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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.’ “

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