LONDON - Sir John Gielgud, a major figure on the British stage who made Hamlet his own and delighted Americans as a quintessentially English butler, has died. He was 96.
Gielgud died Sunday at his home near Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire, west of London. London's top theaters dimmed their lights Monday night in his honor.
The last of a trio of actor-knights who dominated the British stage, Gielgud held his place alongside Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson, although his voice - sonorous yet lyrical, its timbre rich with clarity and emotion - set him apart.
Late in life, Gielgud took up screen comedy as Hobson the butler in ''Arthur,'' opposite Dudley Moore, and won an Academy Award for it at age 77. He touched audiences with his character's tender patience toward his drunken playboy employer - and with the impishness for which he was known off screen.
On television, he shone in such projects as 1981's ''Brideshead Revisited,'' in which he played Jeremy Irons' eccentric father.
''I have been extraordinarily lucky,'' Gielgud told The Associated Press in a 1991 interview. ''I've had sort of three goes, which is rare, very fortunate for an actor, and in every kind of work.''
Gielgud's matchless range of Shakespearean roles stretched from the octogenarian Lear, performed at age 27, to playing Prospero in his own old age. His Hamlet, which he performed more than 500 times, was considered the greatest of his age.
''Everybody currently working in the theater will agree that his death is the end of an era,'' said Trevor Nunn, director of the Royal National Theatre. ''As Shakespeare said, 'There's a great spirit gone.'''
''He was the greatest actor, and his life was exactly the history of British theater in the last century,'' said critic Sheridan Morley, Gielgud's official biographer.
Gielgud was working as recently as February, lending his extraordinary voice to the brief but crucial role of Time in an audio recording of Shakespeare's ''The Winter's Tale.''
''When he came to lunch, we were the court of King John and he was brilliant,'' said Bill Shepherd, a producer at the taping.
Gielgud's stage career embraced the classics and provocative new works, and his films ranged from Alain Resnais' intellectual ''Providence'' (1977) to Bob Guccione's trashy, soft-porn ''Caligula'' (1979). He continued to act right up to the end, including a role in the 1998 film ''Elizabeth.''
''It's my whole life. It's all I can do,'' he once said.
Gielgud was born April 14, 1904, in London, the son of a stockbroker.
His great-aunt was the celebrated stage actress Ellen Terry. He was, as he wrote in his 1979 memoir, ''An Actor and His Time,'' ''theatrically englamored by my family.'' He intended first to be a stage designer, but turned to acting ''only to please my parents.''
Gielgud won a scholarship to London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and made his professional debut in 1921, playing a French herald in Shakespeare's ''Henry V.''
In the 1991 interview, he reflected unsparingly on his early days: ''I spoke rather well but rather too well, and fell in love with my own voice. All that took me years to get away from.''
But before long, his reputation for Shakespeare grew. In 1930, he acted the first of his many Hamlets.
Gielgud made his Broadway debut in 1928 in Alfred Neumann's ''The Patriot,'' and returned regularly to the New York stage. He acted Hamlet there in 1936, and triumphed with his solo recital, ''The Ages of Man,'' in 1958 and again in 1963. His last New York appearance was in Harold Pinter's ''No Man's Land'' in 1977.
His final stage role was as Sir Sydney Cockerell, friend of George Bernard Shaw, in Hugh Whitemore's ''The Best of Friends'' (1989). He played the part on radio and TV as well.
He said there was a danger that old actors might fall back on old tricks. ''One must guard all the time against that and try and find a fresh approach,'' he advised.
Gielgud's directing credits included Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee, as well as various operas. In 1961, he won the best director Tony Award for Hugh Wheeler's ''Big Fish Little Fish.''
Early high points of a slow-burning film career included Benjamin Disraeli in ''The Prime Minister'' (1941) and Clarence to Laurence Olivier's Richard in ''Richard III'' (1955).
He also was a distinguished screen presence in, among others, ''Murder On the Orient Express'' (1974), ''The Shooting Party'' (1984) and ''Plenty'' (1985).
Gielgud was beloved by his friends for his so-called ''Gielgoofs,'' or malapropisms. In a telephone conversation with critic Sheridan Morley, he once said, ''You'll never believe this: In America, they are actually about to name a theater after a drama critic ... Oh my God, you are one! Goodbye.''
Gielgud lived most of his life in London. He moved in 1976 to his elegant 1690s carriage house in Buckinghamshire, where he enjoyed gardening and catching up on his reading.
''One's had the odd horror and mishap, but on the whole I have very, very much to be thankful for,'' he said when he was 87. ''And that I can still go on working at this age is extraordinary really; the only sadness is so many of my contemporaries are gone.''
Gielgud's longtime companion, Martin Hensler, died last year. He leaves no survivors.
Funeral arrangements were not immediately available.