Gielgud at his finest in the
BBC Shakespeare Dvd Collection
John Gielgud was born Arthur John Gielgud on the 14th April 1904 in
South Kensington, London, UK.
Sir John Gielgud was an outstanding British actor whose illustrious career extended for almost eighty years. He was born into a famous acting family: his great-aunt was Ellen Terry; his great-uncle was Fred Terry who created the role of The Scarlet Pimpernel; his grandmother, Kate Terry Gielgud, played Cordelia at the age of 14; and his brother, Val Gielgud, was a playwright and radio producer.
He was educated at Westminster School and, aged 16, made his stage debut in 1921 at the Old Vic, playing the English herald in Shakespeare's Henry V. He was hired by his cousin, Phylis Neilson-Terry; recruited him to be an assistant stage manager and understudy in The Wheel in 1922. He studied for the stage at Lady Benson's Dramatic Academy and then spent a year at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. His first major London success was as the student, Trofimov, in Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard. In 1924, he was Noël Coward's understudy and took over from him as the lead in The Vortex and The Constant Nymph.
He then joined J. B. Fagan's company in Oxford and in the West End before being invited by Lilian Baylis to return to the Old Vic in 1929. Over the next two seasons, he established himself as the leading interpreter of Shakespeare’s major tragic roles. At the age of 26, he played Hamlet to universal acclaim. It was a role that he returned to in his own 1933 production and that he was, during his long career, to perform over 500 times. Important non-Shakespeare roles included John Worthing in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest (1930) and Gordon Daviot’s Richard of Bordeaux (1932) that made him a popular West End star. His superb performances in and his direction of The Seagull (1936), The Three Sisters (1937) and The Cherry Orchard (1961) did much to secure Chekhov’s place in the English-speaking stage repertoire. In the 1950s, he did much, as an actor and director, to establish modern playwrights, including Terence Rattigan and Graham Greene.
Although the theatre was obviously his main interest, Gielgud also had a most successful film career. He won an Oscar for perhaps the lightest of his roles - the butler role in Arthur (1981), but his really great performances are found elsewhere – the conspiratorial scene-stealing Cassius in Julius Caesar (1953); Clarence in Olivier's Richard III (1955); the poignant, tragic Henry IV in Orson Welles's elegiac Chimes at Midnight (1966); and his astonishing Prospero in Peter Greenaway's amazing reworking of The Tempest as Prospero's Books (1991).
He was the author of autobiographies (Early Stages, 1939; An Actor in His Time, 1979) and studies of acting (Stage Directions, 1963; Acting Shakespeare, 1991).
Gielgud was knighted in 1953 and appointed a Companion of Honour in 1977.
He was convicted of "lewd behaviour" in 1953 at a well known homosexual pick-up point. Interestingly, Alec Guinness had also been 'guilty' of the same offence, in Liverpool, but as he had given a false name he had escapd punishment. Gielgud gave his correct name and was punished. He got a standing ovation at his next stage appearance, and the roller-coaster to de-criminalise homosexuality in England and Wales began.
Gielgud was homosexual and his long-term partner was Martin Hensler, 30 years his junior, who died in 1999.
He died of naural causes on the 21 May 2000 in Wotton Underwood, Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, UK.