Alec Guinness: Britain’s Man of a Thousand Faces

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in August 2015. We are re-running it today as part of our May the Fourth Be With You celebrations to remind you of Sir Alec Guinness’ considerable — and far too often overlooked — contributions to culture outside of the Obi Wan Kenobi character.

Roundly acknowledged as one of the British stage’s most versatile and skilled performers of the 20th century, this onetime copywriter left behind one of cinema’s most diverse galleries of nuanced and memorable characterizations.  Born to poverty in London in 1914, Alec Guinness’ boarding school education was subsidized by the biological father that he would never meet. It was there that he got his first taste of stagecraft with a small part in a school production of Macbeth. Obtaining a job in advertising upon graduation, he spent what he could on theater tickets while squirreling away tuition for the Fay Compton Studio of Dramatic Art.

His 1934 final exam was graded by John Gielgud, who was sufficiently impressed to cast Alec as Osric in his upcoming production of Hamlet. Within four years, he would be playing the title role for the Old Vic. Although his stage career burgeoned, Guinness enlisted in the Royal Navy with the onset of World War II, where he would serve as a landing craft operator. Though he appeared as an extra in 1934’s Evensong, Guinness’ film career did not begin in earnest until after the war’s end. Many years later, Guinness would remark, “I gave my best performances during the war, trying to be an officer and a gentleman.”

It was during that post-WWII period that filmmaker David Lean, who had been impressed with Guinness’ 1939 stage portrayal of Pocket in “Great Expectations, had the actor reprise the role in his 1946 screen adaptation of the Dickens novel and turned to him again to portray Fagin in 1948’s Oliver Twist. During the original release of the latter movie, the performance given by Guinness was so dynamic that Lean’s film was banned in both Israel and Egypt. The Israeli reason was that the role was too anti-Semitic, while. by contrast, Egypt complained because Fagin was considered to be overly sympathetic.

MAN IN THE WHITE SUITHis stardom, and reputation for chameleon-like skill, was cemented by the 1949 Ealing Studios comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets, in which he played eight different members of an eccentric, targeted-for-assassination family. Over the first half of the ’50s, the actor headlined a string of memorable farces for Ealing, such as The Lavender Hill Mob, The Man in the White Suit and The Ladykillers, as well as the nautical romp The Captain’s Paradise (1953), the WWII drama The Malta Story (also ’53), and as clergyman/sleuth Father Brown in 1955’s The Detective.

In the decade’s latter half, American audiences took notice when he appeared opposite Grace Kelly in MGM’s 1956 Technicolor romantic comedy/drama, The Swan. There is a Hollywood anecdote about Guinness during his filming of The Swan. Apparently, he and James Dean met in Hollywood not long before Dean’s untimely death Alec later recalled, upon seeing Dean’s spiffy new Porsche, saying to the young star, “Get rid of that car, or you’ll be dead in a week!” If this is truth or folklore is not certain, but, sadly, Guinness’s prediction proved to be correct.

BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAIDirector Lean recruited him to portray the tunnel-visioned martinet Col. Nicholson in 1957’s The Bridge on the River Kwai. Although he had to be persuaded to take the role on, he obtained a Best Actor Academy Award for his efforts; the movie itself won seven Oscars, including Best Picture. In years to come, upon reflection on his performance, he said, “The original script was ridiculous, with elephant charges and girls screaming round in the jungle. When David Lean arrived, with a new screenwriter, it became a very different thing. I saw Nicholson as an effective part, without ever really believing in the character. However, it paid off; it was a huge success and I got an Oscar for it, though I don’t think it made an enormous difference in my career.”

Guinness would be nominated again by the Academy the following year for his screenplay for The Horse’s Mouth, in which he also played the irrepressible artist Gulley Jimson. In 1959, he returned to his roots in director Carol Reed’s crackling spy mystery Our Man in Havana, with a cast of international players, including Burl Ives, Maureen O’Hara, Ernie Kovacs, and friends Ralph Richardson and Noel Coward.

His notable films of the early ’60s included 1960’s Tunes of Glory, in which he and fellow UK actor John Mills are at odds involving military protocol; A Majority of One (1961), in which he was a Japanese businessman (and widower) finding himself enamored with Jewish Brooklyn widow Rosalind Russell, and Damn the Defiant (1962), an 18th-century sea saga which found him at war with sadistic shipmate Dirk Bogarde. The same year, Lean’s epic Lawrence of Arabia cast him as Arab Prince Feisal, and in 1964, he was Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius in the action-packed historical drama The Fall of the Roman Empire.

In 1965, Lean came calling once again and convinced Alec to join the cast of his Russian-set epic Doctor Zhivago, which garnered 10 Oscar nominations while winning a respectable five. The following year he later appeared in The Quiller Memorandum, a tense espionage thriller about tracking a mysterious neo-Nazi organization, and in 1967 he co-starred with Hollywood’s hottest couple, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, in The Comedians. Guinness was 17th-century English king Charles I, at odds with anti-monarchy revolutionary Cromwell (Richard Harris), followed that same year by a turn as Marley’s Ghost in the Albert Finney musical Scrooge. 1973 brought him face to face with dictatorship as the title character in Hitler: The Last Ten Days, and he re-examined his comic persona as a blind butler in Neil Simon’s all-star 1976 mystery spoof Murder by Death.

By the mid 1970s, Guinness’ screen profile had begun to wane. However, it would receive a tremendous–and unexpected–shot in the arm with his performance as Obi-Wan Kenobi in 1977’s Star Wars and its sequels.

While he never made any secret of his distaste for the role, his percentage deal on the blockbuster netted him significant financial security. Of Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, Guinness said, “Apart from the money, I regret having embarked on the film. I like them well enough, but it’s not an acting job, the dialogue – which is lamentable – keeps being changed and only slightly improved, and I find myself old and out of touch with the young.” It’s been reported that he claimed he disliked that role so much, that he refused to answer or even open any fan mail related to Star Wars. However, his Star Wars co-stars Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill, as well as director George Lucas, all spoke highly of Guinness, commending his professionalism… so the question arises — did he really dislike the Star Wars movies, or did he just have a distaste for the fans?

TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY 1980By the 1980s, Alec’s health was in decline and his output lessened accordingly. His noteworthy latter efforts include his portrayal of John Le Carré’s veteran secret agent George Smiley in the 1980 TV miniseries Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and its 1982 follow-up, Smiley’s People; as the ghost of Sigmund Freud in the Dudley Moore romcom Lovesick (1983); A Passage to India (1984), a visually stunning epic examinination of prejudice in British-ruled India of the 1920s that was his final collaboration with Lean;  and another Dickens adaptation, Little Dorrit (1987), which brought the actor his fourth and final acting Oscar nomination. As for Oscar nominees and winners, Guinness has the distinction of holding the record for having appeared in the most movies nominated for Academy Awards and which did win — a total of 35 films.

Of his fellow British thespians Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier, Guinness was the last surviving member of the group, passing at age 86 in 2000. Notably, all of them were knighted by Queen Elizabeth.