August 8, 2000

Versatile and self-effacing actor who turned anonymity into an art form and himself into an international star



Guinness in British uniform during the filming of "The Bridge on the River Kwai" in 1957.




Sir Alec Guinness, CH, CBE, actor, was born on April 2, 1914. He died on August 5, 2000 aged 86


Alec Guinness lacked many of the advantages of his theatrical peers. He could not claim Olivier's outstanding good looks and pure animal magnetism: he was bald by the time he reached 32, which emphasised his pointy, puckish ears. Unlike Gielgud he was not steeped in theatrical tradition: his childhood was disrupted and unhappy and his most vivid memory was of Nellie Wallace in music-hall at the Coliseum. He lacked Richardson's ability to be a "card", and he certainly did not have the Richardson ruthlessness, which ensured that Ralph was never upstaged: late in his life Guinness remarked, a little ruefully, "I'm not a very confident person, never have been."

But he had one great gift denied the others: anonymity. On stage or on screen Olivier was always Olivier, Gielgud always Gielgud and Richardson always Richardson. Guinness had the ability to obliterate himself completely within each character he played.

He was a master of disguise, and some of his critics claimed that he achieved this by building around himself a carapace of privacy and mystery. Such an explanation is too superficial. Guinness achieved much of his distinction by sheer graft, aided by high intelligence and a gift for acute observation.

His beginnings in the theatre before the war were uncertain. What caused Guinness to want to become an actor is a mystery. It took him two years to get a commission in the Royal Navy during the war, and his command of a rickety landing craft in the Mediterranean had its inglorious moments, as he recounted with some irony in his autobiography Blessings in Disguise.

In the cinema his great mentor was David Lean, who gave Guinness his first major role in Great Expectations and later established him as a truly international star in films such as The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia. Director and star had several well publicised rows. But the two men needed one another.

Guinness was rare among actors in being a master of self-deprecation. He once said: "Essentially I'm a small-part actor who's been lucky enough to play leading roles for most of his life." For luck read good judgment. Guinness knew what was beyond his reach. After the early days his excursions into Shakespeare were comparatively rare and on the whole not very successful. He attempted Lear only on radio when he was well on in life. He shied away from the avant-garde, getting no closer to it than Ionesco's Exit the King at the Royal Court. Alec Guinness believed in the art of the possible.

Offstage Guinness usually tried to be just a face in the well-behaved crowd and generally succeeded. No breath of scandal touched his marriage of over sixty years, and he was rarely stalked by the gossip columnists. He liked good restaurants, especially the Connaught, but there again he blended into the background. He was fond of telling the story of how he handed in his coat at a hotel cloakroom and, offering to give his name, was quite pleased to be told that it would not be necessary. The coat was later handed back with the ticket still attached and on it the inscription "Bald with glasses".


Guinness received an Honorary Award in 1980 at the 52nd Annual Academy Awards


Alec Guinness was illegitimate and no father's name appeared on his birth certificate. There have been suggestions that the man in question was a middle-aged banker called Geddes. His mother, Agnes de Cuffe, a temporary barmaid, did not admit to her son for several years that Guinness was not his real name.

She was married briefly to a self-styled "Captain" David Stiven, who treated his stepson brutally. Agnes was little better, leaving behind her a trail of unpaid bills at cheap London hotels. Guinness had as little affection for her as John Osborne had for his monstrous mother Nellie Beatrice, although unlike Osborne he was too polite to vent his dislike in public. School was little better than home, as he moved through a succession of undistinguished South Coast establishments. By 18 he had found a modest job in a London advertising agency and cut off all relations with his mother.

He got a little training at the Fay Compton School of Dramatic Art, and plucked up the courage to write to John Gielgud, ten years older than Guinness and already an idol. Gielgud, who had been a judge at the Fay Compton end- of-term performance, engaged him as Osric and Third Player for the Hamlet he was preparing for the New Theatre in 1934 and stuffed a few much-needed shillings in Guinness's pocket. Guinness always claimed that it was Gielgud who launched him on his career, but an equal influence was the flamboyant Martita Hunt. She regularly told him that he had little talent, but encouraged him nonetheless and her coaching helped to get him his drama school scholarship. The two were to meet again twenty years later when Hunt played Miss Havisham in Great Expectations.

Guinness had a season with the Old Vic Company in 1936-37, playing a number of small roles and one quite large one, Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Tyrone Guthrie's production of Twelfth Night. He worked there with Michael St Denis, but Guthrie himself was to be far the greater influence.

Guthrie took him on tour with Hamlet to Elsinore to play before the royalty of Denmark and Sweden. His parting words before the first night were: "Be polite to Kings and Queens if they get in your way, Alec." Guinness, fortified by some schnapps to keep the Danish cold out, duly laid his sword on the King of Sweden's lap. Despite such indiscretions Guthrie thought his protégé good enough to play the title role, which he did under Guthrie's direction in 1938. This was reasonably well received and even drew some encouraging words from Gielgud, but it did not greatly stir the public.

By this time Alec Guinness had married

Merula Salaman, a young actress whom he had met while they were appearing in Andre Obey's Noah, a St Denis production. She took him into a different world, that of cultivated and affluent Jewish society with wide connections in the arts. Guinness profited from it as he was to profit from her support for the rest of his life.

In the early days of the war Guinness tried his hand at adaptation, turning to Great Expectations and casting himself as Herbert Pockett. He had formed the Actors Company with George Devine and Expectations was staged at the Rudolph Steiner Hall in December 1939.

Guinness then appeared in a couple of contemporary plays before enlisting in the Navy. Eventually he was hauled off the lower deck and put on an officers' training course, ending up by commanding a landing craft in the Mediterranean. In between times Terence Rattigan persuaded the Admiralty to give him temporary release to play in Flare Path on Broadway, which was reckoned to be good wartime propaganda.

After being demobbed Guinness found himself back in London with a decent reputation from before the war but no longer of an age or with the looks to play juvenile leads. He turned his hand again to adaptation, this time The Brothers Karamazov, directed by Peter Brook, who was just beginning to make a name for himself as an enfant terrible.

At this point enter David Lean, who was planning a film of Great Expectations. He remembered Guinness's prewar performance on stage as Herbert Pockett and engaged him for the same role, although the actor's screen experience had been confined to a walk-on part in a 1933 movie called Evensong. Pockett led to Fagin in Lean's next Dickens picture, Oliver Twist, and this was the part which established Guinness as a screen actor of the highest quality. He was so good that there were calls in America to ban the film on grounds of anti-Semitism.

Guinness went on to work with Lean on four other films, three of which were international successes: Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia and Dr Zhivago. Finally came A Passage to India, Lean's last film, in 1984. Guinness knew how much he owed to Lean, especially at the beginning, but there was a price to pay. He put it delicately, as always: "We made six films and on three we had our differences."

Guinness also made a substantial career with Michael Balcon's Ealing Studios. Kind Hearts and Coronets was the first of four films there with the brilliant but undependable Robert Hamer - and by far the best. Guinness, at his own suggestion, played all eight members, male and female, of the D'Ascoyne family who are killed by Dennis Price, and so delivered eight virtuoso performances. He was later to dismiss the film as "pretty cardboard", but Kind Hearts established him as a comedian of exceptional polish. Ealing quickly capitalised on this and had him working with its best directors, Charles Crichton (The Lavender Hill Mob) and Sandy Mackendrick (The Man in the White Suit and The Ladykillers).


In the film "The Bridge on the River Kwai," 1957


This screen success began to tug him away from the classical theatre in which he had spent much of his acting life. He had played the Fool to Olivier's Lear at the New in 1947 and had not been forgiven for upstaging the master. Richardson directed him as Richard II at the same theatre the next year, but with only modest success. And Guinness tried his own hand at direction with Twelfth Night, also at the New. But he was slowly deciding that he was not really a company man and did not want to be in thrall of his more famous contemporaries.

His next major role took him back to the commercial theatre, albeit the classier end of it, as the Unidentified Guest in T.S. Eliot's Cocktail Party, which he played both at the Edinburgh Festival and in New York. His second Hamlet in 1951, which he co-directed with Frank Hauser, was not a success, despite the presence of Kenneth Tynan and other luminaries in the cast. Tynan was later to write an early and not very good study of Guinness.

Tyrone Guthrie invited him over to the newly opened Shakespeare Playhouse in Stratford, Ontario, as the first British actor to lead the company, which he did with success, Irene Worth standing at his side. After that there was little more Shakespeare on stage, apart from a Shylock at Chichester when he had just turned 70. There was a weird Macbeth at the Royal Court in 1966, given the full Brechtian treatment by Bill Gaskill and with a disastrous Lady Macbeth from an improbably cast Simone Signoret.

Once or twice during his life Alec Guinness had considered converting to Roman Catholicism and his resolve was strengthened while playing the Cardinal at the Globe in Bridget Boland's The Prisoner. The play, much admired in its time (1954), was a complex debate between spiritual qualities and materialism. Shortly afterwards Guinness was received into the Catholic Church, followed, independently, by his wife.

After appearing as Boniface in Hotel Paradiso, marvellously directed by one of his regular collaborators, Peter Glen-ville, Guinness left the stage for six years. The films flowed regularly - impressive ones such as Tunes of Glory and one or two best forgotten - and he developed a good line in little men enmeshed in political intrigue in thrillers such as The Quiller Memorandum and Graham Greene's Our Man in Havana and The Comedians.

Guinness was always attracted by people with secrets, and few had deeper secrets than Mrs Artminster in Simon Gray's early transvestite comedy Wise Child at Wyndham's in 1967. Guinness alternated between skirts and a frightening red crew-cut wig. The play shocked some of his more staid admirers, but delighted a new generation learning to live with Ortonesque humour. Alan Bennett also provided Guinness with a mischievous character in Habeas Corpus, and then capitalised on his ability to play spies by writing the part of Hilary (based on Kim Philby) for him in The Old Country. Actor and author became good friends.

Two very different roles brought Guinness huge popular acclaim when he was in his mid sixties. The first was that of George Smiley in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which kept the nation glued to its television sets in 1979 as people tried to follow the intricacies of John le Carré's plotting. This was followed by Smiley's People a couple of years later. The other very different role was that of Ben Obi-Wan Kenobi in George Lucas's hugely successful Star Wars, which also spawned a couple of sequels.


Sir Alec in Star Wars


Guinness's last appearance on the stage was in A Walk in the Woods at the Comedy Theatre in 1988, a highly serious debate about arms control. He left the West End commenting that he had no wish to go on playing before the "blank faces" of uncomprehending tourists. He made occasional forays into television, but they were rare; Guinness had none of the compulsion to go on appearing in cameo parts that seemed to drive Gielgud and John Mills.

He was content to live in semi-retirement near Petersfield, guarding his privacy and safe in the knowledge that within the profession he would be remembered as a great actor and, always ready to help others, the most generous of men. His memoirs, Blessings in Disguise, appeared in 1985; a second volume, in 1996, bore the appropriate title My Name Escapes Me: The Diary of a Retiring Actor. Last year he published a journal as A Positively Final Appearance.

Guinness was knighted in 1959, and appointed CBE in 1955 and CH in 1994. He is survived by his wife and their son.

Sir Alec Guinness, left, in 1959 with his wife and son at a ceremony in London's Buckingham Palace which vested him with Knighthood.

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© 2000 by Neil Mishalov. Modified:9 October 2014