Sir John Gielgud


  1. Leslie Howard, Romeo and Juliet, 1935.    The obvious choice as he had just conquered London in a stage version except the snobbish Gielgud was convinced Shakespeare was unsuitable for cinema.  The 13-year-old Juliet was played by Norma Shearer opposite Leslie Howard playing Romeo…  at 43.  Absolutely preposterous…!!  “It is comical watching these middle-aged folks act as high school sophomores,” said web critic Matthew M Foster at Foster on  been worse.  It could have been far worse. Other unlikely Romeos were Brian Aherne,  Clark Gable (Romeo with a trash tash?), Fredric March, Franchot Tone, Roberts Montgomery and Taylor.  The British Robert Donat, plus John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier (a recent success playing Romeo and Mercutio alternately in London) made (slightly) more sense … Gielgud went to see the mess – and fled after 15 minutes!  What a sad end to  Irving Thalberg’s producing career, even jf it was a love letter to his wife, Shearer – his widow months later in 1936.2.-  Charles Boyer, The Garden of Allah, 1936. A bizarre idea from producer David Selznick for Boris Androvsky, the ex-Trappist monk falling for the beautiful, if  “cloistered” (oh hum!) Marlene Dietrich. She would have eaten him  alive and spat out the bones and gristle!
  2. Charles Boyer, The Garden of Allah, 1936.       A bizarre idea from producer David Selznick for Boris Androvsky, the ex-Trappist monk falling for the beautiful, if“cloistered” (oh hum!) Marlene Dietrich. She would have eaten himalive and spat out the bones and gristle!
  3. Robert Morley, Marie-Antoinette, 1937.       When MGM production chief Irving Thalberg could not land Charles Laughton for Louis XVI, he spun through such possible royals as Gielgud, Cedric Hardwicke, Oscar Homolka, Conrad Viedt. Every accent except French!
  4. Harcourt Williams, Henry V, 1944.        He refused to be King Charles VI of France, admittedly a tiny role – but wasn’t this supposed to bea propaganda effort?He wanted to be Chorus – reserved for Robert Donat until his chronicasthma knocked him out and Leslie Banks took over. Gielgud said Laurence Olivier (the star and director) would not use him because of an old grudge over Gielgud’s getting better reviews when they alternated as Romeo and Mercutio on-stage in Romeo and Juliet, 1935. And yet, Olivier had Gielgud play Clarence in his Richard III, 1955.
  5. Claude Rains, Caesar and Cleopatra, 1944. Johnny refused to partner Vivien Leigh. The reason? Gabby! Gielgud simply detested director Gabriel Pascal, one of the many Hungarian exiles hovering around producer Alexander Korda.
  6. Michael Redgrave, The Importance of Being Earnest, 1952.     He had played Jack Worthing enough times on stage to know that he was, perhaps, a trifle old- at 48- to do so on film.
  7. Alec Guinness, The Bridge on the River Kwai, 1956.       Looking for his Nicholson, Producer Sam Spiegel also sussed out: Ronald Colman, Noel Coward, Cary Grant, Charles Laughton, James Mason, Ray Milland, Laurence Olivier, Eric Portman, Anthony Quayle, Ralph Richardson – and Spencer Tracy, who bluntly told Spiegel that the mad Colonel Nicholson had tobe an Englishman.
  8. Jack Hawkins, The Bridge on the River Kwai, 1956.     “There was some talk:” explained Gielgud in 1971. “but it came to nothing.”  Obviously. Can you see Gielgud hiding in the jungle with William Holden and planning  to blow (or not to blow) up a bridge? 
  9. Ralph Richardson, Exodus, 1960.        One hard day’s knight for another. Otto Preminger did not care which one played General Sutherland. Johnny or Ralphie. 
  10. Peter Finch, The Trials of Oscar Wilde, 11 1960    Having directed Oscar Wilde’s plays and starred in The Importance of Being Earnest, Gielgud was offered the lead.  “No one could look less like Wilde than I do,” he said, ”not even Peter Finch.”  As the credits fly by, one actor’s name is: Ian Fleming.  A harbinger of things to come.  The film flopped. Cubby Broccoli and his Warwick Films partner, Irving Allen, lost their shirts.  Warwick collapsed.  And dear old Cubby went off to work with… the other Ian Fleming.

  11. Rex Harrison, Cleopatra, 1962.
  12. Michael Redgrave, Hamlet, TV, 1970.    In a somewhat unique switch, Sir John spurned the role of Polonius – in order to be the Ghost of Hamlet’s father.  The Danish prince was Richard Chamberlain, two years after bravely to-being-or-not-not-to-being on the British stage… the first American to do so since John Barrymore in 1925.  Director  by Peter Wood’s take won nine Emmy awards. One only for acting and that wasn’t for Chamberlain or Redgrave – but Margaret Leighton as  Ham’s mum, Queen Gertrude.
  13. Dirk Bogarde, Mort a Venezia/Death in Venice, Italy, 1971.      Before he considered his Damned star, director Visconti (Count Don Luchino Visconti Di Modrone) offered Thomas Mann’s homosexual novella to Gielgud, Alec Guinness and Burt Lancaster.Veteran French director Claude Chabrol called it “one of the most grotesque films incinema history.”
  14. John Houseman, The Paper Chase, 1973.      Gielgud’s health ruled him out of being Professor Kingsfield. After trying to land Melvyn Douglas, James Mason, Edward G Robinson or Paul Scofield, James Bridges chose Orson Welles’ old cohort. And Housemanimmediately won an Oscar for his third film only in 36 years.  He made another 40, plus a Paper Chase TV series, during the next 15 years until his 1988 death.
  15. Trevor Howard, Meteor, 1979.       In the loop for Sir Michael Hughes in the last of the disaster movies (a $22m bummer) were: Howard, Harry Andrews, Ian Bannen Peter Cushing, Michael Hordern, Gordon Jackson, John Mills, Kenneth More, Anthony Quayle… and four UK knights: Sirs John Gielgud, Alec Guinness, John Mills and Ralph Richardson. (Hordern was knighted in 1983, Quayle in 1985).
  16. Heathcote Williams, The Tempest,  1979.      For all his Hamlets, Lears and Romeos, Prospero was the definitive Gielgud role. He played it five times between 1930-1974… betwixt 26 and  70.  Yet  he refused  screen offers from the great Michael Powell in the 50s  and Derek Jarman in 1979. “Johnny” finally gave in and played the exiled duke (and sorcerer) in Peter Greenaway’s 1990 Prospero’s Books.  Not quite Shakespeare – then, nor was Jarman’s (typical) homoerotic take.  With Williams as a much younger duke.  New York Times critic Vincent Canby found it full of impertinent inspirations, yet  “without a single interesting or especially coherent idea.”   Now…guess what #16 is…?
  17. Michael Hordern, The Tempest, TV, 1980.      When Alec Guinness quit, Gielgud was asked to be Prospero – he also quit following a dispute about director John Gorrie’s production concept.    (Prospero was playedby Helen Mirren in Julie Taymor’s2010 version).
  18. Burgess Meredith, Clash of the Titans, 1981.    “MGM said because we had Olivier we couldn’t have Gielgud,” said scenarist Beverly Cross, “as everyone would think it was Shakespeare” – when it was Ray Harryhausen! “Meredith (71) was good, though he was getting on and slowed the scenes up.” Gielgud was 75.
  19. Patrick Horgan, Zelig, 1982.       Woody Allen asked Gielgud to narrate the film and found him too “grand” (the reason he was asked, no?). Take Two was with the TV actor who had taped the entire Sherlock Holmes cannon for the blind. He’s also seen – if you know where to look – in The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, 2001.
  20. Trevor Howard, The Missionary, 1982.       No! “What stings me more,” said the   scenarist-star-diarist of “Mish,” Michael Palin, “is that there was no particular reason given – he just didn’t want to do it.”

  21. Denholm Elliott, Trading Places, 1982. Odd choices for snooty butler Coleman in the lives of Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy, aka The (updated) Prince and the Pauper – Barker, genial UK comedy writer-performer (under-used by movies) and the theatrical knight Sir John Gielgud. He had already buttled to Oscar glory for Dudley Moore’s Arthur, 1980.   No memorable lines this time.  Like Sir Johnny’s “I’ll alert the media.”
  22. Ian McDiarmid, Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi, 1982
  23. John Mills, Sahara, 1983.       Makes Caligula look a masterpiece.
  24. Ray Milland, The Masks of Death, 1983.      Change of British Home Sercretary in Peter Cushing’s last outing as Sherlock Holmes. This proved the penultimate film of both actors.
  25.  Patrick Stewart, Lifeforce, 1984.
  26. Frank Finlay, Lifeforce, 1984.
  27. Vincent Price, The  Whales of August  1986.  “Johnny”  upped and quit his role of Mr Maranov – opposite fellow old-timers, Bette Davis and Lilian  Gish – after a row with UK director Lindsay Anderson.  Fred Astaire and Pau Henreid were contacted  before Anderson considered the Price was right…
  28. Michael Hordern, The Trouble With Spies, 1987.      Caligula has been enough for the old knight. He wanted nothing to do with what was called in the UK: Two Female Spies with Flowered Panties.
  29. Dirk Bogarde, Daddy Nostalgie, France, 1989.       Realisateur Bertrand Tavernier sent the scenario to both Gielgud and Bogarde. Neither one replied. Bogarde had retired from cinema after his unhappy experience making Despair for Rainer Werner Fassbinder – and changed his mind, one last time, for his 71st and final film.  

 Birth year: 1904Death year: 2000Other name: Casting Calls:  29