John Gielgud is one of Britain's finest actors. He had a career that spanned more than 75 years on stage, television and film making his stage debut in 1921 with one line at the Old Vic in Henry V. However he is best known for starring in and directing Shakespeares plays. His signature role is as Hamlet. He first played Hamlet in 1930, acting the role more than 500 times. He also portrayed, among other parts, Romeo, Richard II, Macbeth, Prospero, Benedick, Oberon, King Lear and Antony. Gielgud subsequently established himself as a respected stage director, launching his own distinguished company in 1937 at the Queens Theatre, performing Shakespeare and other classics such as "School for Scandal", "Three Sisters" and "The Importance of Being Earnest". This company was a template for showing that it was possible to get a group of famous and respected actors to form a company to perform classics setting a precedent for companies like the Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre.
Gielgud was one of only eight individuals (Rita Moreno, Richard Rodgers, Audrey Hepburn, Helen Hayes, Marvin Hamlisch, Mel Brooks and Mike Nichols are the others) to have won all four of the major entertainment awards (Oscar, Tony, Grammy and Emmy) in competition. He won three of the awards, Tony, Grammy and Emmy for his performance of Ages of Man, his one-man recital of Shakespearean excerpts which he performed throughout the 1950s and 1960s. The Oscar win came for his star peformance in Arthur as Dudley Moore's butler, which also starred Liza Minnelli. He also won a BAFTA award in 1974 for Murder On The Orient Express with the original Hercule Poirot, Albert Finney as well as in 1953 for his role as Cassisus in Julius Caesar. Among his lengthy career some of his stand out roles were in The Charge of the Light Brigade in 1968, Elephant Man in 1981, Shine in 1996. Gielgud's final onscreen appearance in a major release motion picture was as Pope Pius V in Elizabeth which was released in 1998.
However, he did not limit himself to Shakespeare roles. He acted in a number of plays for some of the most famous writers of their times including in the 1950's Noel Coward, NC Hunter and Graham Greene and in the 1960's working in plays of Edward Albee, Lindsay Anderson and Peter Hall. On Broadway he starred opposite Sir Ralph Richardson in David Storey's Home in 1970 and in 1975 to 1976 in Harold Pinter's No Man Land. Both roles won him the Drama Desk Award. His last stage role was in 1988 after The Best of Friends retiring from the stage because he was afraid of not being able to remember his lines. He played many of his greatest stage roles on BBC Radio including Richard of Bordeaux, The Importance of Being Earnest, The Tempest and Hamlet. At the age of 89 he made his debut in the role of Friar Laurence in a radio production of Romeo and Juliet.
John Gielgud has long been regarded as one of the best actors of the 20th Century outliving many of his contemporaries such as Laurence Olivier, Peggy Ashcroft and Richard Burton to leave a legacy of stage, film, tv and radio work that would be hard for any actor today to match up to. It was certainly a fitting tribute on his 90th birthday that the Gielgud Theatre gained its new name in tribute to him.
A stage adaptation of the Oscar-winning film Chariots Of Fire is currently playing at the Gielgud Theatre until 10th November