×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Thesp Guinness dies at 86

Knighted actor best known for roles in 'Kwai,' 'Star Wars'

Sir Alec Guinness, one of Britain’s preeminent actors for more than half a century and a sovereign film comedian, has died, reportedly of liver cancer, at the age of 86 in Sussex, England on Saturday.

He was rushed by ambulance to King Edward VII Hospital on Thursday after becoming ill at his home near Petersfield.

Along with Laurence Olivier, Guinness was one of the few English thesps to achieve as much fame in the U.S. as in his native land — in films, in the theater and on television.

Guinness won an Academy Award for his performance in David Lean’s “Bridge on the River Kwai” (1957) and a Tony for his 1964 portrayal of Dylan Thomas in “Dylan.” And he was nominated for an Emmy for his work in John Le Carre’s “Smiley’s People.”

He was especially celebrated for his performances in “Kind Hearts and Coronets” (1949), “The Lavender Hill Mob” (1951), “The Ladykillers” (1955) and “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962).

But despite countless masterly theatrical performances in the works of Shakespeare, Dickens and Chekhov, and more than 50 films, the blue-eyed, soft-spoken Guinness is probably best known for playing Obi-Wan Kenobi in “Star Wars,” one of the highest grossing films of all time. Pic also made him a rich man via his 2.25% share of the film’s gross profits, netting him millions of dollars over the years.

In 1955, Guinness was dubbed a Commander of the British Empire, and in 1959 he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II. Twenty years later, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences awarded him a special Oscar for his body of work.

Critic Kenneth Tynan wrote of Guinness that he has no face other than the one he assumes for a given role. “He is a master,” said Tynan, “a master of anonymity.”

Dubbed a no-talent

“You have absolutely no talent,” his acting teacher Martita Hunt had told him. “Don’t waste your time.”

And Helen Hayes once recalled Guinness being fired in a production she was starring in, saying he was truly terrible; she then added that an actor has to be monumentally talented to be so monumentally bad, and Guinness was unquestionably that talented.

Nonetheless, the London-born former advertising copywriter continued to pay Hunt for lessons for seven months until his financial situation forced him to seek active employment.

Sensing what Guinness would later refer to as his chameleonlike quality, John Gielgud, who himself died in May at the age of 96, cast him as both Osric and the Third Player in his 1934 production of “Hamlet.”

In the fall of 1937, Guinness became a permanent member of Gielgud’s London company; a year later he was playing the lead in a modern-dress version of “Hamlet.”

Guinness’ 1939 stage version of Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations,” with himself as the mild-mannered Herbert Pocket, was seen by a young David Lean, who several years later would call on Guinness to re-enact the role in a film version. The 1947 film was only Guinness’ second movie; in his the first, the 1934 pic “Evensong,” he was an extra, which he described as “a horrible experience” and resolved “never to work in a crowd again.”

Twisted ‘Twist’

He had to beg Lean to let him play Fagin in the 1948 film of “Oliver Twist,” for which the then-34-year-old actor was deemed too young. His portrayal was effective, but brought cries of anti-Semitism in the U.S. because of his makeup, gestures and accent.

The controversy delayed the film’s U.S. release for three years, and it was distributed only after United Artists had made several “judicious” trims. By then, Guinness was a star on both sides of the Atlantic for his work in eight different roles in the black comedy “Kind Hearts and Coronets.”

The Guinness name soon became associated with Sir Michael Balcon’s Ealing Studios comedies, which included “Kind Hearts,” “The Lavender Hill Mob,” “The Man in the White Suit,” “The Ladykillers,” and “The Detective,” most of which were directed by Robert Hamer or Alexander Mackendrick.

Wry humor

Those films reveled in a particularly wry form of distinctly British humor, which Guinness aptly described as reflecting “the country’s history and temperament.”

His reputation was solidified with his Oscar-winning turn as Colonel Nicholson in Lean’s “The Bridge of the River Kwai.” The role of the British officer in a Japanese prison camp, whose code of behavior is both brave and foolhardy, had been turned down by Noel Coward and Charles Laughton. Guinness himself twice turned down the role. But producer Sam Spiegel finally talked him into it.

“Kwai” won seven Oscars, among them trophies for best film and director, as well as actor. Guinness was also nominated the following year for his screenplay to “The Horse’s Mouth,” an adaptation of Joyce Cary’s satire.

In 1960, he gave what is often regarded as his best screen performance, again as an eccentric military officer, in “Tunes of Glory.”

Though he continued in leading roles for several years to come, Guinness never again enjoyed the success he had in the Ealing films or in “Kwai”–until “Star Wars” (1977), in which he had a supporting, but pivotal, role.

Supporting star

As in “Star Wars,” which helmer George Lucas begged Guinness to do (the director gave him the profit participation out of gratitude), many of Guinness’ best performances were character, rather than lead, portrayals. Among the most distinguished were turns in Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Dr. Zhivago” (1965) and “A Passage to India” (1984) and the six-hour, two-part film version of Dickens’ “Little Dorrit” (1988).

Guinness also remained active in the theater on Broadway and the West End. In addition to his Tony-winning success with “Dylan,” the actor played the tortured T.E. Lawrence in “Ross” and starred in T.S. Eliot’s “The Cocktail Party” and Arthur Miller’s “Incident at Vichy.” He also performed in the work of such younger playwrights such as Alan Bennett, John Mortimer and Lee Blessing.

Guinness was to have starred in the film version of the Broadway play “Prelude to a Kiss,” but illness forced him to withdraw.

Late bloomer

The actor also won acclaim in television, which he did not appear on until 1979, when he starred as George Smiley in a miniseries adaptation of John Le Carre’s “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy.” In 1981, he appeared in an equally well-received sequel, “Smiley’s People.”

His final film performance was in the thriller “Mute Witness” (1996), in which he was billed as the Mystery Guest Star.

More recently, the actor cultivated a shadow career as an author, penning a series of well-received memoirs, the last of which, “A Positively Final Appearance,” was published last year.

Guinness is survived by his wife Merula (nee Salaman), an actress he met during a production of Gielgud’s “Noah” early in his career. They wed in 1938 and in 1940 had a son, Matthew, who also survives.

In an interview with David Frost, Guinness was asked about his obituary. He replied, “I think if my ghost could hover outside some London Underground station on a foggy November night just as the crowds were pouring down, I’d like to see the poster, ‘ACTOR DIES.’ “

More Scene

  • Oscars Ultimate Party Guide

    Oscar's Ultimate Party Guide 2019

    Welcome to Oscar week. It’s the time of year when Hollywood’s film industry celebrates all things movies. But it’s certainly not just the big show everyone is looking forward to. With voting closed, it’s all about the parties now. Who’s doing what and where and when are they doing it are the questions everyone is [...]

  • Yalitza AparicioTeen Vogue Young Hollywood Party,

    'Roma' Star Yalitza Aparicio, 'Central Park Five's' Jharrel Jerome Sound Off on Trump

    Yalitza Aparicio recently reunited with Alfonso Cuarón, who directed her in “Roma,” for a W magazine photo project that featured her standing at various barriers built at the border between Mexico and the United States. The message? “You can make a name for yourself despite the differences,” Aparicio told Variety on Friday at Teen Vogue’s Young [...]

  • Karl LagerfeldChanel Paris-Londres 2007/8 Show, London,

    Legendary Fashion Designer Karl Lagerfeld Dies at 85

    Karl Lagerfeld, the fashion icon – and iconoclast – who outfitted and photographed such stars as Nicole Kidman and Lady Gaga, has died. He was 85. Lagerfeld died in Paris, fashion house Chanel said. Although his health had been failing, he kept working up to his death, issuing instructions regarding Fendi’s fall ready-to-wear collection, which [...]

  • Eric Wareheim, 'The Simpsons' E.P. Matt

    Beefsteak Gathers Comedy Bigwigs for Meat and Mayhem

    The masterminds behind Beefsteak, a debauched tribute to the meaty arts that raises thousands for the Los Angeles Food Bank, switch things up each year so that guests are never bored. Organized by comedy players including Eric Wareheim, “The Simpsons” executive producer Matt Selman, and ABC Studios VP of comedy Cort Cass with Redbird chef Neal [...]

  • Alfonso Cuaron71st Annual Writers Guild Awards,

    Alfonso Cuarón on Academy's 'Inevitable' Reversal on Televised Oscar Categories

    Alfonso Cuarón isn’t exactly surprised that the Academy reversed its decision and will now air all the Oscar categories during the live show on Sunday. Feb. 24. Calling the decision “inevitable,”Cuarón tells Variety that he thinks the Academy should take things even further. “Let’s stop calling them technical categories!” he told Variety on Sunday night [...]

  • SAN FRANCISCO, CA - February 16

    San Francisco Symphony Ushers in Chinese New Year With Glitzy Gala

    As legend has it: among the Chinese Zodiac’s 12 animals, the pig comes last because it was the final one to arrive to a party thrown by the Jade Emperor — lazy sauntering being a characteristic trait of the animal. The folktale was perhaps less fitting this past Saturday evening, as the San Francisco Symphony [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content