Alec Guinness

Alec Guinness
Sir Alec Guinness

Sir Alec Guinness in 1973 by Allan Warren
Born Alec Guinness de Cuffe
2 April 1914(1914-04-02)
Paddington, London, England, United Kingdom
Died 5 August 2000(2000-08-05) (aged 86)
Midhurst, West Sussex, England, United Kingdom
Occupation Actor
Years active 1934–96
Spouse Merula Salaman
(m. 1938–2000)
Children Matthew Guinness

Sir Alec Guinness, CH, CBE (2 April 1914 – 5 August 2000) was an English actor. He was featured in several of the Ealing Comedies, including Kind Hearts and Coronets in which he played eight different characters. He later won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role as Colonel Nicholson in The Bridge on the River Kwai. He is known for playing Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original Star Wars trilogy, Prince Feisal in Lawrence of Arabia, and George Smiley in the TV adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. He is also known for his portrayal of Herbert Pocket in Great Expectations (1946).


Early life

Guinness was born at 155 Lauderdale Mansions South, Lauderdale Road, Maida Vale, London as Alec Guinness de Cuffe.[1] His mother's maiden name was Agnes Cuff. She was born 8 December 1890 to Edward Cuff and Mary Ann Benfield. 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.[2]

It has been frequently speculated that the actor's father was a member of the Anglo-Irish Guinness family. However, it was a Scottish banker, Andrew Geddes, who paid for Guinness's private school education. From 1875, under English law, when the birth of an illegitimate child was registered, the father's name could only be entered on the certificate if he were present and gave his consent. Guinness and Geddes never met, and the identity of Guinness's father has never been confirmed.[3] Guinness was uninterested in his mother, who later had a short marriage to a violent,[4] shell-shocked veteran of the Irish War of Independence.[2]

Early career and war service

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 upped from a walk on to understudying two lines and his salary increased to £1 a week.[5] 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. 1936 also saw Guinness sign on with the Old Vic, where he was cast in a series of classic roles.[6] During this time he worked with many actors and actresses who would become his friends and frequent co-stars in the future, including John Gielgud, Peggy Ashcroft, Anthony Quayle and Jack Hawkins. An early influence from afar was Stan Laurel, whom Guinness admired.[7]

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.[6] 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 the part of 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 World War II, serving first as a seaman in 1941 and being commissioned the following year.[8] He commanded a landing craft taking part in the invasion of Sicily and Elba and later ferried supplies to the Yugoslav partisans.

During the war, he was granted leave to appear in the Broadway production of Terence Rattigan's play Flare Path about the RAF Bomber Command.[9]

Post-war stage career

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). His third attempt at the title role of Hamlet, this time under his own direction at the New Theatre (1951), proved a major theatrical disaster.

Invited by his friend Tyrone Guthrie to join the premier 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 poet Dylan Thomas in Dylan. He next played the title role in Macbeth opposite Simone Signoret at the Royal Court Theatre in 1966, a conspicuous failure.[10]

His final performance was at the Comedy Theatre on May 30, 1989 in the play A Walk in the Woods. Sandwiched between April 2, 1934, and May 30, 1989, he played 77 parts in the theatre.[11]

Film career

In films, Guinness was initially associated mainly with the Ealing comedies, and particularly for playing eight different 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.

He won particular acclaim for his work with director David Lean. 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 leader, 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 Godbole in A Passage to India. He was also offered a role in Lean's Ryan's Daughter (1970), but declined.

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 contributing 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 of England in Cromwell (1970); and the title role in Hitler: The Last Ten Days (1973), which he considered his best film performance, though critics disagreed.[12]

Guinness also played the role of Jamessir Bensonmum, the blind butler, in the 1976 Neil Simon film Murder By Death.

Star Wars

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. He was one of the few cast members who believed that the film would be a box office hit; he negotiated a deal for 2% 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, 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. Upon his first viewing of the film, Guinness wrote in his diary that "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."[13]

Despite these rewards, 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 Star Wars: A New Hope, director George Lucas says that Guinness was not happy with the script re-write in which Obi-Wan is killed. However, 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.[14]

Although Guinness disliked the fame attracted by work he did not esteem,[13] Lucas and fellow cast members Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Anthony Daniels, and Carrie Fisher have spoken highly of his courtesy and professionalism, both 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.[15]

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 100 times, on the condition that the boy promise to stop watching the film, because, as Guinness told him, "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).[16] 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.[17]

Television appearances

From the 1970s, Guinness made regular television appearances, including the part of George Smiley in the serializations of two novels by John le Carré: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley's People. 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.

Awards and honours

Guinness won the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1957 for his role in The Bridge on the River Kwai. He was nominated in 1958 for the Academy Award for Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium, for his screenplay adapted from Joyce Cary's novel The Horse's Mouth. He was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his role as Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars in 1977. He received an Academy Honorary Award for lifetime achievement in 1980. In 1988, he received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor for Little Dorrit.

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.Taylor, John Russell (2000). Alec Guinness: A Celebration. London: Pavillion. p. 131. ISBN 1-8620-5501-7. 

Guinness was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1955, and was knighted in 1959.[6] In 1991, he received an honorary doctorate from Cambridge University.[18] Three years later, at age 80, he was given the title of Companion of Honour.[19]

Guinness received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1559 Vine Street on 8 February 1960.[2]

Personal life

Guinness married the artist, playwright and actress Merula Sylvia Salaman (16 October 1914 – 18 October 2000) in 1938; in 1940, they had a son, Matthew Guinness, who later became an actor.

In his biography, Alec Guinness: The Unknown, Garry O'Connor says that Guinness was arrested and fined 10 guineas for a homosexual act in a public lavatory in Liverpool in 1946. Guinness avoided publicity by giving his name to police and court as "Herbert Pocket", the name of the character he played in Great Expectations. The incident did not become public knowledge until April 2001, eight months after his death.[20] Piers Paul Read, Guinness's official biographer, doubts that this incident actually occurred. He believes that Guinness was confused with John Gielgud, who was infamously arrested for such an act around the same period.

Religious conversion

While serving in the Royal Navy, Guinness had planned to become an Anglican priest. However, 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 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.[21] Alec Guinness was formally received into the Roman Catholic Church in on 24 March 1956. His wife followed suit in 1957 while he was in Sri Lanka filming The Bridge on the River Kwai, and she only informed him after the event.[22] They remained devout and regular church-goers for the remainder of their lives. Their son Matthew had converted to Catholicism some time earlier.[23] Every morning, Guinness recited a verse from Psalm 143, "Cause me to hear your loving kindness in the morning".[24]


Guinness died on 5 August 2000, from liver cancer, at Midhurst in West Sussex.[25] He had been receiving hospital treatment for glaucoma, and had recently also been diagnosed with prostate cancer. He was interred in Petersfield, Hampshire, England. His widow, Lady Guinness, died of cancer in Petersfield, two months after her husband, also aged 86,[26] and was interred alongside her husband of 62 years.

Autobiographies and biography

Guinness wrote three volumes of a bestselling autobiography, beginning with Blessings in Disguise in 1985, followed by My Name Escapes Me in 1996, and A Positively Final Appearance in 1999. He recorded each of them as an audiobook. Shortly after his death, Lady Merula Guinness asked the couple's close friend and fellow Catholic, novelist Piers Paul Read, to write Guinness's official biography. It was published in 2003.


Year Title Role Notes
1934 Evensong Extra (World War I soldier in audience) uncredited
1946 Great Expectations Herbert Pocket
1948 Oliver Twist Fagin
1949 Kind Hearts and Coronets
  • Duke, TheThe Duke, The Banker, The Parson,
  • The General, The Admiral,
  • Young D'Ascoyne, Young Henry,
  • Lady Agatha
National Board of Review Award for Best Actor
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 Card, TheThe Card Edward Henry 'Denry' Machin released in the United States as The Promoter
1953 Square Mile, TheThe Square Mile narrator short subject
1953 Malta Story Flight Lt. Peter Ross
1953 Captain's Paradise, TheThe Captain's Paradise Capt. Henry St. James
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 Nominated — BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role
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
  • Also writer
  • Sant Jordi Award for Best Foreign Actor (Mejor Actor Extranjero)
  • Volpi Cup for Best Actor
  • Nominated — Academy Award for Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay)
  • Nominated — BAFTA Award for Best Adapted Screenplay
  • Nominated — Golden Laurel Award for Top Male Comedy Performance
1959 Our Man in Havana Jim Wormold
1959 Scapegoat, TheThe Scapegoat John Barratt/Jacques De Gue
1960 Tunes of Glory Maj. Jock Sinclair, D.S.O., M.M. Nominated — BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role
1962 Majority of One, AA 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 Pasternak Himself short subject
1965 Situation Hopeless ... But Not Serious Wilhelm Frick
1965 Doctor Zhivago Gen. Yevgraf 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 Episode IV: A New Hope Obi-Wan Kenobi
1979 Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy George Smiley British Academy Television Award for Best Actor
1980 Star Wars Episode V: 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 Lovesick Sigmund Freud
1983 Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi Obi-Wan Kenobi
1984 Passage to India, AA Passage to India Professor Godbole
1985 Monsignor Quixote Monsignor Quixote
1988 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
1996 Eskimo Day James


  1. ^ GRO Register of Births: JUN 1914 1a 39 PADDINGTON – Alec Guinness De Cuffe, mmn = De Cuffe
  2. ^ a b c "Alec Guinness". Hollywood Walk of Fame. Hollywood, California: Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. 2011. Retrieved 22 June 2011. 
  3. ^ "Alec Guinness biography at MSN Movies". Retrieved 2007-07-29. 
  4. ^ Guinness: the black stuff
  5. ^ Extracts from Guinness's Journals, The Daily Telegraph, 20 March 1999
  6. ^ a b c ‘Guinness, Alec (1914 - )’ 2000, in The Cambridge Guide to Theatre, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom, viewed 22 June 2011, from Credo reference(subscription required)
  7. ^ On June 3, 1961, Alec Guinness sent a letter to Stan Laurel,[1] acknowledging that he had unconsciously modeled his portrayal of Sir Andrew Aguecheek as he imagined Laurel might have done. Guinness was 23 at the time he was performing in Twelfth Night, so this would have been around 1937, by which time Laurel had become an international movie star.
  8. ^ J.N. Houterman. "Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (RNVR) Officers 1939–1945". Retrieved 2010-03-07. 
  9. ^ "Theatre Obituaries: Sir Alec Guinness", The Telegraph, 8 August 2000. Retrieved 2011-02-22.
  10. ^ Taylor, John Russell (2000). Alec Guinness: A Celebration. London: Pavilion. pp. 133–134. ISBN 1-8620-5501-7. 
  11. ^ Alec Guinness, Journals, November 1998
  12. ^ Canby, Vincent (10 May 1973). "Screen: 'Last Ten Days':Guinness Plays Hitler in Bunker Episode The Cast". The New York Times. [dead link]
  13. ^ a b Read, Piers Paul (2005). Alec Guinness: the authorized biography. Simon and Schuster. pp. 507. ISBN 0743244982. 
  14. ^ "Alec Guinness Blasts Jedi 'Mumbo Jumbo'". 1999-09-08. 
  15. ^ Guinness, Alec (1986). Blessings in Disguise. New York: Knopf. p. 214. ISBN 0394552377. 
  16. ^ Guinness, Alec. "A Positively Final Appearance". Viking. ""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 secondhand, childish banalities." 
  17. ^ "The shy introvert who shone on screen". London: The Guardian. August 7, 2000.,4029,351460,00.html. 
  18. ^ "Honorary Degrees conferred from 1977 till present". Cambridge University. Retrieved 2008-12-18. 
  19. ^ Chambers, Colin (2002). Continuum Companion to Twentieth Century Theatre. London: Continuum International Publishing Group. p. 334. ISBN 0-8264-4959-X. 
  20. ^ "Sir Alec Guiness was bisexual". BBC News (Showbiz). 2001-04-16. Retrieved 2009-08-24. 
  21. ^ "Sir Alec Guinness". London: Telegraph (Obituaries). 2000-08-08. Retrieved 2009-08-26. 
  22. ^ Pearce (1999) p. 311.
  23. ^ Tom Sutcliffe (August 7, 2000). "Sir Alec Guinness (1914–2000)". London: The Guardian.,4029,351452,00.html. Retrieved 2009-08-26. 
  24. ^ The invisible man, by Hugh Davies, originally published in the Telegraph and reprinted in The Sunday Age, 13 August 2000.
  25. ^ GRO Register of Deaths: AUG 2000 1DD 21 CHICHESTER – Alec Guinness, DoB = 2 Apr 1914 aged 86
  26. ^ GRO Register of Deaths: OCT 2000 38C 104 PETERSFIELD – Merula Sylvia (Lady) Guinness, DoB = 16 Oct 1914 aged 86

Further reading

  • McCarten, John (4 February 1950). "Eliot and Guiness". The New Yorker 25 (50): 25–26. 
  • Joseph Pearce, Literary Converts: Spiritual Inspiration in an Age of Unbelief (1999), chapter 24.

External links

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