…Acting talent is something inborn and not merely learnt.

–Peter Glenville


A family born to the stage

If acting talent is indeed inborn, Peter Glenville was born for a life of success on stage and screen. His parents, Shaun Glenville and Dorothy Ward, were Britain’s “most celebrated and successful pantomime artists [who] came to fame in the days before television and radio; even silent movies were in their infancy. Theirs was the heyday of the music hall, with its singing, dancing, comedy sketches… going to the theater was Britain’s most popular night out.” Shaun and Dorothy were famous for their rousing songs that helped Britons through two world wars, and his father’s comic patter and mother’s glamour brought laughter to audiences in the West End and Broadway.


A Guiding Principle

While his parents entertained the masses, their only son went off to boarding school at age eight. He attended some of Britain’s preeminent schools, including the renowned, Jesuit-run Stonyhurst College. It was at Stonyhurst where Peter first learned the school’s motto: Quant Je Puis, which translates to ‘As Much as I Can.’ Immersing himself in the Jesuit tradition of education – finding God in all things, caring for the individual, showing love in deeds, building Christian community, engaging with the wider world, encouraging excellence and cooperating in Jesuit mission – Peter became a devout Catholic and adopted the motto as his life’s guiding principle.

A well-rounded youth

The structure and schedule of school appealed to Peter from the beginning, and he excelled in many areas. “He was strong academically and won prizes for debating, history, essay writing, poetry and religious doctrine; he won the elocution prize for ten years in succession.” Musically gifted, Peter played the piano, violin and organ and sang in the school choir. He was a member of the rugby team and became president of the debating society. Not surprisingly, Peter was drawn to the theater from an early age, and at age 10, played the lead role in a school production of The Last Practice. It was the start of his flourishing acting career.

A ‘Bright Young Thing’

At age 19, Peter began his studies at Christ Church College, Oxford, where he was to study jurisprudence and perhaps fulfill his mother’s dream that he would become a barrister. But from the start, Peter spent almost all of his time involved with acting, becoming the youngest ever president of the prestigious Oxford University Dramatic Society (OUDS), and as a member of the university’s debating society, the Oxford Union. During this time, Peter made his professional stage debut, and “benefitted in untold ways from his time among the rich and privileged students he befriended, acted and debated with. He was very much one of the ‘Bright Young Things’, a term made famous by [author] Evelyn Waugh… when describing London’s young and carefree aristocrats and Bohemians.”


A ‘star in his own right’

Although his name may not be familiar, Peter earned a highly respected reputation in the theater and on screen, and particularly as a director. He was comfortable on stage and on set, and easily directed Hollywood’s biggest stars. “He had very little ego, which is unusual for a top director,” said a Becket actor. “Creative, open-minded and adventurous, [Peter] was like a restless entrepreneur who spread his talents over acting, theater directing and filmmaking… Complex and subtle, he forged hundreds of alliances in the film and theater worlds; he built the careers of stars, and yet he was undeniably a star in his own right.”

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Personal Life

A vital partnership

After World War II, Peter met Hardy William “Bill” Smith. Together for fifty years, they enjoyed a “close and easy relationship” as professional and life partners, with Bill producing and Peter directing plays in both London and New York. According to Rosamond Bernier Russell: “His relationship with Bill was very touching… there was such a real bond between those two in the nicest way… It always seemed totally harmonious with each one in his role.” Bill was “easy going, funny and gentle in nature… the more humble and quieter of the two men, and he allowed Peter to shine with a sense of affection.”


A new chapter

With the emergence of “cinematic sex, violence, anger and Method acting” in the 1970s, Peter “fell out of favor with critics. ‘I’m tired of beating my head against a stone wall’, he said after a Broadway production fizzled. Rather than fuel his frustration, Peter “retired quietly into high society” at age 60. Like the motto from Stonyhurst, Peter had “done as much as he could.” He “was smart enough to realize that the industry was moving in another direction, a direction he did not want to take himself.” Peter and Bill spent their final years entertaining a wealth of friends that included life-long confidants such as Alec Guinness, and major political figures encompassing heads of State and former Presidents.

A lasting legacy

“…Above all else Peter Glenville was an intelligent man, he chose what work he wanted to do and how he wanted to live… He wanted to be happy in life more than anything else and ultimately placed that above ambition or any desire for kudos.”

In the end, Peter was nominated for four Tony Awards, two Golden Globe Awards (Becket and Me and the Colonel), one Academy Award (Becket) and one Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival for Term of Trial. But despite the accolades, and after doing ‘as much as he could’, the words that bring his life full circle are those of his favorite prayer:

May he support us all the day long,
Till the shades lengthen and the evening comes,
And the busy world is hushed
And the fever of life is over and our work is done.
Then in his mercy may he give us a safe lodging
And a holy rest and peace at the last.
– Cardinal John Henry Newman