Sir Alec Guinness, CH, CBE (2 April 1914 – 5 August 2000) was a Roman Catholic English actor. He featured in several of the Ealing Comedies, including Kind Hearts and Coronets in which he played eight different characters. Guinness later won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role as Colonel Nicholson in The Bridge on the River Kwai. His most prominent role in his later career was as Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original Star Wars trilogy.

Early years

Guinness was born at 155 Lauderdale Mansions South, Lauderdale Road, Maida Vale, London as Alec Guinness De Cuffe.[1] On his birth certificate, under the column for name (where the first names only are usually stated) it 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 (born 8 December 1890), daughter of Edward Cuff and wife Mary Ann Cuff Benfield. She would later marry a shell shocked veteran of the Anglo-Irish War, suffering hallucinations from what would later become known as PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). Andrew Geddes paid for the actor's private school education, but the two never met and the identity of Alec Guinness's father has never been confirmed.[2]

Early career and war service

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.[3]

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 Volunteer Reserve in World War II, serving first as a seaman in 1941 and being commissioned the following year.[4] He commanded a landing craft taking part in the invasion of Sicily and Elba and later ferried supplies to the Yugoslav partisans.

During the war, he appeared in Terence Rattigan's West End Play for RAF Bomber Command, Flare Path.

Post-war career

He 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 himself 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 also 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.

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 sun of York."

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 The 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 penultimate 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), Marley's Ghost in Scrooge (1970), Charles I of England in Cromwell (1970), and the title role in Hitler: The Last Ten Days (1973) (which he considered his best film performance; critics disagreed).[5]

He won a Tony Award for his Broadway triumph as poet Dylan Thomas in Dylan. He followed this success 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.[6]

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. His role would also result in a Golden Globe Nomination and Academy Award Nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

Despite this, Guinness was never happy with being identified with the part, and expressed dismay at the fan-following that the Star Wars trilogy attracted. In the DVD commentary of Star Wars: A New Hope, director George Lucas says that Guinness was not happy with the script re-write in which Obi-Wan is killed. However, Guinness stated 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. Lucas agreed to the idea, but Guinness confided 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 continued by saying that he "shrivelled up" every time Star Wars was mentioned to him.[7] Despite his dislike of the films, fellow cast members Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Anthony Daniels, and Carrie Fisher (as well as Lucas) have spoken highly of his courtesy and professionalism on and off the set, wherein he did not let his distaste for the material show to his co-stars. Lucas credited him with inspiring fellow cast and crew to work harder, saying he was instrumental in helping to complete filming of the movies.

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!", 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 (though some sources say it went differently)[8] . 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.[9]

Personal life

Guinness married the artist, playwright, and actress Merula Sylvia Salaman (16 October 1914 – 18 October 2000) in 1938; in 1940, they had a son, Matthew Guinness, who later became an actor. Merula Salaman had been raised in the Jewish faith. Alec Guinness consulted Tarot cards for a time, but came to the conclusion that the symbols of the cards mocked Christianity and burned the cards. He would later convert to Roman Catholicism, along with his wife.[10] 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.[11] The authenticity of this incident has been doubted, however, including by Piers Paul Read, Guinness's official biographer, who believes that Guinness was mixed up with John Gielgud, who was infamously arrested for such an act at the same period, though Read nonetheless acknowledges Guinness's bisexuality.[12]

While serving in the Royal Navy, Guinness had planned to become an Anglican priest. However, in 1954, while he was filming Father Brown in Burgundy, Guinness, who was in costume as a cleric, was mistaken for a priest by a local child. The confidence and affection the church appeared to inspire in the boy, left a deep impression on the actor.[13] Alec and Merula Guinness were formally received into the Roman Catholic Church in 1956.[13] They would remain devout and regular church-goers for the remainder of their lives. Their son Matthew had converted to Catholicism some time earlier.[14][15] Every morning, Guinness recited a verse from Psalm 143, "Cause me to hear your loving kindness in the morning".[16]


Guinness died on 5 August 2000, from liver cancer, at Midhurst in West Sussex.[17] He had been receiving hospital treatment for glaucoma, and had recently also been diagnosed with prostate cancer. He was interred in Petersfield, Hampshire, England. His widow, Lady Merula Guinness died of cancer in Petersfield, two months after her husband, also aged 86.[18] and was interred alongside her husband of sixty-two years.

Encounter with James Dean

On Friday, 23 September 1955, Guinness was at the Villa Capri restaurant in San Diego, California and found no table available. The actor James Dean, then filming Giant, invited Guinness to sit at his table. During lunch, Dean entertained Guinness with tales of Lee Strasberg and boasted about his new car, a Porsche 550 Spyder. Upon leaving the restaurant, Dean insisted on showing the gift-wrapped car to Guinness, who had a premonition that Dean would die behind its wheel within the next week. Dean was later killed in the car exactly one week later, after being hit almost head-on by another vehicle.[19][20][21]

Awards and honours

Guinness won the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1957 for his role in The 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 Star Wars in 1977. He also 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.

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.

He was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1955, and was knighted in 1959. In 1991, Guinness received an honorary doctorate from Cambridge University.[22] Three years later, he was bestowed the title of Companion of Honour 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. He recorded each of them as an audiobook. His authorised biography was written by his close friend, British novelist Piers Paul Read. It was published in 2003.


Year Film 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 Nominated — Academy Award for Best Actor
The Man in the White Suit Sidney Stratton
1952 The Card Edward Henry ‘Denry’ Machin released in the US as The Promoter
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 Himself 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
Nominated — Academy Award for Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay)
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
1977 Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope Obi-Wan "Ben" Kenobi Nominated — Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor
1979 Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy George Smiley
1980 Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back Obi-Wan "Ben" Kenobi
Raise the Titanic John Bigalow
Little Lord Fauntleroy Earl of Dorincourt
1982 Smiley's People George Smiley
1983 Lovesick Sigmund Freud
Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi Obi-Wan "Ben" Kenobi
1984 A Passage to India Professor Godbole
1985 Monsignor Quixote Monsignor Quixote
1988 Little Dorrit William Dorrit Nominated — Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor
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


  1. GRO Register of Births: JUN 1914 1a 39 PADDINGTON - Alec Guinness De Cuffe, mmn = De Cuffe
  2. "Alec Guinness biography at MSN Movies". Retrieved 2007-07-29. 
  3. On June 3, 1961, Alec Guinness sent a letter to Stan Laurel,[1] 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. Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (RNVR) Officers 1939-1945
  6. "Alec Guinness: A Celebration" by John Russell Taylor, Little, Brown & Company, pp.133-134
  7. "Alec Guinness Blasts Jedi 'Mumbo Jumbo'". 1999-09-08. 
  8. Guinness, Alec. "A Positively Final Appearance". Viking. ""Well," I said, "do you think you could promise never to see Star Wars again?" He burst into tears. His mother drew herself up to an immense height. "What a dreadful thing to say to a child!" she barked, and dragged the poor kid away. Maybe she was right but I just hope the lad, now in his thirties, is not living in a fantasy world of secondhand, childish banalities." 
  9. "The shy introvert who shone on screen". The Guardian. August 7, 2000.,4029,351460,00.html. 
  10. X-Rated: The Paranormal Experiences of The Movie Star Greats by Michael Munn, p. 93, Robson Books, 1999
  11. "Sir Alec Guiness was bisexual". BBC News (Showbiz). 2001-04-16. Retrieved 2009-08-24. 
  12. Piers Paul Read, Alec Guinness: The Authorised Biography, London, 2005
  13. 13.0 13.1 "Sir Alec Guinness". Telegraph (Obituaries). 2000-08-08. Retrieved 2009-08-26. 
  14. Rita Reichardt (August 7, 2000). "How Father Brown Led Sir Alec Guinness to the Church". Catholic Answers, Inc.. Retrieved 2009-08-26. 
  15. Tom Sutcliffe (August 7, 2000). "Sir Alec Guinness (1914-2000)". The Guardian.,4029,351452,00.html. Retrieved 2009-08-26. 
  16. The invisible man, by Hugh Davies, originally published in the Telegraph and reprinted in The Sunday Age, 13 August 2000.
  17. GRO Register of Deaths: AUG 2000 1DD 21 CHICHESTER - Alec Guinness, DoB = 2 Apr 1914 aged 86
  18. GRO Register of Deaths: OCT 2000 38C 104 PETERSFIELD - Merula Sylvia (Lady) Guinness, DoB = 16 Oct 1914 aged 86
  19. Guinness, Alec. Blessings in Disguise [Random House, 1985, ISBN 0-394-55237-7], ch. 4 (pp. 34-35)
  20. YouTube - Premonition of Sir Alec Guiness
  21. Olga Craig (September 24, 2005). "Revealed: the truth behind the crash that killed James Dean". 
  22. "Honorary Degrees conferred from 1977 till present". Cambridge University. Retrieved 2008-12-18. 

Further reading

  • McCarten, John (4 February 1950). "Eliot and Guiness". The New Yorker 25 (50): 25–26. 

External links

This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at Alec Guinness. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.

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