Alec Guinness

From New World Encyclopedia

Sir Alec Guinness
Sir Alec Guinness Allan Warren (2).jpg
Birth name: Alec Guinness de Cuffe
Date of birth: April 2, 1914(1914-04-2,)
Birth location: Paddington, London, England
Date of death: August 5 2000 (aged 86)
Death location: Midhurst, West Sussex, England
Academy Awards: Best Actor
1957 The Bridge on the River Kwai
Life Achievement Award (1980)
Spouse: Merula Salaman (1938-2000)

Sir Alec Guinness CH, CBE (April 2, 1914 – August 5, 2000) was an Academy Award and Tony Award-winning English actor. In his acting, he gave a new life to some of the greatest classics in the English language and also helped to promote new work, not least of all the Star Wars series of films despite his own ambivalence about these. He belonged to a generation of British actors who, honored at home and acclaimed abroad, succeeded in making the step from theatre to the “big screen.’[1]

Shy in private, he played roles that dominated the stage and screen. For many, he was also the quintessential English gentlemen, a true knight of the stage. On the other hand, he played a very convincing Godbole, an Indian, in the stage adaptation of E. M. Forster's A Passage to India, part of his acclaimed collaboration with David Lean and which skillfully exposed British colonial attitudes towards their subject peoples. His dedication to his craft makes his work an enduring contribution to film and drama, including films that help to tell the story of the age in which he lived, such as Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) for which he won his Oscar, set respectively during the First and Second World Wars while his Star Wars role points towards a more technologically advanced future in which the cosmic war between good and evil still features all too prominently.

Early life

Guinness was born on April 2, 1914 in Paddington, London as Alec Guinness de Cuffe.[2] Under the column for name (where the first names only are usually stated) his birth certificate says 'Alec Guinness.' There is nothing written in the column for name and surname of father. In the column for mother's name is written 'Agnes de Cuffe.' On this basis it has been frequently speculated that the actor's father was a member of the Irish Guinness family. However, his benefactor was a Scottish banker named Andrew Geddes, and the similarity of his name to the name written on the actor's birth certificate ('Alec Guinness') may be a subtle reference to the identity of the actor's father. From 1875, English law required both the presence and consent of the father when the birth of an illegitimate child was registered in order for his name to be put on the certificate. His mother's maiden name was Agnes Cuff. She would later marry a shell shocked veteran of the Anglo-Irish War who, according to Guinness, hallucinated that his own closets were filled with Sinn Féin gunmen waiting to kill him.

The man who believed he was Alec Guinness' biological father, Andrew Geddes, paid for the actor's private school education, but the two never met and the identity of his father continues to be debated.[3]


Guinness first worked writing copy for advertising before making his debut at the Albery Theatre in 1936 at the age of 22, playing the role of Osric in John Gielgud's wildly successful production of Hamlet. 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. On June 3, 1961, Guinness sent a letter to Laurel, 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.[4]

Guinness continued playing Shakespearean roles throughout his career. In 1937 he played the role of 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), 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 named David Lean, who had Guinness reprise his role in the former's 1946 film adaptation of the play.

Guinness served in the Royal Navy throughout World War II, serving first as a seaman in 1941 and being commissioned the following year. He commanded a landing craft taking part in the invasion of Sicily and Elba and later ferried supplies to the Yugoslav partisans.

Yvonne De Carlo and Alec Guinness in the comedy The Captain's Paradise (1953)

During the war, he appeared in Terence Rattigan's West End Play for Bomber Command, Flare Path. He returned to the Old Vic in 1946 and stayed through 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 himself as Shakespeare's Richard II. After leaving the Old Vic, he had a success as the Uninvited Guest in the Broadway production of T. S. Eliot's The Cocktail Party (1950, revived at the Edinburgh Festival in 1968), but his second attempt at the title role of Hamlet, this time under his own direction at the New Theatre (1951), proved a major theatrical disaster.

He was initially mainly associated 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 then starred in the comedy The Captain's Paradise (1953).

Invited by his friend Tyrone Guthrie to join in 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 son of York."

Alec Guinness and Rita Tushingam from the trailer for the 1965 film Doctor Zhivago

Guinness 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 Bridge on the River Kwai. For his performance as Colonel Nicholson, the unyielding British POW leader, Guinness won an Academy 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 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 adaptation of Ryan's Daughter (1970), but declined.

Other famous roles of this time period included The Swan (1956) with Grace Kelly in her 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 for Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium, Tunes of Glory (1960), Damn the Defiant! (1962), The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), The Quiller Memorandum (1966), Scrooge (1970), and the title role in Hitler: The Last Ten Days (1973) (which he considered his best film performance).

Guinness turned down roles in many well-received films - most notably The Spy Who Came in From the Cold - for ones that paid him better, although he won a Tony Award for his Broadway triumph as poet Dylan Thomas in Dylan. He followed this success up by playing the title role in Macbeth opposite Simone Signoret at the Royal Court Theatre in 1966, one of the most conspicuous failures of his career.

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 his last appearances was in the acclaimed BBC drama Eskimo Day.

Guinness received his fifth Oscar nomination for his performance in Charles Dickens' Little Dorrit in 1989. He received an honorary Oscar in 1980 "for advancing the art of screen acting through a host of memorable and distinguished performances."

Star Wars

Guinness' role as Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original Star Wars trilogy, beginning in 1977, brought him worldwide recognition by a new generation. Guinness agreed to take the part on the condition that he would not have to do publicity to promote the film. He was also one of the few cast members who believed that the film would be a box office hit and negotiated a deal for two percent of the gross, which made him very wealthy in later life.

However, Guinness was never happy with being identified with the part, and expressed great dismay at the fan following the Star Wars trilogy attracted. Nevertheless, in the DVD commentary of Star Wars: A New Hope, director George Lucas mentions that Guinness was not happy about the script re-write in which Obi-Wan is killed. Guinness once said in an interview that he "shrivelled up" every time Star Wars was mentioned to him. However, despite his dislike of the films, fellow cast members Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher (as well as Lucas) have always spoken highly of his courtesy and professionalism on and off the set; he did not let his distaste for the material show to his co-stars. In fact, Lucas credited him with inspiring fellow cast and crew to work harder, saying he was instrumental in helping to complete filming of the movies.

In his autobiography, Blessings In Disguise, Guinness tells an imaginary interviewer "Blessed be Star Wars!," while in the final volume of the book A Positively Final Appearance (1997), he recounts grudgingly giving an autograph to a young fan who claimed to have watched Star Wars over 100 times, on the condition that the fan promised to stop watching the film, because as Guinness put it "this is going to be an ill effect on your life." The fan was stunned at first, but later thanked him. Guinness grew so tired of modern audiences seeming to remember him only for his role of Obi-Wan Kenobi that he would throw away the fan mail he received from Star Wars fans, without reading it.[5]

Personal life

Guinness married the artist, playwright, and actress, Merula Salaman, a British Jew, in 1938, and they had a son in 1940, Matthew Guinness, who later became an actor.

Guinness consulted Tarot cards for a time, but came to the conclusion that the symbols of the cards mocked Christianity and Christ. He then burned his cards and shortly afterwards converted to Roman Catholicism.[6]

In his biography Alec Guinness: The Unknown, Garry O'Connor reveals that Guinness was arrested and fined ten guineas for a homosexual act in a public lavatory in Liverpool in 1946. Guinness avoided publicity by giving his name as Herbert Pocket to both police and court. The name "Herbert Pocket" was taken from the character in Charles Dickens' Great Expectations that Guinness had played on stage in 1939 and was also about to play in the film adaptation. The incident did not become public knowledge until April 2001, eight months after his death.

While serving in the Royal Navy, Guinness for a while planned on becoming an Anglican minister. In 1954, however, during the shooting of the film Father Brown, Alec and Merula Guinness were formally received into the Roman Catholic Church. They would remain devout and regular church-goers for the remainder of their lives. Their son Matthew had converted to Catholicism some time earlier.[7][8] Every day, Guinness recited a verse from Psalm 143, "Cause me to hear your loving kindness in the morning."[9]

Encounter with James Dean

In September 1955, Guinness met with the actor James Dean, then filming Rebel Without A Cause, who was showing off his new car, a Porsche 550 Spyder. Guinness said he had a premonition that Dean would die behind its wheel; a week later, Dean was killed in driving that car.[10]


Guinness died on August 5, 2000, from liver cancer, at Midhurst in West Sussex.[11] He had been receiving hospital treatment for glaucoma, and had recently been diagnosed with prostate cancer. He was interred in Petersfield, Hampshire, England. Merula Guinness died of cancer two months later [12] and was interred alongside her husband of 62 years.


The quality of his acting, as well as the subject matter of many of his films, is an enduring legacy. Not only did he help to give classical literature - such as novels by Charles Dickens as well as William Shakespeare's plays a new life in film but through many of his films he also helped to tell the story of the age in which he lived. Film that is also entertainment may not always tell all the historical details, or even exactly what happened. However, it may be the best medium for making history accessible. It enables viewers as no other medium does to penetrate the emotions and to understand the hopes and the dreams, the fears and the failings, the successes and the ambitions of the people involved. Read records that from early in his career, Guinness was himself conscious of his own acting ability, or even genius. He would act out roles in front of his friends, once commenting that he felt he had "the seeds of genius" within him. He also beleived that it was his responsibility to put this to good use.<ref name=Read>/ Describing Guinness' acting style and skill, Read cites Billington that unlike some actors' art his was not one of "naked, breast-baring self-revelation" but of "mimetic skill and behaviourist detail which meant a cancellation of himself" so that, despite his fame, he was often unrecognized when he walked down the street.[3]

Awards and honors

Guinness won the Academy Award as Best Actor in 1957 for his role in Bridge on the River Kwai. He was nominated in 1958 for his screenplay adapted from Joyce Cary's novel The Horse's Mouth and for Best Supporting Actor for his role as Obi-Wan Kenobi in 1977. He also received an Academy Honorary Award for lifetime achievement in 1980.

He was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1955, and was knighted in 1959. He became a Companion of Honour in 1994 at the age of 80.

He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1559 Vine Street.


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. His authorized biography was written by his close friend, British novelist Piers Paul Read. It was published in 2003.


Year Title Role Notes
1934 Evensong Extra (WWI soldier in audience) uncredited
1946 Great Expectations Herbert Pocket
1948 Oliver Twist Fagin
1949 Kind Hearts and Coronets The Duke, The Banker, The Parson, The General, The Admiral, Young Ascoyne, Young Henry, Lady Agatha
A Run for Your Money Whimple
1950 Last Holiday George Bird
The Mudlark Benjamin Disraeli
1951 The Lavender Hill Mob Henry Holland
The Man in the White Suit Sidney Stratton
1952 The Card Edward Henry ‘Denry’ Machin
1953 The Square Mile narrator short subject
Malta Story Flight Lt. Peter Ross
The Captain's Paradise Capt. Henry St. James
1954 Father Brown Father Brown
The Stratford Adventure narrator short subject
1955 Rowlandson's England narrator short subject
To Paris with Love Col. Sir Edgar Fraser
The Prisoner The Cardinal
The Ladykillers Professor Marcus
1956 The Swan Prince Albert
1957 The Bridge on the River Kwai Col. Nicholson Academy Award for Best Actor
Barnacle Bill Captain William Horatio Ambrose released in the US as All at Sea
1958 The Horse's Mouth Gulley Jimson also writer
1959 Our Man in Havana Jim Wormold
The Scapegoat John Barratt/Jacques De Gue
1960 Tunes of Glory Maj. Jock Sinclair, D.S.O., M.M.
1962 A Majority of One Koichi Asano
HMS Defiant Captain Crawford
Lawrence of Arabia Prince Feisal
1964 The Fall of the Roman Empire Marcus Aurelius
1965 Pasternak Himself short subject
Situation Hopeless... But Not Serious Wilhelm Frick
Doctor Zhivago Gen. Yevgraf Zhivago
1966 Hotel Paradiso Benedict Boniface
The Quiller Memorandum Pol
1967 The Comedians in Africa Himself uncredited, short subject
The Comedians Major H.O. Jones
1970 Cromwell King Charles I
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
1978 Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope Ben Obi-Wan Kenobi
The Star Wars Holiday Special Ben Obi-Wan Kenobi (stock footage from A New Hope)
1980 Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back Ben Obi-Wan Kenobi
Raise the Titanic John Bigalow
Little Lord Fauntleroy Earl of Dorincourt
1983 Lovesick Sigmund Freud
Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi Ben Obi-Wan Kenobi
1984 A Passage to India Professor Godbole
1988 'Little Dorrit William Dorrit
A Handful of Dust Mr. Todd
1991 Kafka The Chief Clerk
1993 A Foreign Field Amos
1994 Mute Witness The Reaper
1996 Eskimo Day James Television film
2015 Star Wars: The Force Awakens Obi-Wan Kenobi (voice) Posthumous release; archival audio
2019 Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker Obi-Wan Kenobi (voice) Posthumous release; archival audio


  1. This was the generation of Lord Laurence Olivier, Sir John Gielgud and Sir Ralph Richardson among others.
  2. GRO Register of Births: JUN 1914 1a 39 PADDINGTON - Alec Guinness De Cuffe, mmn = De Cuffe
  3. 3.0 3.1 Piers Paul Read, Alec Guinness: The Authorized Biography (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005, ISBN 9780743244985).
  4. Richard W. Bann, Laurel Letter Sold at Auction Retrieved July 24, 2022.
  5. The Shy Intovert who shone on screen The Guardian, August 7, 2000. Retrieved July 24, 2022.
  6. Michael Munn, X-Rated: The Paranormal Experiences of The Movie Star Greats (London: Robson Books, 1999, ISBN 9781861050175), 93.
  7. Rita Reichardt, How Father Brown Led Sir Alec Guinness to the Church Catholic Culture, June, 2005. Retrieved July 24, 2022.
  8. Tom Sutcliffe, Sir Alec Guinness: 1914-2000 The Guardian, August 7, 2000. Retrieved July 24, 2022.
  9. Allan Hunter, The Great Enigma: A celebration of Sir Alec Guinness's life Express, April 2, 2014. Retrieved July 24, 2022.
  10. Ryan Parker, Alec Guinness Warned James Dean About His Car One Week Before Deadly Crash Hollywood Reporter, July 11, 2017. Retrieved July 24, 2022.
  11. GRO Register of Deaths: AUG 2000 1DD 21 CHICHESTER - Alec Guinness, DoB = 2 Apr 1914 aged 86
  12. GRO Register of Deaths: OCT 2000 38C 104 PETERSFIELD - Merula Sylvia (Lady) Guinness, DoB = 16 Oct 1914 aged 86

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Guinness, Alec. Blessings in Disguise. New York: Knopf, 1986 ISBN 9780394552378
  • Guinness, Alec. My Name Escapes Me: The Diary of a Retiring Actor. New York, NY, U.S.A.: Viking, 1997. ISBN 9780670875894
  • Guinness, Alec. A Positively Final Appearance: A Journal, 1996-98. New York: Viking, 1999. ISBN 9780670888009
  • Munn, Michael. X-Rated: The Paranormal Experiences of The Movie Star Greats. London: Robson Books, 1999. ISBN 9781861050175
  • O'Connor, Garry. Alec Guinness: A Life. New York: Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, 2002. ISBN 9781557835741
  • Read, Piers Paul Alec Guinness: The Authorized Biography. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005. ISBN 9780743244985
  • Taylor, John Russell. Alec Guinness: A Celebration. Boston: Little, Brown, 1984. ISBN 9780316833752
  • Von Gunden, Kenneth. Alec Guinness: The Films. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1987. ISBN 9780899502052

External links

All links retrieved June 17, 2023.


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