Sir Alec Guinness, CH CBE (born Alec Guinness de Cuffe, 2 April 1914 – 5 August 2000) was an English actor. After an early career on the stage, Guinness was featured in several of the Ealing Comedies, including The Ladykillers and Kind Hearts and Coronets in which he played nine different characters. He is also known for his six collaborations with David Lean: Herbert Pocket in Great Expectations (1946), Fagin in Oliver Twist (1948), Col. Nicholson in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957, for which he won the Academy Award for Best Actor), Prince Faisal in Lawrence of Arabia (1962), General Yevgraf Zhivago in Doctor Zhivago (1965), and Professor Godbole in A Passage to India (1984). He is also known for his portrayal of Obi-Wan Kenobi in George Lucas‘s original Star Wars trilogy, receiving a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
Guinness was one of three British actors, along with Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud, who made the transition from Shakespearean theatre to blockbuster films immediately after World War II. Guinness served in the Royal Naval Reserve during the war and commanded a landing craft during the invasion of Sicily and Elba. During the war he was granted leave to appear in the stage play Flare Path about the RAF Bomber Command.
Guinness won an Academy Award, a BAFTA, a Golden Globe and a Tony Award. In 1959, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for services to the arts. He received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960, the Academy Honorary Award for lifetime achievement in 1980 and the BAFTA Academy Fellowship Award in 1989.
The identity of Guinness’s father has never been officially confirmed. From 1875, under English law, when the birth of an illegitimate child was registered, the father’s name could be entered on the certificate only if he were present and gave his consent. Guinness himself believed that his father was a Scottish banker, Andrew Geddes (18611928), who paid for Guinness’s public school education at Fettes College. Geddes occasionally visited Guinness and his mother, posing as an uncle. Guinness’s mother later had a three-year marriage to a Scottish army captain named Stiven; his behaviour was often erratic or even violent.
Guinness first worked writing advertising copy. His first job in the theatre was on his 20th birthday, while he was still a drama student, in the play Libel, which opened at the old King’s Theatre, Hammersmith, and then transferred to the Playhouse, where his status was raised from a walk-on to understudying two lines, and his salary increased to 1 a week. He appeared at the Albery Theatre in 1936 at the age of 22, playing the role of Osric in John Gielgud‘s successful production of Hamlet. Also in 1936, Guinness signed on with the Old Vic, where he was cast in a series of classic roles. In 1939, he took over for Michael Redgrave as Charleston in a road-show production of Robert Ardrey‘s Thunder Rock.
During his time at the Old Vic, he worked with many actors and actresses who would become his friends and frequent co-stars in the future, including Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, Peggy Ashcroft, Anthony Quayle, and Jack Hawkins. An early influence from afar was Stan Laurel, whom Guinness admired.
Guinness continued playing Shakespearean roles throughout his career. In 1937, he played Aumerle in Richard II and Lorenzo in The Merchant of Venice under the direction of John Gielgud. He starred in a 1938 production of Hamlet which won him acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic. He also appeared as Romeo in a production of Romeo and Juliet (1939), Andrew Aguecheek in Twelfth Night, and as Exeter in Henry V in 1937, both opposite Laurence Olivier, and Ferdinand in The Tempest, opposite Gielgud as Prospero. In 1939, he adapted Great Expectations for the stage, playing Herbert Pocket. The play was a success. One of its viewers was a young British film editor, David Lean, who would later have Guinness reprise his role in Lean’s 1946 film adaptation of the play.
Second World War
Postwar stage career
Invited by his friend Tyrone Guthrie to join the premiere season of the Stratford Festival of Canada, Guinness lived for a brief time in Stratford, Ontario. On 13 July 1953, Guinness spoke the first lines of the first play produced by the festival, Shakespeare’s Richard III: “Now is the winter of our discontent/Made glorious summer by this sun of York.”
In films, Guinness was initially associated mainly with the Ealing Comedies, and particularly for playing nine characters in Kind Hearts and Coronets. Other films from this period included The Lavender Hill Mob, The Ladykillers, and The Man in the White Suit. In 1952, director Ronald Neame cast Guinness in his first romantic lead role, opposite Petula Clark in The Card. In 1951, exhibitors voted him the most popular British star.
Other notable film roles of this period included The Swan (1956) with Grace Kelly, in her second-to-last film role; The Horse’s Mouth (1958) in which Guinness played the part of drunken painter Gulley Jimson, as well as writing the screenplay, for which he was nominated for an Academy Award; the lead in Carol Reed‘s Our Man in Havana (1959); Marcus Aurelius in The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964); The Quiller Memorandum (1966); Marley’s Ghost in Scrooge (1970); Charles I in Cromwell (1970); Pope Innocent III in Franco Zeffirelli‘s Brother Sun, Sister Moon (1972) and the title role in Hitler: The Last Ten Days (1973), which he considered his best film performance, though critics disagreed. Another role which is sometimes referred to as one which he considered his best and is so considered by many critics, is that of Colonel Jock Sinclair in Tunes of Glory (1960). Guinness also played the role of Jamessir Bensonmum, the blind butler, in the 1976 Neil Simon film Murder by Death.
Guinness won particular acclaim for his work with director David Lean, which today is his most critically acclaimed work. After appearing in Lean’s Great Expectations and Oliver Twist, he was given a starring role opposite William Holden in The Bridge on the River Kwai. For his performance as Colonel Nicholson, the unyielding British POW commanding officer, Guinness won an Academy Award. Despite a difficult and often hostile relationship, Lean, referring to Guinness as “my good luck charm”, continued to cast Guinness in character roles in his later films: Arab leader Prince Feisal in Lawrence of Arabia; the title character’s half-brother, Bolshevik leader Yevgraf, in Doctor Zhivago and Indian mystic Professor Godbole in A Passage to India. He was also offered a role in Lean’s Ryan’s Daughter (1970) but declined. At that time, Guinness “mistrusted” Lean and considered the formerly close relationship to be strainedalthough, at his funeral, he recalled that the famed director had been “charming and affable”.
Guinness’s role as Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original Star Wars trilogy, beginning in 1977, brought him worldwide recognition by a new generation, as well as Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations. In letters to his friends, Guinness described the film as “fairy tale rubbish” but the film’s sense of moral good and the studio’s doubling of his initial salary offer appealed to him and he agreed to take the part of Kenobi on the condition that he would not have to do any publicity to promote the film. He negotiated a deal for 2.25 percent of the gross royalties paid to the director, George Lucas, who received one-fifth of the box office takings. This made him very wealthy in his later life. Upon his first viewing of the film, Guinness wrote in his diary, “It’s a pretty staggering film as spectacle and technically brilliant. Exciting, very noisy and warm-hearted. The battle scenes at the end go on for five minutes too long, I feel, and some of the dialogue is excruciating and much of it is lost in noise, but it remains a vivid experience.”.
Guinness soon became unhappy with being identified with the part and expressed dismay at the fan following that the Star Wars trilogy attracted. In the DVD commentary of the original Star Wars, Lucas says that Guinness was not happy with the script rewrite in which Obi-Wan is killed. Guinness said in a 1999 interview that it was actually his idea to kill off Obi-Wan, persuading Lucas that it would make him a stronger character and that Lucas agreed to the idea. Guinness stated in the interview, “What I didn’t tell Lucas was that I just couldn’t go on speaking those bloody awful, banal lines. I’d had enough of the mumbo jumbo.” He went on to say that he “shrivelled up” every time Star Wars was mentioned to him.
Although Guinness disliked the fame that followed work he did not hold in high esteem, Lucas and fellow cast members Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Kenny Baker, Anthony Daniels and Carrie Fisher have spoken highly of his courtesy and professionalism, on and off the set. Lucas credited him with inspiring cast and crew to work harder, saying that Guinness contributed significantly to achieving completion of the filming. Guinness was quoted as saying that the royalties he obtained from working on the films gave him “no complaints; let me leave it by saying I can live for the rest of my life in the reasonably modest way I am now used to, that I have no debts and I can afford to refuse work that doesn’t appeal to me.” In his autobiography, Blessings In Disguise, Guinness tells an imaginary interviewer “Blessed be Star Wars“, regarding the income it provided.
In the final volume of the book A Positively Final Appearance (1997), Guinness recounts grudgingly giving an autograph to a young fan who claimed to have watched Star Wars over a hundred times, on the condition that the boy promise to stop watching the film because “this is going to be an ill effect on your life”. The fan was stunned at first but later thanked him (though some sources say it went differently). Guinness is quoted as saying: “‘Well’, I said, ‘do you think you could promise never to see Star Wars again?’ He burst into tears. His mother drew herself up to an immense height. ‘What a dreadful thing to say to a child!’ she barked, and dragged the poor kid away. Maybe she was right but I just hope the lad, now in his thirties, is not living in a fantasy world of second hand, childish banalities.” Guinness grew so tired of modern audiences apparently knowing him only for his role of Obi-Wan Kenobi that he would throw away the mail he received from Star Wars fans without reading it.
Awards and honours
For his theatre work, he received an Evening Standard Award for his performance as T. E. Lawrence in Ross and a Tony Award for his Broadway turn as Dylan Thomas in Dylan. Guinness received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1559 Vine Street on 8 February 1960.
Guinness was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1955, and was knighted in 1959. In 1991, he received an honorary doctorate from Cambridge University. Three years later, at age 80, he was appointed a Companion of Honour.
In his biography, Alec Guinness: The Unknown, Garry O’Connor reports that Guinness was arrested and fined 10 guineas (10.50) for a homosexual act in a public lavatory in Liverpool in 1946. Guinness is said to have avoided publicity by giving his name to police and court as “Herbert Pocket”, the name of the character he played in Great Expectations. This suggestion was not made until April 2001, eight months after his death when a BBC News article claimed that Guinness was in fact bisexual and that he had kept his sexuality private from the public eye; only his closest friends and family members knew he had sexual relationships with men.Piers Paul Read, Guinness’s official biographer, doubts that this incident actually occurred. He believes that Guinness was confused with John Gielgud, who was notoriously arrested for such an act in 1953.
While serving in the Royal Navy, Guinness had planned to become an Anglican priest. In 1954, while he was filming Father Brown in Burgundy, Guinness, who was in costume as a Catholic priest, was mistaken for a real priest by a local child. Guinness was far from fluent in French, and the child apparently did not notice that Guinness did not understand him but took his hand and chattered while the two strolled; the child then waved and trotted off. The confidence and affection the clerical attire appeared to inspire in the boy left a deep impression on the actor. When their son was ill with polio at the age of 11, Guinness began visiting a church to pray. A few years later in 1956, Guinness converted to the Roman Catholic Church. His wife, who was of paternal Sephardi Jewish descent, followed suit in 1957 while he was in Sri Lanka filming The Bridge on the River Kwai, and she informed him only after the event. Every morning, Guinness recited a verse from Psalm 143, “Cause me to hear your loving kindness in the morning”.
Guinness died on 5 August 2000, from liver cancer, at Midhurst in West Sussex. He had been receiving hospital treatment for glaucoma, and had recently also been diagnosed with prostate cancer. He was interred at Petersfield, Hampshire.
Autobiographies and biography
|1934||Evensong||Extra (First World War soldier in audience)||Uncredited|
|1946||Great Expectations||Herbert Pocket|
|1949||Kind Hearts and Coronets||
|1949||Run for Your Money, AA Run for Your Money||Whimple|
|1950||Last Holiday||George Bird|
|1950||Mudlark, TheThe Mudlark||Benjamin Disraeli|
|1951||Lavender Hill Mob, TheThe Lavender Hill Mob||Henry Holland|
|1951||Man in the White Suit, TheThe Man in the White Suit||Sidney Stratton|
|1952||The Card||Edward Henry ‘Denry’ Machin||released in the United States as The Promoter|
|1953||Square Mile, TheThe Square Mile||narrator||short subject|
|1953||Captain’s Paradise, TheThe Captain’s Paradise||Capt. Henry St. James|
|1953||Malta Story||Flight Lieutenant Peter Ross RAF|
|1954||Father Brown||Father Brown|
|1954||Stratford Adventure, TheThe Stratford Adventure||Himself||short subject|
|1955||Rowlandson’s England||narrator||short subject|
|1955||To Paris with Love||Col. Sir Edgar Fraser|
|1955||Prisoner, TheThe Prisoner||Cardinal, TheThe Cardinal|
|1955||Ladykillers, TheThe Ladykillers||Professor Marcus|
|1956||Swan, TheThe Swan||Prince Albert|
|1957||Bridge on the River Kwai, TheThe Bridge on the River Kwai||Col. Nicholson||
|1957||Barnacle Bill||Captain William Horatio Ambrose||released in the United States as All at Sea|
|1958||Horse’s Mouth, TheThe Horse’s Mouth||Gulley Jimson||
|1959||Scapegoat, TheThe Scapegoat||John Barratt/Jacques De Gue|
|1959||Our Man in Havana||Jim Wormold|
|1960||Tunes of Glory||Maj. Jock Sinclair, D.S.O., M.M.||NominatedBAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role|
|1961||A Majority of One||Koichi Asano|
|1962||H.M.S. Defiant||Captain Crawford|
|1962||Lawrence of Arabia||Prince Faisal|
|1964||Fall of the Roman Empire, TheThe Fall of the Roman Empire||Marcus Aurelius|
|1965||Situation Hopeless… But Not Serious||Wilhelm Frick|
|1965||Doctor Zhivago||Lieutenant General Yevgraf Andreyevich Zhivago|
|1966||Hotel Paradiso||Benedict Boniface|
|1966||Quiller Memorandum, TheThe Quiller Memorandum||Pol|
|1967||Comedians in Africa, TheThe Comedians in Africa||Himself||uncredited, short subject|
|1967||Comedians, TheThe Comedians||Major H.O. Jones||Kansas City Film Critics Circle Award for Best Supporting Actor|
|1970||Cromwell||King Charles I|
|1970||Scrooge||Jacob Marley‘s ghost|
|1972||Brother Sun, Sister Moon||Pope Innocent III|
|1973||Hitler: The Last Ten Days||Adolf Hitler|
|1976||Murder by Death||Jamesir Bensonmum|
|1977||Star Wars||Obi-Wan Kenobi|
|1979||Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy||George Smiley|
|1980||The Empire Strikes Back||Obi-Wan Kenobi|
|1980||Raise the Titanic||John Bigalow|
|1980||Little Lord Fauntleroy||Earl of Dorincourt|
|1982||Smiley’s People||George Smiley|
|1983||Return of the Jedi||Obi-Wan Kenobi|
|1984||Passage to India, AA Passage to India||Professor Godbole|
|1985||Monsignor Quixote||Monsignor Quixote||NominatedBritish Academy Television Award for Best Actor|
|1987||Little Dorrit||William Dorrit||
|1988||Handful of Dust, AA Handful of Dust||Mr. Todd|
|1991||Kafka||chief clerk, TheThe chief clerk|
|1993||Foreign Field, AA Foreign Field||Amos|
|1994||Mute Witness||Reaper, TheThe Reaper|
|2015||Star Wars: The Force Awakens||Obi-Wan Kenobi||Archival audio|
Box office ranking in Britain
For a number of years, British film exhibitors voted Guinness among the most popular stars in Britain at the box office via an annual poll in the Motion Picture Herald.
- 1951: most popular British star (5th overall)
- 1952: 3rd most popular British star
- 1953: 2nd most popular British star
- 1954: 6th most popular British star
- 1955: 10th most popular British star
- 1956: 8th most popular British star
- 1958: most popular star
- 1959: 2nd most popular British star
- 1960: 4th most popular star