Sir Alec Guinness
(1914 - 2000)

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One of the truly great acting Knights of the last century and a member of a generation of British actors that included Sir Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson, Sir Alec Guinness possessed an astonishing versatility that was amply displayed over the course of his 66-year career. Dubbed ‘the outstanding poet of anonymity’ by fellow actor Sir Peter Ustinov, Guinness was a consummate performer, effortlessly portraying characters that ranged from eight members of the same family to an aging Jedi master. Synonymous throughout most of his career with old-school British aplomb and dry wit, the actor was considered to be second only to Olivier in his popularity on both sides of the Atlantic. Theater critic J.C. Trewin once described Guinness as possessing

‘a player's countenance, designed for whatever might turn up’.

The latter half of this description was an apt summation of the actor's beginnings, which were positively Dickensian. Born into poverty in London on April 2, 1914, Guinness was an illegitimate child who did not know the name on his birth certificate was Guinness until he was 14 (until that time he had used his stepfather's surname, Stiven). Guinness never met his biological father, who provided his son's private school funds but refused to pay for his university education.

It was while working as an advertising copywriter that Guinness began going to the theatre, spending his pound-a-week salary on tickets. Determined to become an actor himself, he somehow found the money to pay for beginning acting lessons and subsequently won a place at the Fay Compton School of Acting. While studying there, he was told by his acting teacher Martita Hunt that he had ‘absolutely no talent.’ However, Sir John Gielgud apparently disagreed: as the judge of the end of term performance, he awarded Guinness an acting prize and further rewarded him with two roles in his 1934 production of Hamlet. Three years later, Guinness became a permanent member of Gielgud's London company and in 1938, playing none other than Hamlet himself.

In 1939, Guinness' stage version of Charles Dickens' Great Expectations, which featured the actor as Herbert Pocket, caught the attention of fledgling director David Lean. Seven years later, Lean would cast Guinness in the novel's screen adaptation; the 1946 film was the actor's second screen engagement, the first being the 1934 Evensong, in which he was an extra. It was in Lean's Oliver Twist (1948) that he had his first memorable onscreen role as Fagin, although his portrayal, complete with stereotypically Semitic gestures and heavy makeup, aroused charges of anti-Semitism in the United States that delayed the film's stateside release for three years.

Durning the war Guinness served with the Royal Navy and was hauled from the enlisted ranks to serve as an officer on one of Her Majesty’s landing crafts in the Mediterranean.

Guinness won bona fide international recognition for his work in Robert Hamer's Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), an Ealing black comedy that featured him as eight members of the d'Ascoyne family. He would subsequently be associated with a number of the classic Ealing comedies, including The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), The Man in the White Suit (1951), The Detective (1954), and The Ladykillers (1955). In 1955, Guinness' contributions to the arts were recognized by Queen Elizabeth, who dubbed him Commander of the British Empire. Two years later, he received recognition on the other side of the Atlantic when he won a Best Actor Oscar for his role as Colonel Nicholson, a phenomenally principled and at times foolhardy British POW in The Bridge on the River Kwai. This remains the role for which he is best known and for the typically british immovable stance which made Sessue Hayakawa speak the immortal lines,

‘Do not speak to me of rules. This is war, not a game of cricket’

This role, ironically, Guinness nearly turned down before being persuaded to take it by Jack Hawkins; his performance remained one of the most acclaimed of his career.


 


 

 

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