Guinness in 1973 by Allan Warren
Alec Guinness de Cuffe
2 April 1914
|Died||5 August 2000 (aged 86)|
|Burial place||Petersfield Cemetery, Hampshire|
|On stage and screen|
|Years of service||1941-1943|
|Battles/wars||World War II|
Sir Alec Guinness, (born Alec Guinness de Cuffe; 2 April 1914 - 5 August 2000) was an English actor. After an early career on the stage, Guinness was featured in several of the Ealing Comedies, including Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), in which he played nine different characters, The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), for which he received his first Academy Award nomination, and The Ladykillers (1955). He collaborated six times with director David Lean: Herbert Pocket in Great Expectations (1946), Fagin in Oliver Twist (1948), Col. Nicholson in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957, for which he won the Academy Award for Best Actor and the BAFTA Award for Best Actor), Prince Faisal in Lawrence of Arabia (1962), General Yevgraf Zhivago in Doctor Zhivago (1965), and Professor Godbole in A Passage to India (1984). In 1970 he played Jacob Marley's ghost in Ronald Neame's Scrooge. He also portrayed Obi-Wan Kenobi in George Lucas's original Star Wars trilogy; for the original 1977 film, he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the 50th Academy Awards.
Guinness began his stage career in 1934. Two years later, at the age of 22, he played the role of Osric in Hamlet in the West End and joined the Old Vic. He continued to play Shakespearean roles throughout his career. He was one of three British actors, along with Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud, who made the transition from theatre to films after the Second World War. Guinness served in the Royal Naval Reserve during the war and commanded a landing craft during the invasion of Sicily and Elba. During the war he was granted leave to appear in the stage play Flare Path about RAF Bomber Command.
Guinness won an Academy Award, a BAFTA, a Golden Globe and a Tony Award. In 1959 he was knighted by Elizabeth II for services to the arts. He received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960, the Academy Honorary Award for lifetime achievement in 1980 and the BAFTA Academy Fellowship Award in 1989. Guinness appeared in nine films that featured in the BFI's 100 greatest British films of the 20th century, which included five of Lean's films.
Guinness was born Alec Guinness de Cuffe at 155 Lauderdale Mansions South, Lauderdale Road, Maida Vale in London. His mother's maiden name was Agnes Cuff, born on 8 December 1890 to Edward Cuff and Mary Ann Benfield. On Guinness's birth certificate, his mother's name is given as Agnes de Cuffe; the infant's name (where first names only are placed) is given as Alec Guinness, and there are no details for the father.
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 boarding-school education at Pembroke Lodge, in Southborne, and Roborough, in Eastbourne. 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, whose behaviour was often erratic or even violent.
Guinness first worked writing advertising copy. His first job in the theatre was on his 20th birthday (April 1934), while he was a student at the Fay Compton Studio of Dramatic Art, in the play Libel, which opened at the old King's Theatre, Hammersmith, and then transferred to the West End's 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 the later 1930s, he took classes at the London Theatre Studio. In 1939, he took over for Michael Redgrave as Charleston in a road-show production of Robert Ardrey's Thunder Rock. At the Old Vic, Guinness 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 was film star 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), Malvolio 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's 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 30 April 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 13 July 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 30 May 1989, in the play A Walk in the Woods. In all, between 2 April 1934 and 30 May 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 (1949). Other films from this period included The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), The Man in the White Suit (1951) and The Ladykillers (1955), with all three ranked among the Best British films. In 1950 he portrayed 19th century British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli in The Mudlark, which included delivering an uninterrupted seven minute speech in Parliament. 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. Guinness was idolised by Peter Sellers--who himself would become famous for inhabiting a variety of characters in a film--with Sellers's first major film role starring alongside his idol in The Ladykillers.
Guinness's other notable film roles of this period included The Swan (1956) with Grace Kelly, in her penultimate film role; The Horse's Mouth (1958), in which Guinness played the part of drunken painter Gulley Jimson, and for which he also wrote the screenplay, which 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 particular 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 Faisal 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 initially negotiated a deal for 2% of the film's royalties paid to the director, George Lucas, who, upon the warm reception of the film with the press and film critics, and as a gesture of good-will for the positive amendments and suggestions Guinness proposed to the screenplay for the film, offered Guinness an additional 0.5%, bringing his share to 2.5%. When Guinness enquired about the share with the film's producer Gary Kurtz, and asked for a written agreement so as to codify his earnings, Kurtz revised Lucas's offering down to 0.25%, bringing Guinness's final, agreed-upon share of royalties paid to the director to 2.25% (Lucas received one-fifth of the overall 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. Guinness appeared in the film's sequels The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983), as a force ghost apparition to the trilogy's main character Luke Skywalker.
In 2003, Obi-Wan Kenobi as portrayed by Guinness was selected as the 37th-greatest hero in cinema history by the American Film Institute. Digitally altered archival audio of Guinness's voice was used in the films Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019).
Guinness was reluctant to appear on television, but accepted the part of George Smiley in the serialisation of John le Carré's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979) after meeting the author. Guinness reprised the role in Smiley's People (1982), and twice won the British Academy Television Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of the character. One of Guinness's last appearances was in the BBC drama Eskimo Day (1996).
Guinness won the Academy Award for Best Actor and the BAFTA Award for Best Actor in 1957 for his role in The Bridge on the River Kwai after having been unsuccessfully nominated for an Oscar in 1952 for his performance in The Lavender Hill Mob. 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 Academy Award 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. He received the BAFTA Academy Fellowship Award for lifetime achievement in 1989.
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. Guinness received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1559 Vine Street on 8 February 1960. Guinness was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 1955 Birthday Honours, and was knighted by Elizabeth II in the 1959 New Year Honours. In 1991, he received an honorary doctorate from Cambridge University. Guinness was appointed a Companion of Honour in the 1994 Birthday Honours for services to Drama.
Guinness married the artist, playwright, and actress Merula Silvia Salaman (1914-2000) in 1938; in 1940, they had a son, Matthew Guinness, who later became an actor. From the 1950s the family lived at their home Kettlebrook Meadows, near Steep Marsh in Hampshire. The house itself was designed by Merula's brother Eusty Salaman.
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. However, no record of any arrest has ever been found. Piers Paul Read, in his 2005 biography, suggests "The rumour is possibly a conflation of stories about Alec's 'cottaging' and the arrest of John Gielgud, in October 1953, in a public lavatory in Chelsea after dining with the Guinnesses at St. Peter's Square." This suggestion was not made until April 2001, eight months after his death, when a BBC Showbiz article related that new books claimed that Guinness was bisexual and that he had kept his sexuality private from the public eye and that the biography further said 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. Every morning, Guinness recited a verse from Psalm 143, "Cause me to hear your loving kindness in the morning".
Guinness died on the night of 5 August 2000 at Midhurst in West Sussex. He had been diagnosed with prostate cancer in February 2000, and had been diagnosed with liver cancer two days before he died, while his wife was also suffering from liver cancer. He was interred at Petersfield Cemetery, Hampshire.
Guinness wrote three volumes of a best-selling 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 Guinness asked the couple's close friend and fellow Catholic, novelist Piers Paul Read, to write Guinness's official biography. It was published in 2002.
For a number of years, British film exhibitors voted Guinness among the most popular stars in Britain at the box office via an annual poll in the Motion Picture Herald.