[EAS]Alec Guinness Dead at 86

Peter J. Kindlmann pjk at design.eng.yale.edu
Mon Aug 7 22:40:46 EDT 2000

Dear Colleagues -

Forgive a note more personal than my usual personal mailings about
technology, education and common sense. Alec Guinness was one of my
favorite actors, judging from the loss I feel, perhaps my favorite
actor. I saw his "Tunes of Glory" when in college and in its
different way it made as deep an impression as Ingmar Bergmann's
"The Seventh Seal" which I saw the same year. (I also saw Brigitte
Bardot's "And God Created Woman" that year, and it too made a deep
impression, but not one that has stood the test of time so well.)

I still watch "Tunes of Glory" every five or so years, and many of
my other Guinness favorites, astonishing in their quiet virtuosity,
like his George Smiley in "Smiley's People" (a BBC TV production).
Rent a Guinness movie and reacquaint yourself with one of this
century's great actors, who, like Henry Fonda, always dissolved
into the character he was playing. And if you read his two-part
auto-biography "Blessings in Disguise" (1985) and "My Name Escapes
Me" (1996) you will find him to be a wholly likeable man, boastful
of only one thing: "I am unaware of ever having lost a friend."

  --Peter Kindlmann


          August 7, 2000

          Sir Alec Guinness, Elegant Actor of Film
          and Stage, Is Dead at 86

          By ALBIN KREBS

          [S] ir Alec                       [Image]
              Guinness, the          The Associated
          elegant and                        Press
          versatile British     Sir Alec Guinness
          actor known to        in the film "Star
          older audiences for   Wars" in 1977.
          films like "The           Slide Show  (8
          Bridge on the River   photos)
          Kwai" and to a        --------------------
          whole new             Articles About Sir
          generation for his    Alec Guiness
          role as Obi-Wan       * Colleagues Honor
          Kenobi in "Star       Sir Alec Guinness
          Wars," died late      (Apr. 28, 1987)
          Saturday at a         * A Reticent Alec
          hospital in West      Guinness Awaits a
          Sussex, England. He   Movie Tribute (Ap.
          was 86.               27, 1987)
                                * TV Views of
          Possessing a          Guinness on Acting
          plain-as-porridge     (Nov. 8, 1986)
          but chameleonlike     * Guinness
          face, Sir Alec was    Remembers 'Kind
          one of those gifted   Hearts' (Oct. 26,
          actors who left       1984)
          audiences awed with   * Alec Guinness
          his seemingly         Does a Second Tour
          effortless, perfect   of Duty as le
          performances, which   Carre's Spy (Dec.
          he carried off with   20, 1981)
          quiet subtlety and    * Alec Guinness
          undemonstrative       Spies a Television
          skill.                Role (Sept. 28,
          Although his          * Sir Alec
          notable career        Reluctant Memoirist
          encompassed the       (Mar. 11, 1986)
          stage and
          television, it was    Reviews of Books by
          in motion pictures    and About Sir Alec
          that a much wider     Guiness
          audience found Sir    * Guinness on Tap
          Alec unforgettable    (Oct. 31, 1999)
          almost from the       * A Friend to Man
          moment he first       and Bumblebee (Aug.
          appeared on screen.   25, 1997)
                                * Conjuring Up
          He was a most         Enchantment in a
          versatile             Quiet Routine (Aug.
          performer, capable    22, 1997)
          of playing a wide     * The Record Book
          range of roles,       of Guinness (Apr.
          beginning in 1946,    6, 1986)
          when he was Herbert
          Pocket in the movie   Slide Show
          adaptation of         * Elegant Actor of
          Charles Dickens's     Film and Stage   (8
          "Great                photos)
          Expectations." He
          delighted millions    Video
          with his wittily      * Alec Guinness as
          etched,               Obi-Wan Kenobi with
          tour-de-force         Mark Hamill as Luke
          delineations of       Skywalker in 'Star
          assorted members of   Wars'
          an eccentric
          English family        --------------------
          (including a                      [Image]
          spinster and a             The Associated
          character in an oil                Press
          painting) in "Kind    Guinness in British
          Hearts and            uniform during the
          Coronets" in 1949.    filming of "The
          And he developed a    Bridge on the River
          cult following for    Kwai" in 1957.
          his merry antics in   --------------------
          "The Lavender Hill Mob" and "The
          Captain's Paradise."

          One of his most memorable dramatic roles
          was the driven regimental colonel in
          postwar Scotland in "Tunes of Glory." And
          another military role, as the slightly
          mad military prig of a colonel in "The
          Bridge on the River Kwai" in 1957, won
          him an Academy Award. He was knighted in
          the late 1950's, but still had a long
          career ahead of him.

          Although it was often said that as a
          master of disguise he was an actor with
          no face of his own, it was, in fact, the
          intelligent use of his malleable features
          that served him so extraordinarily well.
          In situations where lesser performers
          required several lines of dialogue to
          accomplish an effect, Sir Alec used his
          own facial shorthand -- the faint curling
          of a lip, a seemingly apologetic
          furrowing of the brow, the quizzical
          upturn of an eyebrow, a sudden brief
          smile that could radiate approval or
          signify chilly disdain. Particularly in
          motion-picture close-up, he did not so
          much act as allow his face to react to
          what another actor was saying.

          He was the antithesis of the personality
          player or star, for he accepted small and
          large roles that ranged from the starkly
          dramatic to the predictably melodramatic
          to the maniacally whimsical.

          "Everything I've done has been on the
          spur of the moment," the actor said some
          years ago. "That's why my career has been
          so haphazard."

          Haphazard or not, it was a notable
          career, one in which Sir Alec triumphed
          in the theater in roles as startlingly
          dissimilar as Hamlet and the suave
          psychiatrist in T. S. Eliot's "Cocktail
          Party." He was the drink-sodden and
          doomed Welsh poet Dylan Thomas in Sidney
          Michaels's biographical drama "Dylan" and
          the tragically broken and brainwashed
          prelate in "The Prisoner."

          He also played a Japanese businessman in
          "A Majority of One" in 1962, the same
          year that he was seen as the Arab prince,
          Feisal, in "Lawrence of Arabia." He had
          business savvy as well -- for his
          memorable role in the 1977 blockbuster
          "Star Wars," he received a percentage of
          the gross.

          Sir Alec was born in London on April 2,
          1914. He was often mistaken for one of
          the "brewery Guinnesses," he said, and in
          his adulthood several members of that
          family of millionaires cultivated his

          In his autobiography, "Blessings in
          Disguise," published in the United States
          in 1986, Sir Alec cleared up longtime
          speculation as to whether he was an
          illegitimate child. He was indeed, he

          "My birth certificate registers me as
          Alec Guinness de Cuffe," he wrote. "My
          mother at the time was a Miss Agnes
          Cuffe; my father's name is left an
          intriguing, speculative blank. When I was
          five years old my mother married an Army
          captain, a Scot named David Stiven, and
          from then until I left preparatory school
          I was known as Alec Stiven (a name I
          rather liked, although I hated and
          dreaded my stepfather)."

          His mother's "violently unhappy marriage"
          lasted only three years, ending when
          Captain Stiven was posted to New Zealand,
          Sir Alec said.

          At Pembroke Lodge, a boarding school, the
          headmaster discouraged the youth from
          student theatricals by telling him,
          "You're not the acting type," but later,
          at Roborough School in Eastbourne, he won
          the role of the breathless messenger in

          The skinny, wild-eyed boy prepared for
          his bit part the night of the performance
          by running around the football field
          twice, timing himself to dash through the
          auditorium's side door and run onstage at
          the moment of his cue ("Enter a
          Messenger") and collapse in front of
          Macbeth. "Gracious," he genuinely gasped,
          "my lord (gulp!), I should report (gasp!)
          that which I . . ." The schoolboy
          audience burst into applause, and that
          night an actor was born.

          His schooling finished in 1932, he went
          to work as an apprentice copywriter in a
          London advertising agency. "The very
          first thing I did was on impulse to phone
          Martita Hunt and ask her to give me
          acting lessons," he recalled years later.
          "After a few lessons she sent me

          In fact, after 12 lessons, Miss Hunt, a
          renowned actress who later played Miss
          Habersham with him in "Great
          Expectations," told the drab and
          emaciated young man in 1933, "You'll
          never make an actor, Mr. Guinness."

          Nevertheless, the would-be actor applied
          to the Fay Compton Studio of Dramatic
          Art, which gave him a modest scholarship,
          and he was able to study and live on a
          single baked-beans-on-toast meal a day.
          He went to classes but augmented his
          training by following Londoners about,
          mimicking their gait, their traits and
          their gestures -- all of which would be
          put to good use in a brilliant career to

          On the other hand, he found the studio
          tiresome. "We did dancing and singing in
          the mornings," he recalled later. "Tap
          dancing was very much in vogue then so
          I'm afraid we did an awful lot of that.
          In the afternoons it was drama, and I
          remember we were taught that there was a
          correct and an incorrect way of executing
          the most detailed stage business."

          Mr. Guinness left
          the Compton Studio   Partial Filmography
          after seven
          months, but not     Great Expectations,
          before an annual    1946
          recital at which    Oliver Twist, 1948
          the judges, John    A Run for Your
          Gielgud among       Money, 1949
          them, awarded him   Kind Hearts and
          a major prize. In   Coronets, 1949
          the years to come   The Mudlark, 1950
          he was to refer     The Man in the White
          often to the older  Suit, 1951
          actor as "the       The Lavender Hill
          great hero of my    Mob, 1951
          youth," and in      The Captain's
          fact on more than   Paradise, 1953
          one occasion the    The Malta Story,
          older man helped    1953
          him along in his    The Detective, 1954
          career,             The Prisoner, 1955
          encouraging him     The Ladykillers,
          and offering him    1955
          money when he       The Bridge on the
          needed it.          River Kwai, 1957
                              The Horse's Mouth,
          Some Struggles at   1958
          the Beginning       The Scapegoat, 1959
                              Tunes of Glory, 1960
          In 1934, literally
          a starving young    Lawrence of Arabia,
          actor, Mr.          1962
          Guinness got work   Fall of the Roman
          in a lurid          Empire, 1964
          shipboard           Doctor Zhivago, 1965
          melodrama called
          "Queer Cargo," in   Hotel Paradiso, 1966
          which he played
          three small roles.  The Quiller
          Then Gielgud gave   Memorandum, 1966
          him his first big   Scrooge, 1970
          break, casting him  Cromwell, 1970
          as Osric and the    Murder by Death,
          Third Player in a   1976
          production of       Star Wars, 1977
          "Hamlet."           Star Wars: The
                              Empire Strikes
          "My theater tide    Back, 1980
          began to come in    Raise the Titanic,
          because of Sir      1980
          John's generosity,  Star Wars: Return of
          for from that       the Jedi, 1983
          point on I was      A Passage to India,
          never truly out of  1984
          a job unless I      Little Dorrit, 1988
          wanted it that      A Handful of Dust,
          way," Sir Alec      1988
          recalled in 1982.   Kafka, 1991
          He was from the     Mute Witness, 1994
          start a sort of critics' darling -- one
          called his Osric in "Hamlet" an
          "admirable popinjay," and later his Sir
          Andrew Aguecheek in "Twelfth Night" was
          pronounced "a collector's item."

          At age 24 he played his first Hamlet in a
          Tyrone Guthrie production at the Old Vic,
          and although it was, on the whole, an
          ego-chastening experience, one critic
          kindly conceded that if the young actor's
          Hamlet was short on force, his
          performance was "touched with sweetness
          and an aching sincerity."

          Of his apprenticeship under Gielgud,
          whose London company he had joined in
          1937, Sir Alec said, "Working with him in
          the 30's was a great and good discipline
          because his precision demanded the same
          from you." And, he said: "Going into
          Tyrone Guthrie productions on the other
          hand was a great liberating influence. He
          could relax you as an actor where Gielgud
          could make you feel stiff. I was
          extraordinarily fortunate to be
          oscillating between these opposite

          Sir Alec, a quietly modest man known for
          his unelaborate courtesy, was equally
          grateful to others in the theater.

          "Martita Hunt had been the first truly
          sophisticated person I had met, and she
          developed in me a sense of taste," he
          said in an interview. "So did Edith
          Evans, from whom I learnt things of value

          Speaking of a producer and director at
          the Old Vic, he said: "Michel
          Saint-Denis, on the other hand, woke me
          up to what theater was really all about
          and was the first person to give me a
          sense of reality for the words I was
          speaking. Gielgud, Guthrie, Martita Hunt,
          Edith Evans, Michel Saint-Denis -- they
          were the formative people in my life."

          Before enlisting in the Royal Navy in
          1941, the actor had learned many lessons
          well, having played 34 parts in 23 plays
          by Shakespeare, Pinero, Chekhov, Shaw and
          Sheridan. "It was obvious," Tyrone
          Guthrie said about that period, "that he
          was going to be tremendously talented. It
          was not so obvious that he was going to
          be so popular."

          Mr. Guinness's "war" was distinguished
          only by an incident that might have made
          a vignette in a Guinness comedy. In the
          invasion of Sicily, the
          actor-turned-landing-craft-skipper was
          actually the first person ashore, a
          nonheroic deed of derring-don't blamed
          entirely on an hour's error in orders.
          When the admiral in charge blustered his
          way ashore at last, the young Mr.
          Guinness is said to have blandly assured
          him that such tardy timing of an entrance
          would never be tolerated in the theater.

          On being mustered out, he resumed his
          writing and stage career in the role of
          Mitya in his own version of Dostoyevski's
          "Brothers Karamazov," an artistic success
          that failed at the box office.

          His other stage appearances in the
          postwar period included roles in Sartre's
          "Vicious Circle," the Dauphin in Shaw's
          "Saint Joan" and the title role in
          Shakespeare's "Richard II." Of the last,
          the critic for The Sunday Express of
          London wrote: "Mr. Guinness is slight,
          with an interesting angular face and a
          clear, flexible voice. He has dignity,
          but no majesty; he has range and control,
          but no surprises. He is intensely good
          without being great -- yet. His future
          may bring that."

          Shifting Over to the Movies

          Having played so many classical roles, he
          decided it was time to tackle the movies,
          commenting, "On the stage I never seem to
          have a chance to wear trousers."

          He had been an extra in his first movie,
          "Evensong," in 1934, and remembered it as
          "a horrible experience." But in 1946, the
          director David Lean cast him as Pocket in
          the now-classic film version of "Great

          Mr. Lean then allowed him to play an
          extremely wicked Fagin in a controversial
          version of "Oliver Twist," whose release
          in the United States was held up for more
          than two years because of pressure
          brought by groups that considered the
          Guinness characterization anti-Semitic.
          The American version was also censored,
          but among moviegoers worldwide, Alec
          Guinness had clinched his claim to fame.

          Now much in demand on the screen, in 1949
          he made "A Run for Your Money" and "Kind
          Hearts and Coronets"; in the latter, he
          played several members of a dotty family
          who fall prey to a murderous relative. It
          was that set of performances that forever
          sealed the actor's reputation as a
          rubber-faced British zany in the
          tradition of Sir Harry Lauder. He was
          thenceforth to be hailed as the actor who
          could play any part.

          In 1949 he also created the role of the
          seemingly omniscient psychiatrist in T.
          S. Eliot's "Cocktail Party" at the
          Edinburgh Festival, and the following
          year went with it to Broadway, where his
          performance bowled over critics and
          audiences alike.

          His first films were making him famous
          and moderately wealthy, but he fancied
          himself rather a tragedian than a
          comedian and, once more, in 1951, assayed
          "Hamlet" on the West End, directing the
          play himself and presenting the tragic
          Dane as cold, existential and matter of
          fact. The flop, which he was to brood
          over for years, propelled him more and
          more into movies.

          In early 1950's films he was a shrewdly
          wary Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli in
          "The Mudlark"; a droopy-lidded, bowlered
          and bespectacled bank clerk who engineers
          the smuggling of a hoard of gold bullion
          out of England in "The Lavender Hill
          Mob"; and, in "The Man in the White
          Suit," a chemist single-mindedly devoted
          to developing a miracle fabric that would
          never soil or wear out.

          Yet another choice comedy role came in
          1953 in "The Captain's Paradise," when he
          played a Mediterranean ferryboat skipper
          who commutes between wives as well as
          ports. Audiences delighted in his sly,
          mirthful charm as G. K. Chesterton's
          priestly sleuth Father Brown in "The
          Detective," also in 1954.

          Then along came "The Ladykillers" in
          1955, closely followed by his first
          Hollywood film, a glossily cold remake of
          Molnar's "The Swan" in which he starred
          with Grace Kelly. Unlike many of his
          compatriots who despised Hollywood, Sir
          Alec said, "I found it warm in every way,
          and would have stayed on had there been
          work for me."

          In his greatest film triumph, "The Bridge
          on the River Kwai," Sir Alec was called
          upon to be "both admirable and tiresome,"
          he said, as the fascinatingly paradoxical
          Colonel Nicholson, a British officer
          interned in a hellish Japanese
          prisoner-of-war camp in Burma. He made
          Nicholson at times infuriating, at times
          pitiable, a man whose strict adherence to
          an old-fashioned code of military ethics
          was both his scourge and his moral

          The next year he gave a full- rounded
          portrayal of Gulley Jimson in "The
          Horse's Mouth," a Swiftian satire in
          which he was an unkempt old rogue of a
          painter so obsessed by his art that he
          had no regard for the feelings or needs
          of anyone who dared impinge on his
          creativity. Sir Alec received an Academy
          Award nomination, not for his acting,
          which was splendid, but for the
          screenplay he wrote from the novel by
          Joyce Cary.

          Other film roles included "The
          Comedians," "The Quiller Memorandum" and
          Franco Zeffirelli's "Brother Sun, Sister
          Moon," none of which reversed the
          descending trend of the actor's film
          fortunes in the early 1970's. In 1976,
          however, he easily stole all his scenes
          in Neil Simon's "Murder by Death," a
          mystery spoof in which he played a blind

          Then, in 1977, came the first installment
          of George Lucas's legendary space sagas.
          "I might never have been heard of again
          if it hadn't been for 'Star Wars'," Sir
          Alec once said. Yet he also said that he
          didn't care for the "Star Wars" frenzy.

          Among Sir Alec's later films were "A
          Passage to India" (1984) and "Little
          Dorrit" (1987). He also wrote another
          book late in life, "My Name Escapes Me:
          The Diary of a Retiring Actor" (1997).

          Acclaim in London and on Broadway

          Although films occupied most of his time,
          Sir Alec did not entirely desert the
          stage. He opened Canada's Shakespeare
          Festival in Stratford, Ontario, in 1953,
          appearing as "Richard III." In London the
          following year he was praised for his
          harrowing performance in "The Prisoner,"
          Bridget Boland's intense study of the
          brainwashing of a Roman Catholic cardinal
          in an Iron-Curtain country. (He made the
          film version in 1955.) He was also seen
          onstage as a would-be adulterer in
          Feydeau's "Hotel Paradiso" in 1956 and in
          1960 had the title role in Terence
          Rattigan's "Ross," a portrait of the
          enigmatic T. E. Lawrence.

          His greatest success on Broadway came in
          1964, when Peter Glenville prodded him
          into taking the tricky and difficult
          title role in "Dylan," an anecdotal drama
          dealing with the self-destructive poet
          Dylan Thomas's last liquor-sodden months.
          Sir Alec was the antithesis in character
          of the Welsh poet, but he gave a
          performance so heartwrenchingly sad that
          he won almost every available acting
          prize that season. Walter Kerr termed the
          performance "mesmerizing," adding, "There
          is a still center in the actor, a coal in
          the ashes that defies us to will our eyes
          away." (Years later, commenting on a
          trifling play superbly acted by Sir Alec
          in London, Mr. Kerr, not content with the
          title Queen Elizabeth II had conferred on
          the actor, dubbed him "St. Alec.")

          Sir Alec's appearances on television were
          rare but memorable. His most notable
          achievement was the character of George
          Smiley, the retired British intelligence
          officer he created in two multipart
          series seen in Britain and the United
          States in the early 1980's -- "Tinker,
          Tailor, Soldier, Spy" and "Smiley's
          People," written by John le CarrÈ. His
          understated characterization of the
          aging, forlorn former spy underscored his
          reputation as "an actor who makes you
          forget that he is acting."

          Sir Alec, who had been almost bald since
          his late 20's, was often described as
          "dignified" and "quiet, unassuming." He
          lived in an unpretentious house in
          Hampshire, in the south of England, with
          his wife, Merula Salaman, who survives
          him along with their son, Matthew. They
          were married in 1938 when both were
          appearing as animals in John Gielgud's
          production of "Noah."

          Of Sir Alec's acting technique, Kenneth
          Tynan, the late critic, writer and
          director, once said: "My point is that
          the people Guinness plays best are all
          iceberg characters, nine-tenths
          concealed, whose fascination lies not in
          how they look but in how their minds
          work. The parts he plays are, so to
          speak, injected hypodermically, not
          tattooed all over him; the latter is the
          star's way, and Guinness shrinks from

          The actor was mildly amused by such
          esoteric analyses of his art. "I have no
          ax to grind, and no interesting theories
          to propound," he said. "If a play comes
          my way which appeals to me and which I am
          free to do, I do it. It's as simple as

          There was, however, one sort of script he
          avoided, the sort proffered with the
          assurance, "It was written just for you."

          "I'm afraid I was a little abrupt
          recently with a producer who sent me a
          screenplay," he once confessed. "It was
          rubbish, really. I sent it back with a
          polite rejection. Then he came back with
          the plea that 'we tailored it just for
          you.' I replied simply, 'But no one came
          to take the measurements.' "


           Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company

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