The Queen chose him to fill the vacancy left by the death of Sir Frank Whittle, inventor of the jet engine. The order, founded by Edward VII, can only ever number 24 people, two of whom are the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh. Lord Olivier was the last actor to gain the OM. As a member, Sir John joins Baroness Thatcher, Lord Menuhin and Lucian Freud in the elite regarded by the sovereign as "individuals of exceptional distinction". Previous holders included Florence Nightingale, Elgar and Sir Winston Churchill, with honorary membership (as foreigners) held by Nelson Mandela and Mother Teresa.
Sir John's career has spanned 75 years on stage, film, television and radio. He has dazzled critics on the classical stage, tackling every major Shakespearean role from King Lear to Hamlet. And he has shone on screen, too, appearing naked, aged 87, in Peter Greenaway's Prospero's Books, and winning an Oscar opposite Dudley Moore in the 1980 light-hearted film Arthur.
He recently said he did not understand much of the Bard. "I am very frivolous, I have a shallow nature," he added. "I'm able to bolt down a cheap thriller, but I couldn't read Troilus and Cressida or Coriolanus with any great pleasure." Although he gave up the stage in 1988, he recently acted in an Australian film, Shine, and declares himself open to offers of short roles which "have something to appeal to me".
Sir John, the great-nephew Ellen Terry, won a scholarship to Rada before appearing at 17 at the Old Vic as a herald in Henry V. By 1924 he was playing Romeo, and a string of Shakespearean leads followed, including a Hamlet which broke box-office records in America.
Knighted in 1953, his career appeared to falter by the 1960sbut he soon found a niche in television and film, notably the 1981 television Brideshead Revisited.