JOHN GIELGUD, one of the century's greatest actors, politely refused a gala night to mark his 90th birthday last week, opting instead to play the lead in a star-studded radio production of Shakespeare's ``King Lear.''
The theatrical world would have loved to stage a West End tribute to Mr. Gielgud, and there was talk of naming a theater after him, but his friends said Wednesday he wanted ``no fuss'' and was more than happy to have played Lear, which was broadcast on Sunday.
``I'd much rather work and show I can still do a bit, rather than just get congratulations on the past,'' Gielgud, regarded as the finest speaker of Shakespearean verse in the history of theater, said in a rare interview published Wednesday.
``It would rather sound like my obituary,'' he added.
The tall, patrician knight said he was increasingly contemplating his own mortality.
``One is always thinking about how long one is going to live,'' he told Hello magazine. ``In my last big parts, `Prospero's Books,' and `War and Remembrance,' I kept thinking, ``Suppose I die in the middle? What is it going to cost everyone?'''
GIELGUD'S tribute performance as King Lear won rave reviews, and the supporting cast, including Derek Jacobi, Bob Hoskins, and Emma Thompson, read like a Who's Who of British theater.
The production is already selling well on CD and audio cassette.
The actor, who made his theatrical debut in 1921 and went on to become the most famous Hamlet of all time, revealed in the interview that modesty and self-criticism, which have been the hallmarks of his work, have not left him.
``I'm very frivolous. I have a shallow nature,'' he says. ``I can't even read poetry or Shakespeare privately. I'm able to bolt down a cheap thriller, but I couldn't read `Troilus and Cressida' or `Coriolanus' with great pleasure.''
Gielgud lives in dread of becoming a public monument, according to friends. Although he makes his home in a sumptuous country manor and does not need to work, Gielgud wants to remain a working actor.
He made his first film in 1923, but it was not until later in life that he became a familiar screen presence, winning an Academy Award in 1981 as Best Supporting Actor for his surprise role as an uncouth butler in the comedy ``Arthur.''