Alec Guinness: Britain’s Man of a Thousand Faces

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,” cast the actor in his 1946 screen adaptation of Great Expectations 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.

His 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 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 M-G-M’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, when he saw the young actor’s spiffy new Porsche. Later on, Guinness recalled predicting the fatal crash, in a fashion, when he supposedly said to Dean, “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 was correct.

Director Lean recruited him to portray the tunnel-visioned martinet Col. Nicholson in 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, David Lean came calling once again and convinced Alec to join the cast of Doctor Zhivago, which garnered 10 Oscar nominations while winning a respectable five. He later appeared in The Quiller Memorandum (1966), a tense espionage thriller about tracking a mysterious neo-Nazi organization, and in 1970, he was King of England Charles I at odds with Cromwell (Richard Harris), followed the 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 personna as a blind butler in Neil Simon’s 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?

By the 1980s, Alec’s health was in decline and his output lessened accordingly. His noteworthy latter efforts include his portrayal of veteran secret agent George Smiley in the 1980 TV miniseries Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, based on the superlative John Le Carré novel; A Passage to India, 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, 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.

And now, enjoy Alec Guinness in his Oscar-winning 1957 role in The Bridge on the River Kwai:

  • Bill Pentland

    My wonderful brother-in-law introduced me to Alec Guinness when he and my sister were baby-sitting me at their first apartment in St. Louis. I was very young – no more than 7 or so. We watched on their little black & white TV, The Lavender Hill Mob. I remember it vividly. I laughed, initially because my brother-in-law laughed, then because I started “getting” the subtle humor of Alec Guinness. That’s one of my earliest memories of film, in general, and certainly of Sir Alec. The nuance of expression, the voice – everything about him – told us that he was a consummate actor’s actor.

  • rogerscorpion

    Actually, Marcus Aurelius was not a Roman senator. He was the Emperor.

  • Jerry Frebowitz

    rogerscorpion is right and has been corrected… the heads up is appreciated. Thanks.

  • Bob Campbell

    While it could be respectfully argued that Peter Sellars better qualifies as Britain’s “Man of a Thousand Faces,” after perusing the gallery of diverse characterizations of each on IMDB, I do think you are fair in assigning that distinction to Alec Guinness. Although in my estimation it’s a close call, I’d love to read persuasive arguments from other readers as to which actor truly qualifies as Britain’s Man of a Thousand Faces.

    BTW: would British-born Charles Laughton not also qualify as a contender? Laughton’s Hunchback, Herod, Hobson, Henry VIII, Dr. Moreau, Claudius and Captain Bligh roles – among many others – are also surely comparable to Colorado-born Lon Chaney’s gallery of brilliant characterizations!

    Meanwhile, Great Thanks, Jay, for the fun read and fond remembrances of Alec Guinness’s fantastic body of work!

  • Samuel Hough

    Star Wars was comic book depth. Shallow characters, striking technology. It was an insult to make Guinness read his lines. Great Expectations was a Guinness stage adaptation. His role in the 1955 Prisoner was one that displayed his powerful dramatic skills. Malta Story was also pivotal. His Father Brown, not available on DVD. although it was on VHS, is a very subtle portrait. A later film with Leo McKern, Monsignor Quixote, wasn’t a challenge, but the two worked well together.

  • Richard

    Did Guinness ever give a bad performance? “Tunes of Glory” is his acting masterpiece with honorable mention to “The Man in The White Suit” and “The Horse’s Mouth”.

  • eddie quillen

    Guiness’ ability to play the British “everyman” was another reason I enjoyed his work, and one of my favorites was “Last Holiday,” where he played George Bird, a man who finds out he doesn’t have long to live and takes his life savings and goes on a holiday. It was remade in 2006 with Queen Latifah as Georgina Byrd.

  • Daisy

    Geoffrey Rush is another Man of a Thousand Faces, as well as Peter Sellers, but Guiness has always been a big favorite of mine. I’ve never seen him in anything I didn’t like. However, while his Hitler was very good and he looked like Hitler, as soon as he opened his mouth I only heard Alec Guiness.

  • Warren Clark

    There is one and can only be one George Smiley (“Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” & “Smiley’s People”) and that was the splendid Alec Guinness, failing health and all.

  • Raif D’Amico

    The Lavender Hill Mob…was my first evposure to British humor and Alec Guiness and I loved it and him.He never gave a bad perforance in anything I ever saw that he was in.I will always remember Bridge on the River Kwai and all the Star Wars. He was a major part of the British invasions of great actors.Maybe it is the theater training and British tradition. In my opinion we have not matched the quality or number of really great actors.

  • Fred

    I first was introduced to Alec Guiness when I saw him in Kind Hearts and Coronets in the mid 50′s. I really enhoyed all of his films and made it a point to see each one when it was released, I especially liked “The Lady Killers” and “The Lavender Hill Mob”. Hw is an actor that I really miss. I have most of his early British comedies on disc and watch them quite often.

  • Mike Oldfield

    Guiness himself loathed the title “Man Of A Thousand Faces” which was given to him after Kind Hearts and Coronets. Personally, I think he was the greatest actor that England ever produced. Olivier may have been the greatest Shakespearean performer but even he could never have played the roles that Guiness played. Alec Guiness had a way of disappearing into his characters so that each one was completely different. Compare the mousey little bank clerk in The Lavender Hill Mob to the stiff and starchy colonel in Bridge On The River Kwai. Compare his icy and aloof police officer in Doctor Zhivago to the hard-drinking, loud and obnoxious officer in Tunes Of Glory. I cannot think of any other actor who could have played these diverse roles so effectively.

  • xDJ@V.YouBraveWorld.Tube

    I’m proud to say I’m an Alec Guinness fan, even if I prefer Anthony Hopkins’ Hitler.

  • Joe Gregorio

    I’m a big Alec Guinness fan, especially the earlier British films like “Kind Hearts and Coronets”, “The Lavender Hill Mob”, and “The Man in the White Suit.” Also, as Eddie Quillen mentioned, “Last Holiday” is a particular favorite and Alec Guinness’s performance in it is very touching.