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John Gielgud: Knight From 'Arthur's' Court

October 13, 1985|RODERICK MANN

For more than four years now, the most sought-after actor in Britain has not been O'Toole or Finney or Hopkins but an 81-year-old former Shakespearean star with the face of a prelate--Sir John Gielgud.

Last year alone, he was involved in 10 projects--among them the movie "Plenty" with Meryl Streep, a Paul Masson wine commercial for which he is the supercilious huckster, and "Antigone" for the BBC. And for everything he accepted, twice as many were turned down by his longtime agent and friend Laurence Evans.

Evans, who has managed Gielgud for the last 40 years, is as intrigued as his client by the continuing interest in the man.

"It's extraordinary," he said. "Since 'Arthur,' he's never stopped. Every day there are new offers coming in."

It was, as Evans says, Gielgud's role as Hobson, Dudley Moore's tart-tongued manservant in "Arthur," that began it all.

"Until then," Evans said, "young Americans didn't really know him at all. Or if they did they thought he'd probably retired. Nobody realized that in Britain he still ranks second only to (Laurence) Olivier. Now all that has changed. . . ."

Coming in from an afternoon spent puttering about the gardens of his 18th-Century carriage house near Oxford, Gielgud agreed.

"That film 'discovered' me all over again," he said with a chuckle. "Now I'm being offered more work than I can possibly handle. And it seems there's more to come."

There is. Gielgud is now being sought for a long stint in the role of Prof. Jastrow in ABC-TV's forthcoming miniseries "War and Remembrance"--a sequel to "The Winds of War." He has not yet said yes--it involves 10 months' work next year--but he probably will.

"He just loves working," Evans explained.

"I find it the best way to keep going," Gielgud said firmly. "I'd be miserable if I weren't acting. Most of my family has gone by now, and I'm not mad about the few that are left, so I need something to occupy my time." A chuckle. "And they do pay very well indeed."

Although he is still offered plays in London, he now says no.

"Small parts in films and TV suit me admirably," he said. "I'm no longer interested in doing eight performances in the theater. (Certainly not at the National, which he describes as 'cold, like an airport.') That would be too much."

But he does miss theater.

"Oh yes," he said. "I miss the immediacy of it. You make a film and it's ages before you see it. And when you do you think, 'Oh, God, I could have done that so much better.' "

Most critics would disagree. Like every actor, Gielgud has done his share of rubbish, but he himself has almost always been watchable. And when he is in top form--as in "Plenty"--there is no one like him.

"Someone sent me the reviews," he said. "They did seem rather good for me. And I must say I enjoyed working in that film. And I loved Meryl (Streep)."

What is it about this octogenarian actor that now makes him so much in demand?

Says Evans: "First, his name lends a little luster to any project. Second, you know you're going to get an interesting performance whether you cast him as a clergyman or a duke. Johnny will always deliver. There's nobody quite like him."

Gielgud clearly views his newfound popularity as a bit of a lark.

"Well, of course," he said. "I mean, here I'm being paid to go all over the world and meet new young people. What could be better? The only trouble is that I'm rarely around long enough to get to know them well. But I do enjoy it, and they are always flattering and kind."

In Britain, he is regarded as a peerless Shakespearean performer--ranking second only to Olivier in the classics--who is just trying to make a little money to sustain himself in old age. It's understandable. He has played Hamlet, Lear, Romeo, Prospero, Antony, Richard II, Macbeth, Hotspur and Oberon. Some critics consider him the best Hamlet of his generation.

He and Olivier share a mutual respect for each other, but their friends suggest that there is still a streak of rivalry there.

Gielgud openly disapproved of "Confessions of an Actor," Olivier's recent memoirs--"I couldn't bear what he said about Vivien Leigh (Olivier's former wife)," he said at the time.

"I never thought Larry liked me very much until we made 'Wagner' in Vienna recently," he said. "Then he gave a splendid dinner party for me and was very sweet.

"Of course, I always envied Larry his physique, and he says he's always envied me my voice. Sometimes, though, I think I used to rely too much on vocal tricks.

"That can be a trap. I've always been inclined to do things with my voice rather than my body. I've always been very voice conscious."

If age has not wearied Gielgud, then it has certainly stripped him of vanity.

"When I was young, I'm afraid I was terribly vain," he said. "I was so self-conscious in front of the camera." He gave a short laugh. "Now I don't care how I look."

For 12 years now, he has lived in the Buckinghamshire countryside where he retreated after giving up his old house just behind Westminster Abbey.

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