Actor John Gielgud Dies

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Sir John Gielgud, the last of a trio of actor-knights who dominated the 20th-century British stage, has died, his family said. He was 96.

With his silken voice and patrician bearing, Gielgud held his place alongside Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson as Britain's leading actors. His Hamlet was regarded as the finest of the age.

Gielgud's matchless range of Shakespearean roles stretched from the octogenarian Lear, performed at the age of 27, to Prospero in his own old age.

Late in life, he took up screen comedy as Hobson the butler in Arthur, and won an Academy Award for it. He touched audiences with his tender patience toward his drunken playboy employer -- and with the impishness for which he also was known off screen.

"I have been extraordinarily lucky," Gielgud said in a 1991 interview. "I've had sort of three goes, which is rare, very fortunate for an actor, and in every kind of work."

Gielgud's stage career embraced the classics and provocative new works, and his films ranged from Alain Resnais' intellectual Providence (1977) to Bob Guccione's trashy, soft-porn Caligula (1979).

On television, he shone in Brideshead Revisited (1981), playing Jeremy Irons' eccentric father, and in Summer's Lease (1990), as the randy columnist, Haverford Downs.

He continued to act right up to the end.

"It's my whole life. It's all I can do," he once said.

Gielgud was born April 14, 1904, in London, the third of four children. His great-aunt was the celebrated stage actress Ellen Terry.

As he wrote in his 1979 memoir, An Actor and His Time, he was "theatrically englamored by my family." He intended to be a stage designer, but turned to acting "only to please my parents."

Gielgud won a scholarship to London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and made his professional debut in 1921 at the Old Vic Theater, playing a French herald in Shakespeare's Henry V.

His first major London role was as Trofimov, the perpetual student, in a 1925 staging of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard.

In the 1991 interview, he reflected unsparingly on his early days: "I spoke rather well but rather too well, and fell in love with my own voice. All that took me years to get away from."

But before long, his reputation for Shakespeare grew. In 1930, he acted the first of his many Hamlets, a part he played more than 500 times.

Gielgud's Shakespeare repertory included Cassius, Benedick, Leontes and Richard II, as well as Prospero, in The Tempest a role that obsessed him throughout his career.

In 1991, he played Prospero in the Peter Greenaway movie, Prospero's Books, calling it, "the best part I've had, ever."

Gielgud's work in modern plays included Alan Bennett's Forty Years On, and two standout parts in the 1970s the aging Harry, confined to a rest home, in David Strey's Home (1970) and the seedy poet Spooner in Harold Pinter's No Man's Land (1975). Both co-starred Gielgud's close friend Richardson, who died in 1983.

His final stage role was as Sir Sydney Cockerell, friend of George Bernard Shaw, in Hugh Whitemore's The Best of Friends (1989). He played the part on radio and TV as well.

Gielgud never ceased to take his craft seriously, even when age left him with occasional memory problems.

"I've been able to take no notice of the flattery and praise and concentrate on the things that were wrong," he said. "I'm frightened, now that I'm old, that people will be so respectful."

He said there was a danger that old actors will fall back on old tricks: "One must guard all the time against that and try and find a fresh approach."

Gielgud made his Broadway debut in 1928 in Alfred Neumann's The Patriot, and returned to the New York stage regularly throughout his life. He acted Hamlet there in 1936, and triumphed with his solo recital, The Ages of Man, in 1958 and again in 1963. His last New York appearance was in No Man's Land in 1977.

Gielgud's directing credits started with Shakespeare (The Merchant of Venice and Romeo and Juliet in 1932) and went on to include Tennessee Williams (The Glass Menagerie in 1948) and Edward Albee (All Over on Broadway in 1971).

He won the best director Tony Award for Hugh Wheeler's Big Fish Little Fish in 1961. Gielgud also directed opera in Britain.

He made his film debut in 1924 in Who Is the Man?, going on to play Benjamin Disraeli in The Prime Minister (1941) and Clarence to Laurence Olivier's Richard in Richard III (1955).

Gielgud spoke frankly about the ways in which he and Lord Olivier differed: "He was very much more extrovert. He had a tremendous actual physical side of acting, which I'm not good at at all."

At age 77, Gielgud reached his broadest public as the quintessential English butler opposite Dudley Moore in Arthur.

"It brought me fan mail from all over the world. It still does, which is extraordinary, really," said Gielgud, who almost passed up the role.

"I turned it down a couple of times. ... I thought (the script) was rather smutty, rather common," he said.

Other film credits included Murder On the Orient Express (1974), The Shooting Party (1984) and Plenty (1985).

Gielgud lived most of his life in London. He moved in 1976 to an elegant 1690s carriage house west of London, where he enjoyed gardening and catching up on his reading between roles.

"One's had the odd horror and mishap, but on the whole I have very, very much to be thankful for," he said when he was 87. "And that I can still go on working at this age is extraordinary really; the only sadness is so many of my contemporaries re gone. Most of the actors that I knew well and worked with have died."

He leaves no survivors.

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