Born on April 2, 1914, in Marylebone, England, Alec Guinness started doing stage work in the 1930s and performed in a number of classics. He established a film career both in Britain and in the U.S. and received several Oscar nominations, winning for The Bridge on the River Kwai. Other prominent films included Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Zhivago, Star Wars and A Passage to India. He died on August 5, 2000.
Alec Guinness de Cuffe was born on April 2, 1914, in Maida Vale, a neighborhood of west London. On his birth certificate, the spot for the father’s name was left blank, which indicated that his parents were not married. Scottish banker Andrew Geddes paid for Guinness’ private school education, but the identity of his father was never revealed.
After finishing school in 1932, Guinness began working as an apprentice copywriter in a London advertising agency. His desire to act soon became overriding, and the following year he auditioned for and won a small scholarship to the Fay Compton Studio of Dramatic Art; he made his stage debut in 1934 in Queer Cargo. He followed that role with an appearance in Hamlet, and by the time World War II began and Guinness enlisted in the Royal Navy, he had appeared in over 20 major stage productions. Adding to his resume were appearances with several acting heavyweights, such as Sir John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, Peggy Ashcroft and Edith Evans.
Early Film Work
Guinness’ film career began with his portrayal of Herbert Pocket in Great Expectations (1946), and he continued on with Charles Dickens with his memorable portrayal of Fagin in Oliver Twist in 1948. Another notable performance of the era came with the 1949 film Kind Hearts and Coronets, in which he played a total of eight characters, including women.
This film was followed by his portrayal of Benjamin Disraeli in the 1950 film The Mudlark. Roles in The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), The Ladykillers (1955) and The Swan (1956) all helped catapult Guinness to stardom, the 1950s proving to be a productive and important decade in Guinness’ career. He earned a best actor Oscar and Golden Globe for The Bridge on the River Kwai in 1957 and received another Oscar nomination the next year, this time as a screenwriter, for the satirical film The Horse’s Mouth. Other Academy nominations have included The Lavender Hill Mob, Star Wars (1977) and Little Dorrit (1988).
1960s and 1970s
During the 1960s, Guinness cemented his acting credentials with roles in such landmark films as Lawrence of Arabia (1962), The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), Doctor Zhivago (1965) and The Comedians (1967). The 1970s ushered in equal amounts of success, as Guinness appeared in such notable films as Cromwell and Scrooge (1970), Hitler: The Last Ten Days (1973) and Caesar and Cleopatra (1976).
Even with all these notable works under his belt, Alec Guinness might still be most widely known for playing Obi-Wan (Ben) Kenobi in Star Wars (1977). The film was an international sensation, and Guinness’ quietly powerful portrayal of the wise Jedi knight brought his name to a whole new generation of film audiences. After Star Wars’ nearly unprecedented success, Guinness reprised the role in the film’s equally successful sequels, The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983). Guinness reportedly hated working on Star Wars so much that he claims Obi-Wan’s death was his idea, as a means to limit his involvement in the film.
He was awarded a CBE in 1955, and four years later he was knighted for his accomplishments in theater and film. He also received an Honorary Academy Award for advancing the art of screen acting through a host of memorable and distinguished performances.
Guinness played John Le Carre’s master spy, George Smiley, in a pair of acclaimed 1980s TV miniseries, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People. His final role was in the TV movie Eskimo Day in 1996. The final part of his autobiography, which already comprised Blessings in Disguise (1985) and My Name Escapes Me (1996), was published in 1999 as A Positively Final Appearance. His official biography was written by Piers Paul Read and released in 2003.
Guinness married the artist, playwright and actress Merula Salaman in 1938, and they had a son in 1940, Matthew Guinness, who later became an actor. At 86 years of age, Alec Guinness died from liver cancer in Sussex on August 5, 2000, after receiving treatment for glaucoma and being diagnosed with prostate cancer. His widow died two months after him and was buried alongside her husband of 62 years.
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