Gielgud, at age 96, takes his final bow

Appreciation: The master Shakespearean may be best remembered Stateside as Hobson the impish butler.

May 23, 2000|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

His first acting teacher said he walked "like a cat with rickets," and the actor himself described his awkward gait as that of a man whose knees were tied together with ribbons.

But Sir John Gielgud, who died peacefully Sunday at age 96 at his home west of London, went on to become one of the greatest Shakespearean actors of his time. In a career that spanned eight decades on stage, film and TV, any awkwardness in Gielgud's gait was long ago overshadowed by his intelligent, insightful portrayals and the majesty of his resonant voice. It was a voice earmarked by enormous grace and impeccable diction.

"His voice thrills like an arrow, shot skywards; it rarely touches the gruff phrases of earth," wrote the late critic Kenneth Tynan.

While Gielgud's vocal ability was ideally suited to Shakespeare, it also served him well in contemporary screen roles. His Hamlet -- a role he acted more than 500 times -- was regarded by many as definitive, but he could bring great style to far less weighty roles, such as the butler in the 1981 movie "Arthur," a part that won him an Academy Award.

Although Gielgud appeared in his first movie in 1924 (the silent film "Who Is the Man?") and starred in Alfred Hitchcock's "The Secret Agent" in 1936, he flirted only occasionally with the medium until the 1950s, when he played Cassius to Marlon Brando's Antony in "Julius Caesar" (1953).

Gielgud was the last of the British triumvirate of actor-knights that also included Lord Olivier and Sir Ralph Richardson. The three appeared together in "Richard III" (1954), and Gielgud subsequently worked steadily in British and Hollywood films, earning a 1964 Oscar nomination as King Louis VII of France in "Becket." His other films included "Oh, What a Lovely War," "The Elephant Man," "Chariots of Fire," "Gandhi" and "The Charge of the Light Brigade."

Richard Attenborough, who directed Gielgud in "Gandhi," lauded him for the ease with which he calibrated his performances from stage to screen.

"He did reinvent himself," Lord Attenborough said. "Not all the theater actors, particularly in the U.K., understood the difference between theater and film. 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."

Gielgud had a memorable turn as Jeremy Irons' father in the TV series "Brideshead Revisited," but he made his most indelible mark on U.S. audiences with his supporting role as the sarcastically circumspect gentleman's gentleman in "Arthur." The movie was a huge hit, and Gielgud won his only Oscar for his performance in the film.

While U.S. audiences may be more familiar with Gielgud for that impish part, many laud him for being among the classical actors who helped introduce the works of Shakespeare to generations of radio listeners, filmgoers and television viewers.

After playing roles in filmed versions of "Julius Caesar," "Romeo and Juliet" and "Richard III," Gielgud played his last major Shakespearean role in 1991, when he starred in the title role in Peter Greenaway's "Prospero's Books," a controversial adaptation of "The Tempest" in which the 87-year-old actor delivered nearly ever word of dialogue. (Gielgud made a silent cameo appearance in Kenneth Branagh's 1996 film production of "Hamlet," the play Sir John made his own on the London stage in 1930, but which he never adapted for the screen.)

Born in London on April 14, 1904, Gielgud was the great-nephew of the legendary actress Ellen Terry. "I was born into the purple of the Terry family," he wrote in his autobiography, "Early Stages," "so it was natural, I supposed, that the theater should have attracted me at an early age."

Though his parents hoped he would become an architect, he persuaded them to give him until age 25 to find success as an actor. He made his professional debut in Shakespeare's "Henry V," playing a herald, and in 1922 he won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts..

The month he turned 25, his portrayal of Hamlet at London's Old Vic was hailed by critic James Agate as "the high-water mark of English Shakespearean acting in our time."

Gielgud was knighted in 1953, but shortly thereafter the "angry young man" dramas arrived on the British stage, and as Gielgud later told the New York Times, "I thought my number was up."

The actor was more versatile than he gave himself credit for, however. Besides working in television, movies and radio, he was also a successful opera director, winning a Tony Award for his staging of Hugh Wheeler's "Big Fish, Little Fish" in 1961. In 1980 he won a Grammy for the recording of his solo show, "The Ages of Man," and in 1994 the Globe Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue in London's West End was renamed in his honor.

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