John Gielgud’s astonishing career began in 1921 under the direction of Granville Barker and ended, just weeks before his death, in an appearance alongside Harold Pinter in a film adaptation of Beckett’s Catastrophe in 2000. The interceding 79 years saw him play a vast array of roles ranging from John Worthing in The Importance Of Being Earnest to Pope Paul IV in the film Elizabeth.
It is for his Shakespearean performances that Gielgud will always be best remembered. In 1929 he became the lead actor of the Old Vic Company and over the next two years established himself as the country’s greatest classical actor. Gielgud’s immortality was assured by his portrayal of Hamlet, a role he was to play more than 500 times during his career. In 1935 Gielgud shared with Laurence Olivier the roles of Romeo and Mercutio in the legendary production of Romeo And Juliet at the Old Vic. While Olivier’s dashing performance earned him greater popular acclaim, those who saw both performances said that the quality of Gielgud’s verse-speaking was far superior.
Shakespeare apart, the playwright whose work best suited Gielgud’s poised, crisp style of delivery was Chekhov and he excelled in The Seagull (1936), Three Sisters (1937), The Cherry Orchard (1961) and Ivanov (1965). Gielgud also directed each of these productions and he undoubtedly played a significant part in Chekhov’s plays being fully integrated into English-speaking theatre.
Gielgud’s versatility as an actor allowed him to sustain his career into the 21st Century. In the 1950s he appeared in plays by the new wave of ‘Angry Young Men’ and, as he became less nimble on his feet, he appeared in numerous films and television programmes during the 1980s and 1990s. His screen appearances secured him a BAFTA for Murder On The Orient Express (1974) and an Academy Award (for Best Supporting Actor) for his role as a bitingly droll butler in the 1981 film Arthur.
Gielgud was knighted in 1953, the year he was also convicted for “persistently importuning for immoral purposes”. When Gielgud returned to the stage after his conviction, he was greeted with a standing ovation; a significant milestone towards the acceptance of homosexuality into British society.
While he made his last stage appearance in 1988, Gielgud continued to appear on screen until his death on 21 May 2000, aged 96. In 1994, the West End’s Globe theatre was renamed the Gielgud theatre in his honour.