John Gielgud

From New World Encyclopedia

Sir John Gielgud
Sir John Gielgud actor.jpg
photo by Carl Van Vechten, 1936
Birth name: Arthur John Gielgud
Date of birth: April 14 1904(1904-04-14)
Birth location: South Kensington, London, England
Date of death: 21 May 2000 (aged 96)
Death location: Wotton Underwood, Buckinghamshire, England
Academy Awards: Best Supporting Actor
1981 Arthur

Sir Arthur John Gielgud, OM, CH (April 14, 1904 – May 21, 2000), known as Sir John Gielgud, was an English theater and film actor particularly known for his warm expressive voice. Gielgud is a member of the short list of entertainers with the distinction of having won an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony award.

Gielgud is best known for his work as a Shakespearian actor. At different stages of his career he played Hamlet, Prospero, and even Hamlet's father among the many Shakespearean roles that he played. He also staged a one-man show based on Shakespeare's work.

Gielgud was known as single-minded in his devotion to his craft. His pre-war has been credited with laying the foundation for the renaissance of British theater in the post-war period. In addition to his work as an actor, Gielgud was a famed theater director. Although he was more distinguished for his theater work than film, he won an Academy Award for his role in the 1981 film, Arthur.


Arthur John Gielgud was born in South Kensington in London to a Protestant mother, Kate Terry, and a Catholic father, Frank Gielgud, and was raised a Protestant. Gielgud's Catholic father, Franciszek Giełgud, born 1880, was a descendant of a Lithuanian noble family residing at Gelgaudiškis manor dating back to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (now a town in Marijampolė County, Lithuania). The Lithuanian form of the name Giełgud is Gelgaudas. Sir John's grandfather was Adam Giełgud (1834-1920), married to Leontyna Aniela Aszperger. Adam Giełgud's father's (Jan Giełgud's) mother was Countness Eleonora Tyszkiewicz-Łohojski, Clan Leliwa (by heraldic adoption). As a descendant of Tyszkiewicz (Tiškevičius) counts he was related to many well-known Polish and Lithuanian personalities, including actress Beata Tyszkiewicz and other Lithuanian noble families.

A great nephew of Dame Ellen Terry, Gielgud had a head start in the theatrical profession. His elder brother was Val Gielgud who was a pioneering figure in BBC Radio. His niece is Maina Gielgud, dancer and one time artistic director of The Australian Ballet and the Royal Danish Ballet.

Gielgud was convicted in 1953 of "persistently importuning for immoral purposes" (cottaging) in a Chelsea men's lavatory. Instead of being rejected by the public, he received a standing ovation at his next stage appearance. Biographer Sheridan Morley writes that while Gielgud never denied being homosexual, he always tried to be discreet about it and felt humiliated by the ordeal. Some speculate that it helped to bring to public attention a crusade to decriminalize homosexuality in England and Wales. Gielgud would avoid Hollywood for over a decade for fear of being denied entry because of the arrest.

Gielgud's longtime partner Martin Hensler, 30 years his junior, died in 1999. After this, Gielgud went into a physical and psychological decline; he died at home on May 21 the following year, at the age of 96.[1] At his request there was no memorial service, and his funeral at All Saints' Church, Wotton Underwood was private, for family and close friends. John Gielgud was cremated at Oxford Crematorium.


Early stages

After Hillside Preparatory School in Godalming, Surrey and Westminster School, where he gained a King's Scholarship, Gielgud trained at RADA and had his initial success as a stage actor in classical roles, first winning stardom during a successful two seasons at the Old Vic Theatre from 1929 to 1931 where his performances as Richard II and Hamlet were particularly acclaimed. The latter was the first Old Vic production to be transferred to the West End for a run. He returned to the role of Hamlet in a famous production under his own direction in 1934 at the New Theatre in the West End. He was hailed as a Broadway star in Guthrie McClintic's production in which Lillian Gish played Ophelia in 1936 (and which was assisted by a rival staging starring Leslie Howard that opened shortly afterwards and failed badly by comparison). A 1939 production that Gielgud directed, it was the last play performed at Henry Irving's Orpheum Theatre and was later taken to Elsinore Castle in Denmark (where the play is set), a 1944 production directed by George Rylands, and finally a 1945 production that toured the Far East under Gielgud's own direction. In his later years, Gielgud would play the Ghost of Hamlet's Father in productions of the play, first to Richard Burton's Melancholy Dane on the Broadway stage which Gielgud directed in 1964, then on television with Richard Chamberlain, and finally in a radio production starring Gielgud's protégé, Kenneth Branagh.

Gielgud had triumphs in many other plays. His greatest popular success was likely Richard of Bordeaux (1933) (a romantic version of the story of Richard II). He also starred in The Importance of Being Earnest which he first performed at the Lyric Hammersmith in 1930 and which would remain in his repertory until 1947, and a legendary production of Romeo and Juliet (1935) which Gielgud directed and alternated the roles of Romeo and Mercutio with a young Laurence Olivier in his first professional Shakespearean leading role.

Conflict with Olivier

Olivier's performance won him an engagement as the leading man of the Old Vic Theatre the following season, starting his career as a classical actor. However, he was said to have resented Gielgud's direction and developed a wary relationship with Gielgud which resulted in Olivier turning down Gielgud's request to play the Chorus in Olivier's film of Henry V. Later he did his best to block Gielgud from appearing at the Royal National Theatre when Olivier was its director.[2]

photo of Gielgud as Richard II by Carl Van Vechten (1936).

Queen's Theatre season

Gielgud had hoped to stay in the United States after his Broadway performance as Hamlet in 1936 to play Richard II in New York, but director Guthrie McClintic was so certain that the production would fail in the U.S. that Gielgud gave up the idea (and was dismayed when Maurice Evans had a legendary success in the play on Broadway with Gielgud's blessing). Instead, Gielgud returned to London in 1937 and had an enormous influence on the development of English Theater when he produced a season of plays at the Queen's Theatre in 1937/38, presenting the aforementioned Richard II, Sheridan's The School for Scandal, Anton Chekhov's The Three Sisters, and Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice with a permanent company (that included Peggy Ashcroft, Michael Redgrave and Alec Guinness) that would shape the development of such theatrical institutions as the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal National Theatre. Gielgud acted in all four productions and directed the two Shakespeare plays, while Tyrone Guthrie directed The School for Scandal and Michael Saint-Denis staged The Three Sisters. Laurence Olivier said that Gielgud's performance in The School for Scandal was "the best light comedy performance I have ever seen–or ever shall!" and considered his Shylock to be among his greatest impersonations, but the greatest success of the season was the production of The Three Sisters, with Gielgud's performance as Vershinin, coupled with his successes in The Seagull (1929 and 1936), The Cherry Orchard (1954), and Ivanov (1965)–establishing Chekhov's acceptance on the English-speaking stage.

Shakespearean legacy

John Gielgud as Benedick in the 1959 Broadway production of Much Ado About Nothing

It would always be, however, for his Shakespearean work that Gielgud would be best known. In addition to Hamlet which he played over 500 times in six productions, he gave what some consider definitive performances in The Tempest (as Prospero) in four productions (and in the 1991 film Prospero's Books), as well as in other roles–Richard II in three productions, Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing which he first played in 1930 and revived throughout the 1950s, Macbeth and Oberon in A Midsummer Night's Dream twice, Romeo three times, and King Lear four times (as well as taking on the part for a final time in a radio broadcast at the age of 90). He also had triumphs as Malvolio in Twelfth Night (1931), Shylock in The Merchant of Venice (1937), Angelo in Measure for Measure (1950), Cassius in Julius Caesar (1950) (which he immortalized in the 1953 film), Leontes in The Winter's Tale (1951), and Cardinal Wolsey in Henry VIII (1959) (although his 1960 performance as Othello was not a success). It was rumored that Gielgud also provided the voice for the uncredited role of the Ghost of Hamlet's Father in Laurence Olivier's 1948 film version, but the voice was actually that of Olivier, electronically distorted. Gielgud did play the Ghost in his own film of the play in 1964 and in the 1970 Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation starring Richard Chamberlain.

Gielgud's crowning achievement, many believe, was Ages of Man, his one-man recital of Shakespearean excerpts which he performed throughout the 1950s and 1960s, winning a Tony Award for the Broadway production, a Grammy Award for his recording of the piece, and an Emmy Award for producer David Susskind for the 1966 telecast on CBS. Gielgud made his final Shakespearean appearance on stage in 1977 in the title role of John Schlesinger's production of Julius Caesar at the Royal National Theatre. He also made a recording of many of Shakespeare's sonnets in 1963. Among his non-Shakespearean Renaissance roles, his Ferdinand in John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi was well-known.

Sir John Gielgud by Allan Warren, taken in the photographer's home, London, 1973

Later stage work

As he aged, Gielgud began to adapt more to changing fashions in the theater, appearing in plays by Edward Albee (Tiny Alice), Alan Bennett (Forty Years On), Charles Wood (Veterans),, Edward Bond (Bingo,, in which Gielgud played William Shakespeare), David Storey (Home), and Harold Pinter (No Man's Land), the latter two in partnership with his old friend Ralph Richardson, but he drew the line at being offered the role of Hamm in Beckett's Endgame, saying that the play offered "nothing but loneliness and despair."[1] It looked as though Gielgud would retire from the stage after appearing in Half Life at the Duke of York's Theatre in 1978, but he made a successful comeback in 1988 in Hugh Whitemore's play The Best of Friends as museum curator Sydney Cockerell.

Directing career

Gielgud was almost as highly regarded for his work as a theater director as for his acting, having staged his first production as a guest director of the Oxford University Dramatic Society production of Romeo and Juliet in 1932. The custom of OUDS at the time was to cast student undergraduates in the male roles and professional actresses in the female roles. Gielgud engaged Peggy Ashcroft as Juliet and Edith Evans as the nurse, who would play the same roles three years later in his legendary production of the play at the New Theatre.

Gielgud quickly rose to the status of being one of the top directors for the H.M. Tennent, Ltd. production company in London's West End Theatre and later on Broadway, his productions including Lady Windermere's Fan (1945), The Glass Menagerie (1948), The Heiress (1949), his own adaptation of The Cherry Orchard (1954), The Potting Shed (1958), Five Finger Exercise (1959), Peter Ustinov's comedy Half Way Up a Tree (1967), and Private Lives (1972). Gielgud won a Tony Award for his direction of Big Fish, Little Fish in 1961–the only time he won the award in a competitive category. (He won honorary awards for "Best Foreign Company" for his 1947 production of The Importance of Being Earnest and for his one-man show Ages of Man). He also directed the operas The Trojans in 1957 and A Midsummer Night's Dream in 1960.

Gielgud directed other actors in many of the Shakespearean roles that he was famous for playing, notably Richard Burton as Hamlet (1964), Anthony Quayle as Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing (1950), and Paul Scofield as the title role in Richard II (1952). Gielgud didn't always have the magic touch, staging a disappointing revival of Twelfth Night with Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh in 1955 and a disastrous production of Macbeth with Ralph Richardson in 1952.

Gielgud was best known for directing productions in which he also starred, including his greatest commercial success Richard of Bordeaux (1933), his definitive production of The Importance of Being Earnest (1939, 1942, 1947), Medea with Judith Anderson's Tony Award-winning performance of the title role with Gielgud supporting her as Jason (1947), The Lady's Not for Burning (1949) that won Richard Burton his first notoriety as an actor, and Ivanov (1965). But many believed that his greatest successes were in Shakespearean productions in which he both directed and starred, especially Romeo and Juliet (1935), Richard II (1937, 1953), King Lear (1950, 1955), Much Ado About Nothing (1952, 1955, 1959) and his signature role of Hamlet (1934, 1939, 1945).

Radio Work

Gielgud's brother Val Gielgud became the head of BBC Radio Production in 1928,[3] and John made his radio debut there the following year in a version of Pirandello's The Man With the Flower in His Mouth, which he was then performing at the Old Vic Theatre. In the ensuing years, John played many of his greatest stage roles on BBC Radio including Richard of Bordeaux, The Importance of Being Earnest, The Tempest, and Hamlet, one production of which featured Emlyn Williams as Claudius, Celia Johnson as Ophelia, and Martita Hunt as Gertrude (the part she played in Gielgud's debut in the role at the Old Vic in 1930). He also played some Shakespearean roles which he would never essay on stage, such as Iago in a 1932 broadcast of Othello opposite Henry Ainley as the Moor,[4] Buckingham (1954) and Cranmer (1977) in Henry VIII, and Friar Laurence in Romeo & Juliet for the first time when he was 89.

John Gielgud played Sherlock Holmes for BBC radio in the 1950s, with Ralph Richardson as Watson. Gielgud's brother, Val Gielgud, appeared in one of the episodes as the great detective's brother Mycroft. This series was co-produced by the American Broadcasting Company. Orson Welles appeared as Professor Moriarty in The Final Problem.

Gielgud gave one of his final radio performances in the title role of an All Star production of King Lear in 1994 that was mounted to celebrate his 90th birthday. The cast included noted actors Dame Judi Dench, Kenneth Branagh, Derek Jacobi, and Simon Russell Beale.

Film work

Gielgud in Secret Agent (1936)

Although he began to appear in British films as early as 1924, making his debut in the silent movie Who Is the Man?, he would not make an impact in the medium until the last decades of his life. His early film roles were sporadic and included the lead in Alfred Hitchcock's Secret Agent (1936), Benjamin Disraeli in The Prime Minister (1940), Cassius in Julius Caesar (1953) (BAFTA Award for Best British Actor), George, Duke of Clarence to Olivier's Richard III (1955), and Henry IV to Orson Welles' Falstaff in Chimes at Midnight (1966). He overcame his aversion to filming in the late 1960s, and by the 1980s and 1990s he had thrown himself into the medium, so much so that it was jokingly said that he was prepared to do almost anything for his art. He won an Academy Award for his supporting role as a sardonic butler in the 1981 comedy Arthur, starring Dudley Moore and Liza Minnelli, a New York Film Critics Circle Award for Providence (1977), and a BAFTA Award for Murder on the Orient Express (1974), and his performances in The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968), The Elephant Man (1981), and Shine (1996) were critically acclaimed. In 1991, Gielgud was able to satisfy his life's ambition by immortalizing his Prospero on screen in the film Prospero's Books.[5]

Edmond O'Brien (left) and John Gielgud (right) in Julius Caesar (1953)

Television also developed as one of the focal points of his career, with Gielgud giving a particularly notable performance in Brideshead Revisited (1981). He won an Emmy Award for Summer's Lease (1989) and televised his stage performances of A Day by the Sea (1957), Home (1970), No Man's Land (1976) and his final theater role in The Best of Friends as Sydney Cockerell in the 1991 Masterpiece Theatre Production, along with Patrick McGoohan and Dame Wendy Hiller. In 1983, he made his second onscreen appearance with fellow theatrical knights Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson (following Olivier's own Richard III) in a television miniseries about composer Richard Wagner. In 1996 he played a wizard in the TV adaptation of Gulliver's Travels. Gielgud and Ralph Richardson were the first guest stars on Second City Television. Playing themselves, they were in Toronto during their tour of Harold Pinter's No Man's Land. According to Dave Thomas, in his book, SCTV: Behind the Scenes, their sketch stank and the actors gave a bad performance. Gielgud's final television performance was on film in Merlin in 1998, his final television studio appearance having been in A Summer Day's Dream recorded in 1994 for the BBC 2 Performance series.

Gielgud's final onscreen appearance in a major release motion picture was as Pope Paul IV in Elizabeth which was released in 1998. His final acting performance was in a film adaptation of Samuel Beckett's short play Catastrophe, opposite longtime collaborator Harold Pinter and directed by American playwright David Mamet; Gielgud died mere weeks after production was completed at the age of 96 of natural causes.


Gielgud was one of the few people who has won an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony Award. Sir Alec Guinness likened his voice to "a silver trumpet muffled in silk."[6]

Together with Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson, Gielgud represented his era's most famous and popular British Shakespearean actors and his body of work was comparable to theirs. Gielgud's importance to English theater is hard to overstate. His work as an actor and manager helped revive West End theater:

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 1938 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…. 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."[7]

Sir John was particularly fond of birds and joined PETA's campaign against the foie gras industry in the early 1990s, narrating PETA's video exposé of the force-feeding of geese and ducks. Many chefs and restaurateurs who saw that video dropped foie gras from their menus. Sir John received PETA’s Humanitarian of the Year Award twice, in 1994 and 1999. He authored several books, including his memoirs in An Actor and His Time, Early Stages and Distinguished Company. He also co-wrote, with John Miller, Acting Shakespeare.

Awards and honors

  • He was knighted in the 1953 coronation honors, became a Companion of Honour in 1977, and was admitted to the Order of Merit in 1996.
  • In 1982 he received an Evening Standard Special Award
  • The Globe Theatre in London was renamed the Gielgud Theatre in 1994 in his honor.

Laurence Olivier Awards

  • 1985: Special Award

Academy Awards

  • 1964: Nominated for Best Supporting Actor, for Becket
  • 1981: Winner for Best Supporting Actor, for Arthur

Emmy Awards

  • 1982: Nominated for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Limited Series or Special, for Brideshead Revisited
  • 1984: Nominated for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Limited Series or Special, for The Master of Ballantrae
  • 1985: Nominated for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Limited Series or Special, for Romance on the Orient Express
  • 1989: Nominated for Outstanding Lead Actor in a miniseries or Special, for War and Remembrance
  • 1991: Winner for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or Movie, for Summer's Lease

Tony Awards

  • 1948: Winner for Outstanding Foreign Company, The Importance of Being Earnest
  • 1959: Winner, Special Award, for contribution to theatre for his extraordinary insight into the writings of Shakespeare as demonstrated in his one-man show, Ages of Man
  • 1961: Winner for Best Director (Dramatic), for Big Fish, Little Fish
  • 1963: Nominated for Best Director (Dramatic), for The School for Scandal
  • 1965: Nominated for Best Actor (Dramatic), for Tiny Alice
  • 1971: Nominated for Best Actor (Dramatic), for Home

Grammy Awards

  • 1959: Nominated for Best Documentary or Spoken Word Recording, for Ages of Man
  • 1960: Nominated for Best Documentary or Spoken Word Recording, for Hamlet with Richard Burton, Hume Cronyn, Alfred Drake, George Voskovec, Eileen Herlie, William Redfield and George Rose
  • 1964: Nominated for Best Documentary or Spoken Word Recording, for Ages of Man, Volume 2 (One Man in His Time) Part Two - Shakespeare
  • 1979: Winner for Best Spoken Word, Documentary or Drama Recording, for Ages of Man - Recordings from Shakespeare
  • 1982: Nominated for Best Spoken Word, Documentary or Drama Recording, for No Man's Land with Ralph Richardson
  • 1983: Nominated for Best Spoken Word or Non-Musical Recording, for Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats with Irene Worth
  • 1986: Nominated for Best Spoken Word or Non-Musical Recording, for Gulliver
  • 1988: Nominated for Best Spoken Word or Non-Musical Recording, for A Christmas Carol
  • 1989: Nominated for Best Spoken Word or Non-Musical Recording, for Sir John Gielgud Reads Alice in Wonderland
  • 1991: Nominated for Best Album for Children, for The Emperor's New Clothes with Mark Isham

New York Film Critics Circle Awards

  • 1977: Best Actor, for Providence
  • 1981: Best Supporting Actor, for Arthur

Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards

  • 1981: Best Supporting Actor, for Arthur
  • 1985: Best Supporting Actor, for Plenty

There is also the Sir John Gielgud Award for "Excellence in the Dramatic Arts" presented by the US-based Shakespeare Guild. Past winners include Ian McKellen, Kenneth Branagh, Glen Joseph, Kevin Kline and Judi Dench

Selected filmography

  • The Good Companions (1933)
  • Secret Agent (1936)
  • Julius Caesar (1953)
  • Richard III (1955)
  • Around the World in Eighty Days (1956)
  • Saint Joan (1957)
  • The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1957)
  • Becket (1964)
  • Hamlet (1964)
  • Chimes at Midnight (1965)
  • The Loved One (1965)
  • Sebastian (1968)
  • The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968)
  • Oh! What a Lovely War (1969)
  • Julius Caesar (1970)
  • Lost Horizon (1973)
  • Frankenstein: The True Story (1973)
  • 11 Harrowhouse (1974)
  • Murder on the Orient Express (1974)
  • Gold (1974)
  • Providence (1977)
  • Caligula (1979)
  • The Elephant Man (1980)
  • The Formula (1980)
  • Lion of the Desert (1981)
  • Arthur (1981)
  • Chariots of Fire (1981)
  • Gandhi (1982)
  • Wagner (1983)
  • The Wicked Lady (1983)
  • The Master of Ballantrae (1984)
  • The Far Pavilions (1984)
  • Plenty (1985)
  • Time After Time (1986)
  • The Whistle Blower (1986)
  • Appointment with Death (1988)
  • Arthur 2: On the Rocks (1988)
  • Getting it Right (1989)
  • Prospero's Books (1991)
  • Shining Through (1992)
  • The Power of One (1992)
  • Scarlett (1994)
  • First Knight (1995)
  • Hamlet (1996)
  • Shine (1996)
  • Merlin (1998)
  • Elizabeth (1998)
  • Catastrophe (2000)


  1. 1.0 1.1 Sheridan Morley, John Gielgud: The Authorized Biography (Applause, 2003, ISBN 1557835039).
  2. Jonathan Croall, Gielgud: A Theatrical Life 1904-2000 (Continuum, 2001, ISBN 0826413331).
  3. Croall, 179.
  4. Croall, 180
  5. John Gielgud, Sir John Gielgud: A Life in Letters (New York: Arcade Publishing, 2005, ISBN 1559707550).
  6. Nan C. Robertson, A Reticent Alec Guinness Awaits a Movie Tribute The New York Times, April 27, 1987. Retrieved July 20, 2022.
  7. John Gielgud Biography Imdb. Retrieved July 20, 2022.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Croall, Jonathan. Gielgud: A Theatrical Life 1904-2000. Continuum, 2001. ISBN 0826413331.
  • Gielgud, John. Richard Mangan (ed.). Notes From The Gods. Nick Hearn Books, 1994. ISBN 9781854591050
  • Gielgud, John. Richard Mangan (ed.). Gielgud's Letters: John Gielgud in His Own Words. Orion Pub Co, 2004. ISBN 0297829890
  • Gielgud, John. Richard Mangan (ed.). Sir John Gielgud: A Life in Letters. New York: Arcade Publishing, 2005. ISBN 1559707550
  • Morley, Sheridan. John Gielgud: The Authorized Biography. Applause, 2003. ISBN 1557835039
  • Young, Jordan R. 1989. Acting Solo: The Art of One-Person Shows. Beverly Hills: Past Times Publishing Co. ISBN 9780940410848

External links

All links retrieved August 3, 2022.

Preceded by:
Arthur Lowe
for O Lucky Man!
BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role
for Murder On The Orient Express
Succeeded by:
Fred Astaire
for The Towering Inferno
Preceded by:
Timothy Hutton
for Ordinary People
Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor - Motion Picture
for Arthur
Succeeded by:
Louis Gossett, Jr.
for An Officer and a Gentleman


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