One of the theatre's greatest legends, Sir John Gielgud spent almost 80 of the 96 years of his life appearing in countless plays that saw him portray every major Shakespearean role. The last surviving member of a generation of classical actors that included Laurence Olivier, Peggy Ashcroft, and Ralph Richardson, Gielgud worked up to a month before his death, performing in over 50 films and numerous television productions when he wasn't busy with his stage work.
The grandnephew of famed stage actress Ellen Terry, Gielgud was born in London on August 14, 1904. He received his education at Westminster School and would have studied to be an architect had he not rebelled against his parents by announcing his plans to be an actor. Persuading his parents to let him train at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, Gielgud promised them that if he had failed to make a stage career by the age of 25, he would become an architect.
As it turned out, Gielgud was playing Hamlet by the time he was 26, having made his stage debut eight years earlier at the Old Vic. His reputation was made in 1924, when he played Romeo to rave reviews; in addition to Hamlet, roles in plays by Chekov and Ibsen followed, and in 1928, Gielgud traveled to the U.S. for the first time to play the Grand Duke Alexander in The Patriot. The epitome of the kind of old-school Englishness associated with the Victorian theatre, he went on to break theatre box office records when he brought his Hamlet to Broadway in the 1930s.
Gielgud began appearing on the big screen in the 1920s, and over the course of the next seven decades, he lent his name to films of every imaginable genre and level of quality. In addition to starring in a number of film adaptations of Shakespeare, he could be seen in projects as disparate as Orson Welles' Chimes at Midnight (1967), the 1977 porn extravaganza Caligula, and Peter Greenaway's Prospero's Books (1991), in which he was able to fulfill a lifelong dream by playing the role of the Shakespearean patriarch Prospero.
In 1981, Gielgud was awarded his only Oscar for his portrayal of Dudley Moore's butler in Arthur; he reprised the role for the film's 1988 sequel, despite the fact that the character had died. Gielgud continued to appear onscreen until the year preceding his death, making enthusiastically-received turns in Shine (1996), in which he played pianist David Helfgott's mentor; Al Pacino's Looking for Richard (1996); and Shekhar Kapur's Elizabeth (1998), in which he made a brief appearance as the Pope.
Gielgud also did notable work on television, particularly in Brideshead Revisited (1981), which cast him as a stodgily eccentric patriarch, and Merlin (1998), a lavish and well-received take on Arthurian legend. He wrote several books as well, including an autobiography entitled Early Stages. Gielgud was knighted in 1953 and was honored on his 90th birthday with the decision to rename the West End's Globe Theatre as the Gielgud Theatre. He died on May 21, 2000, at the age of 96, having spent the last 25 years of his life with his partner, Martin Hensler.