He had a lengthy and successful film career prior to his role as Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original Star Wars trilogy which introduced him to an entirely new generation of fans.
A Run for Your Money
The Man in the White Suit
The Card/The Promoter
The Square Mile
The Captain’s Paradise
The Stratford Adventure
To Paris with Love
The Horse’s Mouth
Our Man in Havana
Tunes of Glory
A Majority of One
The Fall of the Roman Empire
Situation Hopeless… But Not Serious
The Quiller Memorandum
The Comedians in Africa
Brother Sun, Sister Moon
Hitler: The Last Ten Days
Murder by Death
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Raise the Titanic
Return of the Jedi
A Passage to India
A Handful of Dust
A Foreign Field
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Alec Guinness was nominated for six Academy Awards, won one and in 1980 he received an Honorary Oscar “for advancing the art of screen acting through a host of memorable and distinguished performances”.
- Best Actor in a Leading Role, The Lavender Hill Mob (1951)
- Best Actor in a Leading Role, The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) – WON
- Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium, The Horse’s Mouth (1958)
- Best Actor in a Supporting Role, Star Wars (1977)
- Best Actor in a Supporting Role, Little Dorrit (1987)
Essentially I’m a small part actor who’s been lucky enough to play leading roles for most of his life. ~ Alec Guiness
Alec Guinness was born Alec Guinness de Cuffe on April 2, 1914 in Marylebone, London, England. On Guinness’s birth certificate, the space for the mother’s name shows Agnes de Cuffe. The space for the infant’s name (where first names only are given) says Alec Guinness. The column for name and surname of father is blank.
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 (1861–1928), 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.
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 Charles Dickens’ novel 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.
Guinness served in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve in the Second World War, initially as a seaman in 1941, before receiving a commission as a Temporary Sub-lieutenant on April 30, 1942 and a promotion to Temporary Lieutenant the following year. Guinness then commanded a landing craft at the Allied invasion of Sicily, and later ferried supplies and agents to the Yugoslav partisans in the eastern Mediterranean theatre.
During the war, he was granted leave to appear in the Broadway production of Terence Rattigan’s play, Flare Path, about RAF Bomber Command, with Guinness playing the role of Flight Lieutenant Teddy Graham.
Guinness returned to the Old Vic in 1946 and stayed until 1948, playing Abel Drugger in Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist, the Fool in King Lear opposite Laurence Olivier in the title role, DeGuiche in Cyrano de Bergerac opposite Ralph Richardson in the title role, and finally starring in an Old Vic production as Shakespeare’s Richard II. After leaving the Old Vic, he played Eric Birling in J. B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls at the New Theatre in October 1946. He played the Uninvited Guest in the Broadway production of T. S. Eliot’s The Cocktail Party (1950, revived at the Edinburgh Festival in 1968). He played Hamlet under his own direction at the New Theatre in the West End in 1951.
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 July 13, 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.”
Guinness won a Tony Award for his Broadway performance as Welsh poet Dylan Thomas in Dylan. He next played the title role in Macbeth opposite Simone Signoret at the Royal Court Theatre in 1966. Guinness made his final stage performance at the Comedy Theatre in the West End on May 30, 1989, in the play A Walk in the Woods. In all, between April 2, 1934 and May 30, 1989, he played 77 parts in the theatre.
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, black comedy The Ladykillers, and The Man in the White Suit, with all three ranked among the Best British films. 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 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 for Best Actor and a BAFTA Award for Best Actor. 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 strained—although, at his funeral, he recalled that the famed director had been “charming and affable”. Guinness appeared in five Lean films that were ranked in the British Film Institute’s top 50 greatest British films of the 20th century: 3rd (Lawrence of Arabia), 5th (Great Expectations), 11th (The Bridge on the River Kwai), 27th (Doctor Zhivago) and 46th (Oliver Twist).
Guinness’s role as Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original Star Wars trilogy, beginning in 1977, brought him worldwide recognition to a new generation, as well as Academy Award and Golden Globe 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% 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).
From the 1970s, Guinness made regular appearances on UK television, including the part of George Smiley in the serializations of two novels by John le Carré: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley’s People. He twice won the British Academy Television Award for Best Actor for the roles, and Le Carré was so impressed by Guinness’s performance as Smiley that he based his characterization of Smiley in subsequent novels on Guinness. One of Guinness’s last appearances was in the BBC drama Eskimo Day (1996).
Guinness married the artist, playwright, and actress Merula Sylvia Salaman (1914–2000) in 1938; in 1940, they had a son, Matthew Guinness, who later became an actor. The family lived at Steep Marsh in Hampshire.
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 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.
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.
Guinness died on the night of August 5, 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, England.