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Guinness, Alec (1914-2000)


Main image of Guinness, Alec (1914-2000)

Of the great acting knights of the 20th century, none so whole-heartedly embraced the cinema as the chameleon Sir Alec Guinness. True, he began on the stage in 1934, having trained with the Fay Compton School (and privately with Martita Hunt), and would return to it regularly, with laudable results.

Prewar he joined the Old Vic, playing a wide range of supporting roles and a famous modern-dress Hamlet in 1938. After World War II service in the Royal Navy, he starred in such diverse plays as T.S. Eliot's The Cocktail Party (1950), Terence Rattigan's Ross (1960) winning the Evening Standard Award for the title role, and as the blind protagonist of John Mortimer's A Voyage Round My Father (1971).

Household fame, though, came with films. An extra in Evensong (d. Victor Saville, 1934), he didn't film again until his beautifully exact Herbert Pocket in David Lean's Great Expectations (1946), followed by his controversially repulsive Fagin in Oliver Twist (1948) and the series of Ealing comedies with which, to this day, his name is most tenaciously associated. (Except of course by the very young who know him only as Obi-Wan in Star Wars (US, d. George Lucas, 1977), for which he famously took a percentage and needed never to work again.)

There are seven of these comedies, most memorable of which are the immaculate Kind Hearts and Coronets (d. Robert Hamer, 1949), in which he played eight members of a ducal family, The Lavender Hill Mob (d. Charles Crichton, 1951), as the mild bank clerk dreaming larcenously of gold bars, The Man in the White Suit (d. Alexander Mackendrick, 1951), as an inventor in the grip of an idée fixe, and The Ladykillers (d. Mackendrick, 1955), as the unctuous, snaggle-toothed leader of a gang of incompetent crooks. In 1989, he claimed never to feel comfortable playing characters too like himself, and most of these films allow physical disguise to complement the inner obsessions. His own physical appearance as a young man was pleasantly ordinary rather than glamorously film starrish.

Ealing made him one of the great character stars of British films, but there are other treasurable performances as well: on-the-make Denry in The Card (d. Ronald Neame, 1952); the Cardinal under interrogation in The Prisoner (d. Peter Glenville, 1955); the madly zealous Colonel Nicholson in The Bridge on the River Kwai (d. David Lean, 1957), for which he won the Oscar; the hard-drinking extroverted Jock in Tunes of Glory (d. Ronald Neame, 1960); and a touching Charles I in the underrated Cromwell (d. Ken Hughes, 1970).

There were miscalculations too; he would have agreed that the heroes of such romantic comedies as The Captain's Paradise (d. Anthony Kimmins, 1952) and To Paris with Love (d. Robert Hamer, 1954) might have been better served by Rex Harrison and his six-film association with Lean came to an inglorious end with his black-face turn as Godbole in A Passage to India (1984).

Though there is a steady trickle of international films, dating back to The Swan (US, d. Charles Vidor, 1956), he remains an essentially British phenomenon. He continued to act almost until his death, submerging himself in an amazing array of characters. Despite being heaped with honours - CBE in 1955, knighthood in 1959, Companion of Honour in 1994, as well as numerous acting awards - he remained the most private of celebrities, keeping his real self for his real life.

He married actress Merula Salaman in 1938 and their son Matthew Guinness (b.1940) had small roles in a number of films, first playing his father as a boy in The Card.

Autobiographies: Blessings in Disguise (1985), My Name Escapes Me (1997). Biographies: Alec Guinness: The Films by Kenneth Von Gunden (1987).

Brian McFarlane, Encyclopedia of British Cinema

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Bridge on the River Kwai, The (1957)Bridge on the River Kwai, The (1957)

The first large-scale David Lean epic, a multi-Oscar-winning World War II saga

Thumbnail image of Doctor Zhivago (1965)Doctor Zhivago (1965)

David Lean's epic version of Boris Pasternak's novel

Thumbnail image of Great Expectations (1946)Great Expectations (1946)

David Lean's definitive Dickens adaptation

Thumbnail image of Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

Deliciously dark comedy, featuring no fewer than nine Alec Guinnesses

Thumbnail image of Ladykillers, The (1955)Ladykillers, The (1955)

A gang of ruthless criminals meet their match in the elderly Mrs Wilberforce

Thumbnail image of Lavender Hill Mob, The (1951)Lavender Hill Mob, The (1951)

A group of eccentric Londoners plot the perfect crime

Thumbnail image of Lawrence of Arabia (1962)Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Spectacular David Lean epic about the desert adventurer

Thumbnail image of Man in the White Suit, The (1951)Man in the White Suit, The (1951)

Ealing classic with naive inventor Alec Guinness up against British industry

Thumbnail image of Oliver Twist (1948)Oliver Twist (1948)

David Lean's definitive version of Charles Dickens' classic novel

Thumbnail image of Our Man in Havana (1959)Our Man in Havana (1959)

Alec Guinness is out of his depth in pre-revolution Cuba

Thumbnail image of Quiller Memorandum, The (1966)Quiller Memorandum, The (1966)

Berlin-set spy thriller about a neo-Nazi gang, scripted by Harold Pinter

Thumbnail image of Eskimo Day (1996)Eskimo Day (1996)

Poignant comedy-drama about three Cambridge applicants and their parents

Thumbnail image of Smiley's People (1982)Smiley's People (1982)

The sequel to 'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy', again starring Alec Guinness

Thumbnail image of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979)Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979)

Classic adaptation of John Le Carré's cold war novel

Thumbnail image of Twelfth Night (1970)Twelfth Night (1970)

Acclaimed television adaptation with Ralph Richardson and Alec Guinness

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Thumbnail image of Lean, David (1908-1991)Lean, David (1908-1991)

Director, Writer, Editor

Thumbnail image of Neame, Ronald (1911-2010)Neame, Ronald (1911-2010)

Cinematographer, Director, Writer

Thumbnail image of Ealing Studios (1938-59)Ealing Studios (1938-59)

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