Guinness, (Sir) Alec

views updated May 18 2018

GUINNESS, (Sir) Alec

Nationality: British. Born: London, England, 2 April 1914. Education: Attended Pembroke Lodge, Southbourne; Roborough, Eastbourne; studied acting at the Fay Compton Studio of Dramatic Art, London. Military Service: Royal Navy, 1941–46. Family: Married the actress Merula Salaman, 1938, son: Matthew. Career: Copywriter for Arks Publicity; 1934—stage debut in Libel, Hammersmith, London; film debut in Evensong; 1942—on leave from Royal Navy to appear in British play on Broadway, Flare Path; 1946—debut in featured role in film Great Expectations; 1948—directed the stage play Twelfth Night; 1948—roles in films Oliver Twist and Kind Hearts and Coronets, 1949, brought international popularity; followed by a series of Ealing comedies; continued to act and direct on stage: directed and acted in The Cocktail Party, London, 1968, and co-devised and acted in Yahoo, London, 1976; 1982—in TV mini-series Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley's People. Awards: Best Actor Academy Award, Best Actor, New York Film Critics, and Best British Actor, British Academy, for The Bridge on the River Kwai, 1957; Best Actor, Venice Festival, for The Horse's Mouth, 1958; Special Academy Award, "for advancing the art of screen acting through a host of memorable and distinguished performances," 1979; Fellow of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, 1989, and of the British Film Institute, 1991; UK Film Critics' Circle Special Prize "for the brilliance of his career over more than forty years," 1989; Hon. D. Litt. (Oxon); Hon. Litt. D. (Cantab); Commander, Order of the British Empire, 1955; Knighted, 1959; made Companion of Honour, 1994. Died: In Midhurst, England, 5 August 2000.

Films as Actor:


Evensong (Saville) (as extra)


Great Expectations (Lean) (as Herbert Pocket)


Oliver Twist (Lean) (as Fagin)


Kind Hearts and Coronets (Hamer) (as eight members of the d'Ascoyne family); A Run for Your Money (Frend) (as Whimple)


Last Holiday (Cass) (as George Bird); The Mudlark (Negulesco) (as Disraeli)


The Lavender Hill Mob (Charles Crichton) (as Henry Holland); The Man in the White Suit (Mackendrick) (as Sidney Stratton)


The Card (The Promoter) (Neame) (as Edward Henry "Denry" Machin)


The Captain's Paradise (Paradise) (Kimmins) (as Capt. Henry St. James); Malta Story (Hurst) (as Flight Lt. Peter Ross); The Square Mile (Pine—short) (as narrator)


Father Brown (The Detective) (Hamer) (title role); To Paris with Love (Hamer) (as Col. Sir Edgar Fraser); Stratford Adventure (Parker—short) (as guest)


The Prisoner (Glenville) (as the Cardinal); The Ladykillers (Mackendrick) (as Prof. Marcus); Rowlandson's England (Hawkesworth—short) (as narrator)


The Swan (Charles Vidor) (as Prince Albert)


The Bridge on the River Kwai (Lean) (as Col. Nicholson); Barnacle Bill (All at Sea) (Frend) (as William Horatio Ambrose)


The Horse's Mouth (Neame) (as Gulley Jimson, + sc); The Scapegoat (Hamer) (as John Barrett/Jacques de Gue)


Our Man in Havana (Reed) (as Jim Wormold)


Tunes of Glory (Neame) (as Lt. Col. Jock Sinclair)


A Majority of One (LeRoy) (as Koichi Asano)


H.M.S. Defiant (Damn the Defiant!) (Lewis Gilbert) (as Capt. Crawford); Lawrence of Arabia (Lean) (as Prince Feisal)


The Fall of the Roman Empire (Anthony Mann) (as Marcus Aurelius)


Situation Hopeless—But Not Serious (Reinhardt) (as Herr Wilhelm Frick); Doctor Zhivago (Lean) (as Gen. Yevgraf Zhivago)


Hotel Paradiso (Glenville) (as Boniface); The Quiller Memorandum (Anderson) (as Pol)


The Comedians (Glenville) (as Major Jones); The Comedians in Africa (short on the making of The Comedians)


Cromwell (Hughes) (as Charles I); Scrooge (Neame) (as Marley's Ghost)


Fratello Sole, Sorella Luna (Brother Sun, Sister Moon) (Zeffirelli) (as Pope Innocent III)


Hitler: The Last Ten Days (De Concini) (title role)


Murder by Death (Moore) (as Jamessir Bensonmum, the butler)


Star Wars (Lucas) (as Ben Obi-Wan Kenobi); To See Such Fun (Scofield—compilation)


The Empire Strikes Back (Kershner) (as Ben Obi-Wan Kenobi); Raise the Titanic (Jameson) (as John Bigalow); Little Lord Fauntleroy (Gold—for TV) (as Earl de Dorincourt)


Lovesick (Brickman) (as Freud); Return of the Jedi (Marquand) (as Ben Obi-Wan Kenobi)


A Passage to India (Lean) (as Prof. Godbole); Future Schlock (Kiely and Peak) (as man in the white suit); Edwin (Rodney Bennett—for TV) (as Sir Fennimore Truscott)


Monsignor Quixote (Rodney Bennett—for TV) (title role)


Little Dorrit (Part I: Nobody's Fault, and Part II: Little Dorrit's Story) (Edzard) (as William Dorrit)


A Handful of Dust (Sturridge) (as Mr. Todd)


Kafka (Soderbergh) (as the Chief Clerk)


Tales from Hollywood (Howard Davies—for TV) (as Heinrich Mann)


A Foreign Field (Sturridge—for TV) (as Amos)


Mute Witness (Waller) (as the Reaper)


Eskimo Day (Haggard—for TV) (as James)


By GUINNESS: book—

Blessings in Disguise, London, 1985.

A Positively Final Appearance; A Journal 1996–98, New York, 1998.

My Name Escapes Me; The Diary of a Retiring Actor, New York, 1997.

By GUINNESS: articles—

"The Artist Views the Critics," in Atlantic (New York), March 1953.

"Man of Many Faces," interview with D. Hill, in Films and Filming (London), February 1955.

"Life with a Pinch of Salt," interview in Films and Filming (London), November 1965.

Interview with John Russell Taylor, in American Film (Los Angeles), April 1989.

On GUINNESS: books—

Tynan, Kenneth, Alec Guinness, New York, 1954.

Hunter, Allan, Alec Guinness on Screen, Glasgow, 1982.

Taylor, John Russell, Alec Guinness: A Celebration, London, 1984.

Missler, Andreas, Alec Guinness: Sein Filme, SeinLeben, Munich, 1987.

Von Gunden, Kenneth, Alec Guinness: The Films, Jefferson, North Carolina, 1987.

Harwood, Ronald, editor, Dear Alec: Guinness at 75, London, 1989.

Tanitch, Robert, Guinness, London, 1989.

On GUINNESS: articles—

McVay, Douglas, "Alec Guinness," in Films and Filming (London), May 1961.

Billings, P., "Sir Alec Guinness," in Focus on Film (London), Autumn 1972.

Current Biography 1981, New York, 1981.

Millar, Gavin, "Goonery and Guinness," in Films and Filming (London), January 1983.

Kennedy, Harlan, "Sir Alec," in Film Comment (New York), July/August 1983.

Thomson, David, "Gray Ghost," in Film Comment (New York), vol. 23, no. 2, 1987.

Norman, Barry, "Barry Norman On" in Radio Times (London), 28 September 1991.

Radio Times (London), 30 April 1994.

Stars (Mariembourg), Spring 1995.

Norman, Barry, "The Outrageous Fortune of Alec Guinness," in Radio Times (London), 22 February 1997.

Obituary in New York Times, 7 August 2000.

Obituary in Washington Post, 13 August 2000.

Vineberg, Steve, "A Modest Creator of Quiet Dreams" in New York Times, 13 August 2000.

"Man of a Thousand Masks," in Statesman (India), 14 August 2000.

* * *

The consummate chameleon, Alec Guinness successfully portrayed a timid but larcenous bank clerk, a brashly eccentric artist, a tortured Cardinal, the villainous Fagin, a fiery Scottish braggart, and a sad-eyed Arab prince of great cunning. According to Harlan Kennedy: "Almost alone among film actors, Guinness can assume the paraphernalia of makeup and funny voices and eccentric walks without losing a molecule of credibility. He never allows the weight of disguise to panic him into a matching hyperbole of voice and gesture." Guinness once admitted: "I try to get inside a character and project him—one of my own private rules of thumb is that I have not got a character unless I have mastered exactly how he walks . . . It's not sufficient to concentrate on his looks. You have got to know his mind—to find out what he thinks, how he feels, his background, his mannerisms."

Throughout his long career, Guinness rarely succumbed to excess. This probably had more to do with his naturally withdrawn and reflective character, his passion for anonymity. One cannot imagine Olivier stating, for example, that he became an actor to escape himself, which is precisely the reason Guinness has given. Guinness's artistic goals ("learning to pare down one's performance: learning to cut the flourishes") reflected that personal reserve.

It is to another great British actor, John Gielgud, that Guinness owed his beginnings. Gielgud recommended him as a student to actress-teacher Martita Hunt (with whom Guinness would later co-star in Great Expectations) who, after several lessons, gave Guinness back his money: "I'm afraid you're wasting your time. You'll never be an actor." Luckily, Guinness persevered, winning a two-year scholarship to the Fay Compton Studio of Dramatic Art, where he was awarded (by Gielgud) the school's annual prize at graduation. Later, Gielgud offered him the part of Osric in his production of Hamlet. It was the turning point in Guinness's career. He worked for Gielgud and at the Old Vic until the outbreak of World War II, registering most strongly as a modern-day Hamlet at the Old Vic.

Guinness's film career began after he returned from the war, when he played Herbert Pocket in David Lean's Great Expectations, a role he had played in his own stage version of the Dickens novel. Guinness then pestered Lean into allowing him to play Fagin in Oliver Twist. Despite the elaborate makeup, he made the role completely credible—a full-blooded, pathetic Victorian monster. In the United States, critics deemed the performance anti-Semitic, and the film was heavily cut.

But it was his fourth film, Kind Hearts and Coronets, that made him a star. Beginning a long association with Ealing Studios, he appeared as eight characters, ranging from a doddering parson to a militant suffragette, whom the ninth in line to a duchy (Dennis Price) has to prune from the family tree. He received an Oscar nomination for The Lavender Hill Mob (as an obsequious bank clerk who succumbs to temptation). His reputation as a serious actor came with The Prisoner, a harrowing drama in which he played a persecuted cardinal behind the iron curtain.

Guinness's next important role was as the arrogant Colonel Nicholson, obsessed with his own code of rules and conventions in The Bridge on the River Kwai, a performance that garnered him several major awards. Ironically, it was a role director David Lean had to persuade him to take on because Guinness had a difficult time getting a grip on the character. Although memorable in The Horse's Mouth (his screenplay for the film was nominated for the Oscar), his next great role was in Tunes of Glory. Eschewing the more familiar role of a rigid martinet outsider (effectively portrayed by John Mills), he opted for the role of Jock Sinclair, an insensitive, hotheaded braggart whose outrageously clannish behavior brings about Mills's suicide and his own character's ultimate downfall.

His next leading role was the first one for which Guinness received unfavorable reviews. As the widowed Japanese diplomat Koichi Asano in A Majority of One, his only possible consolation was that Rosalind Russell, as the Yiddish widow Erma Jacoby, was as badly miscast as he. In the years that followed, Guinness played a number of supporting roles, the most significant of which were Prince Feisal in Lawrence of Arabia, Charles I in Cromwell, Ben Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars, and Professor Godbole in A Passage to India, David Lean's comeback film after almost 16 years of directorial inactivity.

Over the years, Guinness has also turned in some outstanding performances on television—most notably in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley's People, based on the espionage novels of John Le Carré; Little Lord Fauntleroy; and Monsignor Quixote, from the novel by Graham Greene. Guinness returned to the big screen, and to Dickens country, in the epic length Little Dorrit in 1987. He also had a small role in Kafka, released in 1991.

—Catherine Henry, updated by John McCarty

Alec Guinness

views updated May 29 2018

Alec Guinness

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.

Big Break

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

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. □

Guinness, Sir Alec

views updated May 23 2018

Guinness, Sir Alec (1914–2000) British actor. He is best-known for his film performances in the Ealing Studios comedies, such as The Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), Lavender Hill Mob (1951) and The Ladykillers (1955). He won an Academy Award for best actor in Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). Other films include Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Doctor Zhivago (1965), Star Wars (1977), A Passage to India (1984), and Little Dorrit (1988). He was knighted in 1959.