The British actor Sir Alec Guinness (born 1914) was noted for his versatility and disguise. In his career, which spanned more than half a century, he performed in a wide range of roles on stage, in films, and for television.
The birth certificate registers Alec Guinness de Cuffe as born on April 2, 1914. Speculation as to Guinness' paternity levels the responsibility at a banker named Andrew Geddes, who paid for young Alec's board and schooling. When Guinness was five years old, his mother married a Scot named David Stiven and for a time Stiven became the boy's surname.
Guinness developed an early love for the variety show and, later, the legitimate theater. When he was six, it was as the guest of a kindly elderly Russian lady that he was first taken to the Coliseum. There he was mesmerized by Nellie Wallace's act. His benefactress allowed him to purchase a small bouquet for Miss Wallace, which was delivered to her backstage.
As a teenager, Guinness posted a letter to Sybil Thorn-dike. He had just seen her in The Squall and was curious as to how to create thunder onstage for his school play. Miss Thorndike brought him backstage after a matinee performance of Ghosts (to which she also provided the youth a seat) and gave him a first-hand viewing of the storm mechanisms.
With his schooling complete, Guinness began employment as a copywriter at a London advertising agency. But he was determined to break into the theater. He decided to audition for the coveted Leverhulme scholarship at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. The Royal Academy, however, offered no such scholarship that year, and learning this on the very day of the alleged audition, Guinness walked into another audition, for the Fay Compton Studio of Dramatic Art. He was accepted. The studio offered a full scholarship but no stipend, so after seven months, in 1934, Guinness was forced to seek employment again—this time as an actor.
His first role was as a non-speaking junior counselor in Libel!, followed by three small parts—a Chinese cook, a French pirate, and a British sailor—in Queer Cargo. These were the inauspicious beginnings of a long career filled with a vast array of character roles.
Guinness' "big break, " as he saw it and as it is recounted by others, came in November of 1934 when John Gielgud cast him as the Third Player and, later, as Osric in Hamlet.
From the inception of his career Guinness had the good fortune of performing with Britain's most notable actors— among them John Gielgud, Laurence Oliver, Peggy Ashcroft, and Edith Evans. He was directed by such world class figures as Gielgud, Tyrone Guthrie, Theodore Komisargevsky, Peter Brook, and, in film, David Lean.
Guinness played in Gielgud's 1935 revival of Romeo and Juliet; acted in the 1936-1937 all-Shakespeare season at the Old Vic, understudying Laurence Olivier in the title role for Guthrie's production of Hamlet. However, Guinness was not able to shake his image of Gielgud's Hamlet when the next year he was cast in the role by Guthrie for his famous modern-dress, uncut version. Although he was praised for giving a sincere portrayal, the ever self-critical Guinness was disappointed in his Hamlet. Years later he wrote, "I was over-familiar with Gielgud's manner and timing. If only Tony had said to me, 'Forget about John …, ' I might have come up with something truer to myself."
Guinness' stage career was interrupted by World War II, during which he served in the British navy. The war had a profound effect on him, but, in his characteristic way, Guinness viewed the experience with humor. When asked what he considered to have been his best performance, Guinness often replied, "That of a very inefficient, undistinguished, junior officer in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve. It also proved to be the longest-running show I have ever been in."
Guinness' postwar roles became increasingly more diverse. At the Edinburgh Festival in 1949 he originated the role of Sir Henry Harcourt-Reilly in T. S. Eliot's The Cocktail Party. He performed at the inauguration of Canada's Shakespearean Festival in Stratford in 1953 in the title role of Richard III and as the King of France in All's Well That Ends Well. The 1960s brought major roles in Rattigan's Ross, Ionesco's Exit the King and Dylan, and Miller's Incident at Vichy. He received a Tony award for his portrayal of the title role in Dylan (1964).
More Time to Films
Meanwhile Guinness devoted more and more of his time to film. He had made his debut in Evensong (1934) as an extra, and next appeared onscreen as Herbert Pocket in Great Expectations (1947), but it was Kind Hearts and Coronets in 1949 that established him as a film actor of note. In that film he adroitly impersonated eight family members. Perhaps his most famous screen role was that of Colonel Nicholson in The Bridge Over the River Kwai (1957), for which he won an Oscar for best actor. Another unforgettable Guinness performance was that of the butler, Bensonnum, in Neil Simon's Murder by Death (1976). In a greatly different role he played Ben (Obi-Wan) Kenobi in Star Wars (1977), a role which earned him a best supporting actor Oscar nomination. Because of the hype surrounding the re-release of Star Wars, Guinness declined to attend the London premiere in 1997.
Guinness also adapted novels to the stage (Great Expectations, 1939, and The Brothers Karamazov, 1946) and directed (Hamlet, 1951). In the 1980s he also made television appearances, such as that of George Smiley in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1980).
Guinness was characterized as "excruciatingly shy" and was quoted as saying he possessed "an unfortunate chameleon quality" that held him in good stead as an actor "but not as a person." He was knighted in 1959, and in 1990 he lived modestly with his wife, Merula (Salaman) at their country home in Hampshire. He has grown ever more reclusive in his later years.
Further Reading on Alec Guinness
Guinness credits are cited in Contemporary Theatre, Film, and Television (Vol. 1); There are Guinness entries in Who's Who in Theatre and in The Oxford Companion to the Theatre; John Clifford Mortimer devotes several pages to the actor's work in his 1988 Character Parts; Kenneth Von Grunden's Alec Guinness:The Films offers the most comprehensive study of Guinness's film career, coupled with his biography; Guinness's own Blessings in Disguise (1985) reveals a man of great intellect, wit, and honesty.