His claim has been disputed for over a century - some say that he ended up 60 miles from the North Pole. Peary was the only navigator on his team and he didn't submit his records for public review.

1960 - John was 56 years old when on May 1st, an American CIA U-2 spy plane, piloted by Francis Gary Powers, was shot down by a surface-to-air missile over the Soviet Union. Powers ejected and survived but was captured. The U.S. claimed that the U-2 was a "weather plane" but Powers was convicted in the Soviet Union of espionage. He was released in 1962 after 1 year, 9 months and 10 days in prison.

1962 - He was 58 years old when on October 1st, African-American James H. Meredith, escorted by federal marshals, registered at the University of Mississippi - becoming the first African-American student admitted to the segregated college. He had been inspired by President Kennedy's inaugural address to apply for admission.

1985 - When he was 81 years old, in May, a paper published in Nature by three British scientists reported that a huge hole was discovered in the ozone layer over the Antarctic. It was much larger than expected and is due to the use of manmade chemicals.

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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. 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. 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: Play-going 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."


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