Wednesday, December 26, 2007
Sir Alec Guinness CH, CBE (2 April 1914 – 5 August 2000) was an Academy Award and Tony Award-winning English actor.
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.
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 Chorus 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.
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.
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."
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."
Career and war service
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.
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.
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; later that month, Dean was killed in a collision with another car.
Encounter with James Dean
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.
Awards and honours
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 authorised biography was written by his close friend, British novelist Piers Paul Read. It was published in 2003.
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