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Original from BBC News (article no longer available)

Gielgud: A giant among actors
BBC News

Gielgud playing Hamlet Sir John Gielgud, who has died aged 96, made his name as a Shakespearean stage actor and his performance of Hamlet more than 50 years ago is still considered among the finest in modern theatre.

Born in London in 1904, he was educated at Westminster School and London and his parents had a career in architecture planned out for him.

But he rebelled and persuaded them to let him train at RADA on the basis that if he had failed to make a career of the stage by the age of 25 he would become an architect.

He made his debut at the age of 17 at the Old Vic and had played Macbeth by the time he was 25, as well as other Shakespearean leads including Richard III.

By 1924 he was playing Romeo and it was so well received that roles in Chekov and Ibsen followed and he took over from Noel Coward in The Constant Nymph.

Gielgud in Arthur He made his first trip to the United States in 1928 to play the Grand Duke Alexander in The Patriot and his Hamlet later broke US box office records.

Gielgud was the epitome of Englishness, with his characters often drawn from the fading world of aristocrats and gentleman officers.

Stage was his first love

John Gielgud delivered his lines with perfect diction in a voice one critic called "all cello and woodwind".

But he always returned to his first love, the stage.It was his contribution to theatre that earned him a knighthood in 1953, joining a small elite of honoured English actors including Dame Peggy Ashcroft and Sir Ralph Richardson.

His career could have stalled in the late 1950s with the growing popularity of television and the changing face of the theatre.

But, never a snob, Gielgud enjoyed television and film, "visiting other planets" as he put it.

He had a small part in the controversial film Caligula and stole every scene in Brideshead Revisited, and as a rakish old writer in John Mortimer's television mini series Summer's Lease.

His film work was recognised with an unlikely Oscar for his part as Dudley Moore's butler in Arthur, a role he reprised in Arthur 2 despite his character having died.

Gielgud At 90 Even in his 80s he could still steal the show whenever he appeared on film or television.

Sir John Gielgud remained a Shakespearean actor at heart. In Peter Greenaway's film version of The Tempest he played Prospero, fulfilling a lifelong wish.

Despite being 87, he shed all his clothes as the script demanded.

The West End's Globe Theatre was renamed in his honour on his 90th birthday.

Busy retirement

But he was not finished with acting and had critics purring with admiration for his performance as a piano tutor passing on the secret of performing Rachmaninov's daunting third concerto in the film Shine.

In 1996 he appeared in Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet and Al Pacino's Looking For Richard. He wrote several books, including an autobiography Early Stages.

In April last year he appeared in a £25m production of Merlin on Channel 4.

Only months earlier, he played Gower in Pericles for a new collection of Shakespeare on tape.

One of the highlights of his later life was the decision to rename the Globe Theatre in the West End, the Gielgud Theatre in his honour.

He spent the last 25 years of his life with his partner, Austrian Martin Hensler, but eschewed pressure from gay groups to speak out on homosexual issues.

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