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From the Archives: Renowned Actor Alec Guinness Dies at 86

From the Archives: Renowned Actor Alec Guinness Dies at 86
Alec Guinness in "Bridge on the River Kwai." (Columbia Pictures)

Sir Alec Guinness, a versatile actor of considerable charm and intelligence who won two Academy Awards and a Tony Award in a career spanning 65 years, died Saturday in a hospital in England, it was announced today. He was 86.

Guinness became ill at his home near Petersfield, in southern England, and was taken by ambulance to King Edward VII Hospital, a hospital spokeswoman said.

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The cause of death was not announced, although some British newspapers were reporting that it was liver cancer.

Guinness, perhaps best remembered by one generation of moviegoers for a series of artful comedies made in England during the late 1940s and early 1950s, became a favorite of younger fans starting in the late 1970s with his portrayal of the all-wise knight, Obi-Wan Kenobi, in the "Star Wars" films.

He also created a series of unforgettable roles for British director David Lean, beginning in 1946 in "Great Expectations," through "Oliver Twist," the Academy Award-winning performance as Col. Nicholson in "The Bridge on the River Kwai," "Lawrence of Arabia," "Dr. Zhivago," and "A Passage to India.

His ability to work over the last 20 years had been compromised by a series of health woes beginning with eye problems that surfaced in the late 1970s during filming of the television version of John Le Carre's "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," in which he played the British master spy George Smiley.

The subtlest and nimblest of character actors, coolest and most urbane of leading men, the tall, blue-eyed Guinness was universally acknowledged to be one of the most flexible actors of the last half-century—equally skilled at comedy and drama. His distinctive, baritone voice moved with ease from stage to screen and television.

He was also a public recluse in the grand theatrical tradition of Greta Garbo and Paul Muni: "A dark horse," said his friend, Laurence Olivier, "and a deep one."

It was a contradiction Guinness neither denied nor directly explained.

Smeared with collodion, festooned with mustaches, monocles, wax teeth, plastic eye-bags—almost anything he could find in his makeup kit—his career seemed at times a kind of gleeful masquerade.

He was by turns a larcenous bank clerk, a bootlegging genius, a sea-commuting bigamist, a buck-toothed fiend, a middle-aged suffragette, a bullying Scots soldier, a steely European cardinal, a garden editor who liked vegetables more than people, an intellectual ant, a coldly determined master spy, the contents of a cannibal stew, a family of eight, a misguided British sovereign, an artistic bum and the spiritual essence of an interstellar knight.

"One hates," he said long ago, "to let oneself get into a rut."

Shy Boy Was Drawn to Stage

Yet in all the public exposition, all the thousand faces of the performer, one face seemed never to appear: "Alec Guinness himself," said an actor friend, "is perhaps the best-kept secret of modern times, a sort of one-man Tibet."

Indeed, there was not even a record of his illegitimate birth.

Though subsequently granted a document testifying that his personal debut occurred on April 2, 1914, in the lower middle class Marylebone section of West London, the event itself went unrecorded at the time, nor could any witness to it ever be found by latter-day biographers.

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His father, he told an interviewer years ago, was "a bank director, quite wealthy, who generated me in his 64th year and died about three summers later.

"He was a handsome old man, white haired. A Scotsman. One saw him only four or five times; was taught to call him uncle, though one supposes one always knew he was one's father."

The first few years appear to have been rather grim; his mother drifted—alone—from one resort to another along the Channel coast with little Alec tagging along, a quiet child, well-behaved, playing—alone—in corners. At 6 he was packed off to boarding school, his expenses paid from an education fund set up by his father.

"A shy child, thoroughly unprepossessing," he recalled. "Not good at sports, not academically inclined, not handsome, not rich, and not likely to improve.

"One wonders that one was not stoned to death in the street. . . ."

His single positive characteristic in those years, he said, was a habit of amusing himself by building model theaters where he staged whole imaginary plays, performing all the roles himself.

When he ventured to try out for a school play, however, the headmaster inspected the scrawny little boy and shook his head.

"You'll never make an actor, Guinness," he said. Undaunted, he joined the school's dramatic society. Graduated near the top of his class at 18 but unable to afford dramatic school, Guinness took a job with an advertising agency, dropped it after 18 unrewarding months, and finally managed an interview with his favorite actor, John Gielgud.

Encouraged, Guinness applied to the Fay Compton Studio of Dramatic Art and somehow won a two-year scholarship. He won top prize at the graduation exercise (Gielgud was one of the judges) and got a number of tryouts. But no jobs.

He was close to starvation when he wandered unheralded into a small theater and asked for a tryout. To his amazement, he was not only permitted to read a few lines but was awarded three roles—Chinese coolie, French pirate and British sailor—all in the same play and all for 3 pounds per week.

He was worth every penny.

Three months after this triple professional debut, he was playing Osric to Gielgud's Hamlet, and the critics took notice of the "admirable popinjay." They continued their approval as he moved on to the part of William in "As You Like It," Sir Andrew Aguecheek in "Twelfth Night," Lorenzo in "The Merchant of Venice," and then—at 24—his first Hamlet, in an Old Vic production directed by Tyrone Guthrie.

In the next three years, he played 30 more parts in 20 more plays by Shakespeare, Chekhov, Pinero, Sheridan and Shaw, and had begun to develop a small but devoted "public."

But then events in Europe intervened. Guinness joined the Royal Navy as a seaman in 1941, was commissioned a year later, and subsequently found himself commanding a landing craft, ferrying butter and hay to Yugoslav partisans.

At the end of the war, Guinness was very much in demand. His first appearance was as Mitya in "The Brothers Karamazov" at the Lyric theater in Hammersmith, after which he rejoined the Old Vic, appearing sometimes as the lead but more often as a strong supporting character in such productions as "King Lear," "An Inspector Calls," "Cyrano de Bergerac," "The Alchemist," "Richard II," "St. Joan" and "Coriolanis."

It was at about this time, too, that he began seriously to consider a film career.

He had made one picture, "Evensong," in the mid-1930s, and appeared before cameras again in the role of Herbert Pocket, Pip's university friend, in Lean's 1946 production of "Great Expectations."

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But it was not until he was offered the plum role of Fagin in Lean's "Oliver Twist" (a film that was not released in the United States until decades later) that he began—according to his own recollection—to "suspect that there might be something worthwhile about this celluloid medium after all."

Eight Roles in One Movie

Two of his best efforts, "A Run for Your Money," and "Kind Hearts and Coronets," the latter a tour de force in which he portrayed all of the eight male and female members of a noble family who were being systematically murdered by an ambitious young relative, were made in 1949.

"I was invited," he recalled in an interview years later, "to play only four of the victims. But I started reading the script and burst out laughing on the first page or so. I sent back a telegram that said, 'I see no point in playing four parts. How about me playing eight?' and to my astonishment, they agreed."

"Kind Hearts" was not released until the next year, at which time— coming in tandem with a stage triumph as T.S. Eliot's psychologist in "The Cocktail Party"—it firmly established his credentials as a world theatrical figure.

Guinness, characteristically, wasn't sure he liked it.

He fancied himself more as a tragic actor than a comedian, and as a full-range dramatic interpreter above all.

"One hesitates to limit oneself," he explained.

Grace Kelly and Alec Guinness on location during filming of "The Swan" in Asheville, N.C.
Grace Kelly and Alec Guinness on location during filming of "The Swan" in Asheville, N.C. (AP Photo)

Nonetheless, he followed it up with such comedic classics as "The Lavender Hill Mob," (which earned his first Oscar nomination) "The Captain's Paradise," "The Man in the White Suit" and "The Ladykillers," while leavening the mixture with such dramatic triumphs as "The Prisoner," "The Swan," "Tunes of Glory" and "The Bridge on the River Kwai," which won him best actor awards in both the United States and Britain for 1957.

Knighthood came in the late 1950s—at the time of roles in "The Horse's Mouth," which also earned him an Academy Award nomination for adapted screenplay, and "Our Man in Havana." He worked on, appearing as the tragic Charles I of "Cromwell," as Prince Feisal in "Lawrence of Arabia," as Marley's ghost in "Scrooge" and in the title role of "Hitler: The Last Ten Days," returning to comedy to portray the blind butler in "Murder by Death."

An honorary Oscar was awarded in 1980 for "advancing the art of screen acting."

But Guinness had never confined himself entirely to the screen. Throughout his latter career he made occasional excursions to his legitimate stage roots, winning a Tony in 1964 for his performance as Dylan Thomas in "Dylan," and appearing in "A Voyage Round My Father," "Yahoo," "The Old Country" "Time Out of Mind" and "Macbeth." His most recent stage appearance was in a Chichester Festival production of "The Merchant of Venice."

He had also plunged into television, making that medium his own with superb versions of "Twelfth Night" "Solo," "Conversation at Night," "Little Gidding," "The Gift of Friendship," "Caesar and Cleopatra," "Little Lord Fauntleroy," "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" and "Smiley's People."

A Different Role Offstage

Off-screen, however, he remained the kind of person who finds it difficult to catch the waiter's eye in a restaurant, and to insist that he liked it that way.

"As years go by," he said, "one begins more and more to appreciate the joy of not attending parties to which one has been invited."

In his autobiography, "Blessings in Disguise," Guinness assessed himself well below the first rank of actors. "He is well aware he is not in the same class as Olivier, Richardson, Gielgud or the other greats," he writes in the third person. "His pleasure is in putting little bits of things together, as if playing with a jigsaw puzzle."

But the power of his name remained magical. After the spectacular success of "Star Wars," which earned Guinness an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor, producer-director George Lucas admitted that he had not allowed his backers to read a complete script until the picture was finished and ready for cutting, lest they discover that he intended to kill off Obi-Wan Kenobi halfway through.

The fact that Guinness was to play the role had been a major factor in obtaining financial support.

And his ghostly appearances in sequels ("The Empire Strikes Back," "Return of the Jedi") though not formally billed, remained a viable part of the overall box-office appeal.

In his last book, "A Positively Final Appearance" published last year, he saved his sharpest barbs for "Star Wars," its merchandising and its long-term effect on motion pictures. In one scene, Guinness recalls asking a young fan never to see the movie again; the boy cries, and the boy's mother harangues the actor.

"I shrivel inside each time it is mentioned," he wrote. "Twenty years ago, when it was first shown, it had a freshness, also a sense of moral good and fun. But it has led to a worldwide taste for a fantasy world of secondhand, childish banalities."

Guinness, who earned his last Academy Award nomination for "Little Dorrit" in 1988, gave up acting, he said, in part because he could not remember his lines. But he returned to the small screen in the 1994 Masterpiece Theater production of "A Foreign Field," marking the 60th anniversary of the invasion of Europe. Guinness played a British veteran mentally incapacitated after being struck by shrapnel during the D-day landings.

He spent the last decade of his life in the English countryside, with his wife Merula and his three dogs. "My compulsion for the limelight is not all that strong; besides, pride played a part in my decision to retire," Guinness wrote. "I don't wish to be seen as I am now when I know there was something better on offer 30 years ago."

Guinness is survived by Merula and his son Matthew. Funeral arrangements were not immediately available.

Times staff writers Joe Mathews and Susan King contributed to this story.

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