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Legendary Actor Sir John Gielgud Dies

Theater: Dominant on the Shakespearean stage for much of the 20th century, he also found success in films, TV.

May 23, 2000|From a Times Staff Writer

Sir John Gielgud, the last of the great trinity of British actors who dominated the theatrical world for much of the 20th century, has died.

Gielgud, 96, died Sunday at his home near Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire west of London, Laurence Evans, his former agent, announced Monday.

With a voice that Sir Alec Guinness, one of the actor's few surviving contemporaries, once called "a silver trumpet muffled in silk," Gielgud was a consummate actor who was as fluent in tragedy as he was in comedy and as comfortable on the London stage as he was with the intimacy of the TV screen.

Along with Laurence Olivier, who died in 1989, and Ralph Richardson, who died in 1983, Gielgud defined the British theater.

"In Shakespeare, [Gielgud] set the standard across radio, film and legendary stage performances," actor and director Kenneth Branagh said Monday. "He excelled in both comedy and tragedy. He made Shakespeare vivid, passionate and real for millions of people across the world."

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday May 24, 2000 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 3 Metro Desk 2 inches; 51 words Type of Material: Correction
Gielgud's career--The obituary of actor John Gielgud in Tuesday's Times incorrectly reported that he was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of Cassius in the 1953 film "Julius Caesar." A photo caption showing the actor on the set of "War and Remembrance" may have given the impression that the miniseries aired in 1986. In fact, it was shown in 1988 and 1989.

Many theaters in London dimmed their lights in homage to Gielgud on Monday night, including the theater named after the great actor where Kathleen Turner is appearing as Mrs. Robinson in a stage adaptation of "The Graduate."

"The death of the great is always awesome," Guinness said Monday, " . . . and John was undoubtedly great. He was kind, generous, witty, and his loss is a loss to the nation and his profession."

To American audiences--especially those whose interest was primarily in motion pictures--he probably is best known for his role as Hobson the butler in the 1981 film "Arthur," for which he won an Academy Award as best supporting actor. He also won an Emmy as outstanding actor in a miniseries or drama in 1991 for the PBS "Masterpiece Theater" drama "Summer's Lease."

Celebrated as a premier contemporary interpreter of Shakespearean drama and widely acclaimed as a producer and director in addition to his honors as a performer, Gielgud nevertheless came late to the attention of most American audiences.

"I resisted the idea of film as an art form--at least for myself--for a long, long time," he said years ago.

"My career had always been centered principally on the legitimate stage (he made only two silent films and two talkies before World War II), and I used to tell people they were 'irrelevant' to the craft of acting. But it was a cover-up.

"I was simply scared of films. I hate to fail, so I stuck to the stage."

But when he finally determined to make the effort, he was, as he said, "an overnight success after only 40 years' experience."

The Academy Award he won for his interpretation of the warm but prickly valet and friend of the title character in "Arthur" was a recognition not only of that specific performance, but of a lifetime's devotion to his art.

"I still don't know anything about the technique of making films," he said. "But I am not the first to take to films late. Dame May Whitty became a star in her 70s with 'The Lady Vanishes.' Edith Evans, until the end of her career at 88, could always do films."

And, of course, he never made a mess of it, as he feared he would.

"Not all theater actors, particularly in the U.K., understood the difference between theater and film," said Richard Attenborough, who directed Gielgud in the film "Gandhi."

"What John did absolutely extraordinarily was to change his whole manner of performance, the whole way in which he projected himself, so that he became a consummate film actor."

Difficulties in Casting

Tall, elegant, youthful and energetic late into his life, Gielgud seemed to epitomize a devotion to excellence that is rare.

He also was uniquely inner-directed.

A self-proclaimed homosexual in an era that not only rejected homosexuality as "unnatural" but persecuted it legally, he helped to dispel the aura of stigma and myth by demonstrating the irrelevance of such considerations with respect to professional and artistic qualifications.

Born April 14, 1904, in London, Arthur John Gielgud came from a theatrical family.

Both his grandmothers were actresses: His father's mother was the Polish actress Mme. Aszberger, and his mother's mother was Kate Terry, elder sister of the celebrated Ellen Terry and a well-known Shakespearean in her own right.

Gielgud saw his first play when he was 7, and was producer-director of a toy theater, "The New Mars," ("My brother Val wrote most of the mystery melodramas of the repertory, while I did all the rest") by the time he was 9. His decision to devote his life to the stage nonetheless precipitated a family crisis.

He had first acted before an audience at the Hillside School, where he distinguished himself in religious studies and English. But when he decided to seek a stage career rather than attend a university, he was required "for the sake of peace in the family" to agree to abandon the stage and become an architect as his father wanted if he was not successful by the time he was 25.

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