100 Heroes: John Gielgud

The gay man who became an acting powerhouse.

100 Heroes: John Gielgud

Sir John Gielgud was an English actor and theatre director whose career spanned eight decades.

With Ralph Richardson and Laurence Olivier, he was one of the trinity of actors who dominated the British stage for much of the 20th century.

Background and early years

Gielgud was born in London in 1904.

Gielgud’s mother was part of a renowned acting family.

At the age of 17, Gielgud was enrolled in a drama school.


Gielgud’s first substantial roles came from 1922 onwards.

He made his debut on Broadway in 1928.

In the subsequent decades he built his reputation as one of the biggest theatre stars in the UK and America.

He was knighted in 1953.

The arrest

On the evening of 20 October 1953, Gielgud, usually highly discreet about casual sex, was arrested in Chelsea for cruising in a public lavatory. Until the 1960s sexual activity of any kind between men was illegal in Britain.

Gielgud was fined. When the press reported the story, Gielgud thought the scandal would end his career. However, the theatre-going public were surprisingly supportive and his career was secure.

Later Career

Later in his career, Gielgud worked extensively in film. He won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his role in Arthur (1981).

Personal life

Gielgud and a long-term relationship with Martin Hensler.

Hensler died in 1999. Gielgud died the following year, aged 96.

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