June 05, 2000 12:00 PM

Theatricality,” Sir John Gielgud once said, “was the first, and abiding, thing about the theater I loved: costumes, scenery, magic.” Designers and stagehands may have supplied the first two, but over the course of a 79-year career in theater, TV and more than 75 films, Gielgud always provided the magic. The regal actor, who died May 21 at age 96 at his home in Bucking-hamshire, England, “was undoubtedly the greatest theatrical figure of our time,” says actor-director Richard Attenborough. Though his credits ranged from Shakespeare to Caligula, Gielgud won his Oscar for a droll turn as Dudley Moore’s tart-tongued valet in 1981’s Arthur, a film he initially rejected as “smutty [and] common.”

Gielgud sought the spotlight only onstage, keeping private his 40-year relationship with Martin Hensler, who died last year. And despite the voice Sir Alec Guinness called “a silver trumpet muffled in silk,” he was anything but an authority figure among friends, who adored his many faux pas (“Gielgoofs”). Exhibit A: He once asked Elizabeth Taylor, “Didn’t poor Richard [Burton] marry some terrible film star?”

The London-born son of a stockbroker, Sir John—he was knighted in 1953—never retired, appearing in ’98’s Elizabeth. Until his final days, says his niece Maina Gielgud, “it was always, ‘I wish I had more work.’ That was his life.”

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