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Symbol of British theater, Sir John Gielgud dies at 96

Sir John Gielgud, one of the great actors of the English stage who enthralled audiences for more than 70 years with his eloquent voice and consummate artistry, died Sunday at his home in Aylesbury, west of London. He was 96.

He was the last survivor of that triumvirate of legendary theatrical knights _ Lord Laurence Olivier, Sir Ralph Richardson and Gielgud _ who dominated acting in England and vitalized Shakespeare in what became a golden age of classical theater. He was especially celebrated for his performances as Romeo, Hamlet, Benedick, Angelo in Measure for Measure, Prospero and various kings of the realm. With equal ease, he demonstrated his finesse in plays by Wilde and Chekhov and by his contemporaries, who ranged from Shaw to Harold Pinter.

A quintessential man of the theater, he was also known as a director, a producer and an author. He loved acting and was devoted to the stage, but he always understood the contradictions of his profession. "Acting is half shame, half glory," he once said. "Shame at exhibiting yourself, glory when you can forget yourself."

Where Olivier was known for his physical daring and Richardson had a gift for eccentric characterization, it was Gielgud who elevated language. In his bearing as well as his speech, he was the most lyrical of the three.

He was "the greatest classical actor of all time," Sheridan Morley, Gielgud's authorized biographer, said Monday.

An indefatigable worker, Gielgud acted until the very end of his life. In his late 80s he appeared principally in films and on television. His final performance on stage was in 1988 in Hugh Whitemore's Best of Friends, in which he played Sir Sydney Cockerell, the curator of the Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge University.

In a collection of tributes published on Gielgud's 80th birthday, Sir Alec Guinness said, "John Gielgud did more to liberate the English theater from the fustian attitudes of the '20s and early '30s than any other man and paved the way for what is best in London today."

Late in his career, he achieved an even wider popularity for his roles in films and won an Academy Award as best supporting actor for playing the butler in the 1981 Dudley Moore comedy Arthur.

Fittingly, his last major movie role was as Prospero in Prospero's Books, Peter Greenaway's 1991 version of The Tempest,'fulfilling a dream of his to perform that Shakespearean role on film. That was the fifth time he played Prospero; repeatedly he reinterpreted a character, returning again and again to Romeo, Hamlet and other roles. His fifth King Lear was in a 1994 radio production, directed by Kenneth Branagh.

He was born in London on April 14, 1904, the son of Frank Gielgud, a stockbroker, and the former Kate Terry-Lewis. The name Gielgud is Lithuanian, he said, "not Scottish, as many people imagine."

At 19, he played his first Romeo (opposite Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies), and it was, he later wrote, a "baptism by fire." But within a year he was understudying Noel Coward in the leading role in Coward's play The Vortex, and when the author left the cast he replaced him.

Hamlet, which he played at the age of 25, was the first of his plays to transfer to the West End. The English critic James Agate said the Gielgud performance of Hamlet was "the high water mark of English Shakespearean acting in our time."

In 1936 he brought his Hamlet to Broadway, with Jessica Tandy as his Ophelia. It ran for 132 performances, a record for Hamlet on Broadway, until broken by Richard Burton in 1964, in a production directed by Gielgud.

Through the next decades, he continued to direct as well as act, with the emphasis on classics, although in 1965 he acted in Edward Albee's Tiny Alice opposite Irene Worth, and several seasons later he staged Albee's All Over on Broadway. In 1968 he played the title role in the Peter Brook production of Seneca's Oedipus.

As Brook said: "John is always in the present; he is modern in his restless quest for truth and new meaning. He is also traditional, for his passionate sense of quality comes from his understanding of the past. He links two ages. He is unique."

Throughout his life, Gielgud was known for his faux pas, for "dropping bricks" in public. While having lunch with the playwright Edward Knoblock, he said to his companion: "Do you see that man coming in? He's the biggest bore in London _ second only to Edward Knoblock." Then realizing who was sitting next to him, he retracted his statement: "Not you, of course. I mean the other Edward Knoblock." When he was directing Burton in Hamlet, he went backstage after the performance and said, "We'll go to dinner when you're better," instead of "when you're ready."

For the last 24 years, Gielgud lived in a 17th-century house in Buckinghamshire. With its beautiful garden and ornate furnishings, the baronial estate was Gielgud's own Brideshead. The garden was tended by his companion of many years, Martin Hensler, who died last year. Gielgud has no immediate survivors.

During an interview with the New York Times in 1993, the actor was slender and stately, unbowed by his years. Anticipating his 90th birthday the following April, he had actively discouraged any celebration. "If I can manage to go on working, it's much more interesting," he said.

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