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Sir John Gielgud
Press Association - 22nd May 2000
Sir John Gielgud dies
Sir John Gielgud, one of the greatest British actors of his generation, has died at the age of 96.
The actor, who was a master of Shakespearean roles, died yesterday at his home near Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire.
The star continued acting into his 90s with roles in The Tichborne Claimant and Elizabeth in 1998, but his health had seen him take a break from acting for the past month.
"He died peacefully at home," said his former agent Laurence Evans.
He said the cause of death was thought to be old age.
Stage giant Gielgud bows out
The acting world is in mourning for Sir John Gielgud, revered as the greatest performer of his generation whose presence dominated theatre, movies and television for decades.
His death at the age of 96 brings the curtain down on an era of classic actors who included Lord Olivier and Sir Ralph Richardson.
Among those who paid tribute to the star - a master of Shakespearean roles whose only Oscar was for Hollywood comedy Arthur - was director and actor Lord Attenborough.
He spoke for many when he said: "He was undoubtedly the greatest theatrical figure of our time. His was a glorious life, full of joy and laughter."
Sir John was a giant of the stage performing every major Shakespearean role including King Lear, a renowned Hamlet and his own favourite, Prospero in The Tempest.
He was just 17 when he took his first part at the Old Vic as a herald in Henry V, only winding down his live theatre work in 1988.
But he continued to act in other spheres, making movies and recordings until just a matter of weeks ago. His final four weeks were the only period of unemployment he had in his life.
Lord Puttnam, producer of the 1981 film Chariots Of Fire in which Sir John appeared, said: "Working with John Gielgud was one of the great thrills of my life.
"The part in Chariots Of Fire was specially written to give me the opportunity to work with him. I know that the entire world of British film and theatre will mourn the passing of one of the greatest acting talents of recent times."
Prime Minister Tony Blair was saddened by his death. A spokesman said: "He was one of the great English figures and one of the finest actors of the last century. He brought immense pleasure to millions. He was much loved and will be much missed."
Sir John Gielgud - a colossus of stage, film and television
Sir John Gielgud was one of the greatest actors of his generation.
He strode the classical stage like a colossus for three-quarters of a century with a style that was matchless and an elegance that was unequalled.
He sailed effortlessly and seamlessly through changing theatrical fashions from the 1920s and into his later years.
But the actor whose wit was legendary, who had theatres named after him, and who was revered as probably the most brilliant Shakespearean of his time, remained the most modest of men.
He was one of the last of Britain's greatest theatrical knights and a close friend, contemporary and, at times, rival of Lord Olivier and Sir Ralph Richardson for leading Shakespearean roles.
In April last year he appeared in a two-part 25 million production of Merlin on Channel 4. Only months earlier, he played Gower in Pericles for a new collection of Shakespeare on tape.
Even into his 90s, Gielgud was tireless, witty and effervescent, always speaking at breakneck speed, never at a loss for words.
Last year, a critic spotted him in an hotel and described him as "at once a frail and a tremendous figure".
Tall, elegant and languid, Gielgud's diction and delivery were immaculate. He was perfect for playing the classics offering more depth and feeling than anyone else could muster.
But he could just as easily steal the show with brilliant but brief cameo parts, such as the light-hearted Hollywood romp Arthur, made in 1980, in which he played Dudley Moore's saucy butler.
Over seven decades in the theatre he tackled every major Shakespearean role including King Lear, a renowned Hamlet and his own favourite, Prospero in The Tempest. He was never afraid to tamper with tradition. Indeed, he did it with an impish delight.
Purists shuddered, but Sir John was unrepentant when he appeared naked in Peter Greenaway's experimental film adaptation of The Tempest, Prospero's Books, at the age of 87.
He said dismissively: "It got a bit cold but the nudity soon ceased to be surprising. I don't think it's offensive, do you?"
There was a temptation in later life for people to treat him with veneration, as befitted his elder statesman status, but he loathed the very idea.
"I'm a flibbertigibbet, I bolt through cheap thrillers but I couldn't read Troilus And Cressida or Coriolanus with any great pleasure, " he said.
Most of all, he hated people making a fuss of him. He vetoed plans for 90th birthday celebrations and was appalled at the idea of a memorial service after his death.
"I've left strict instructions for no memorial service. They have become society functions and I don't think I have the right to be commemorated at Westminster Abbey," he said.
Instead he wanted to carry on acting as long as possible and leave his work to speak for him.
In November 1994 he was honoured when the Globe Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue, the West End's boulevard of dreams, was renamed the Gielgud Theatre.
"Walking down Shaftesbury Avenue recently I have not known any of the names billed outside the theatres. Now I will at least know one, " he waggishly remarked.
In later years he scaled down his appearances and virtually retired from the stage. But he was happy to make cameo appearances in TV series such as Lovejoy and Under The Hammer, and he had no objection to mini-series either.
But mortality was on his mind as he grew older and he was always anxious in case he died in the middle of a role.
He showed little signs of ageing, apart from writing out his parts several times in longhand before they lodged in his celebrated memory. The languid tones survived, and even in old age, he could still deliver his lines with confidence and aplomb.
In a glorious lifetime in the theatre and in films he never lost his enjoyment for backstage gossip.
He was "one of the best brick-droppers in the business, dear boy," as he freely admitted.
The best came when he went backstage at the Old Vic to take Richard Burton to dinner after seeing - and loathing - his Hamlet.
Sir John called told him: "I'll go ahead, Richard. Come when you're better - I mean, when you're ready."
Sir John lived in considerable style in an elegant 17th century country home in Buckinghamshire, where peacocks paraded in the garden and he even had candelabras in the downstairs toilet.
His companion was a reclusive Austro-Hungarian, Martin Hensler, with whom he had lived since 1974. This devoted factotum cushioned life for Sir John, acting as secretary, gardener, housekeeper and chef.
The gay community would have loved him to speak up for homosexual rights but he declined to get involved in order to protect his privacy.
Sir John was educated at London's Westminster School and was destined for a career in architecture by his parents. He was drawn to the theatre and compromised with them, saying he would bow to their wishes if he failed to make it on the stage before 25.
His talent was quickly spotted, however, as befitted the great nephew of theatrical star Dame Ellen Terry. Sir John won scholarships to Lady Benson's drama school and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.
His first part, aged 17, was at the Old Vic as a herald in Henry V.
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.
He made his first trip to the United States in 1928 to play the Grand Duke Alexander in The Patriot in New York. Later his Hamlet broke box office records in the US.
Back in Britain, Sir John's performances of Richard II and King Lear were acclaimed.
He was knighted in 1953 but his career appeared to be faltering by the 1960s with the onset of "kitchen sink" dramas of the "angry young men", a world away from his style.
But he was never destined to stand in the wings for long. He found a niche in television and films which introduced him to a new audience.
Hollywood feted him with an Oscar as Dudley Moore's suave but outspoken butler in the 1980 comedy Arthur.
In 1980 he also received a Grammy award for his recorded Shakespearean readings of The Ages of Man.
A whirl of television roles continued in both good and bad series but he sorely missed the actors of his generation, particularly Sir Ralph, who died in 1983, and Dame Peggy Ashcroft in 1991.
"One is just getting rather old, dear boy," he lamented, but he never lost his enthusiasm for acting. Recently he said: "I can't resist reading all the notices and taking an interest."
Stars pay tribute to Sir John
Tributes to Sir John Gielgud, the last great British actor of his generation, have been pouring in from some of the biggest names in the entertainment world.
Trevor Nunn, director of the Royal National Theatre, says: "Everybody currently working in the theatre will agree that his death is the end of an era. As Shakespeare said: "There's a great spirit gone"."
The artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Adrian Noble, says: "His work will remain as a yardstick to many performers and his dedication to the theatre will always be remembered with great fondness and admiration."
BBC director of drama Alan Yentob says: "He took those great Shakespearean roles, those big roles and reinvented them for the public.
"There are very few figures in the British theatre or British entertainment industry who had his personality, his reputation and he was an incredibly endearing figure and one who managed to adapt over the years incredibly."
Culture secretary Chris Smith says his death is an enormous loss.
"Sir John Gielgud was a giant in this country's theatrical life whose career over seven decades delighted and enthralled audiences throughout the world," he says.
Michael Winner, who directed Sir John in two films, says: "Not only was he the greatest actor of this country, but he was one of its greatest human beings. He was the most witty and generous person I have ever met - a superb example of his profession. There is nobody remotely like him and there won't be again."
But film director and actor Lord Attenborough, who directed Sir John in the 1982 hit Gandhi says it would be a mistake for people to mourn Sir John in great sadness because he would not have wished us to do so.
He says: "He was a great friend of my wife and mine and we'll miss him very much but we miss him with laughter."
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