Guinness (de Cuffe), Sir Alec

Alec Guinness


Sir Alec Guinness, CH, CBE (2 April 1914 – 5 August 2000) was an English actor.

Early life

Guinness was born on 2 April 1914 in Paddington, London as Alec Guinness de Cuffe. Under the column for name (where the first names only are usually stated) his birth certificate says 'Alec Guinness'. There is nothing written in the column for name and surname of father. In the column for mother's name is written 'Agnes de Cuffe'. On this basis it has been frequently speculated that the actor's father was a member of the Irish Guinness family. However, his benefactor was a Scottish banker named Andrew Geddes, and the similarity of his name to the name written on the actor's birth certificate ('Alec Guinness') may be a subtle reference to the identity of the actor's father. From 1875, English law required both the presence and consent of the father when the birth of an illegitimate child was registered in order for his name to be put on the certificate. His mother's maiden name was Agnes Cuff (born 8 December 1890), daughter of Edward Cuff and wife Mary Ann Cuff Benfield. She would later marry a shell shocked veteran of the Anglo-Irish War who, according to Guinness, hallucinated that his own closets were filled with Sinn Féin gunmen waiting to kill him.

The man who believed he was Alec Guinness' biological father, Andrew Geddes, paid for the actor's private school education, but the two never met and the identity of his father continues to be debated.

Early career and war service

Guinness first worked writing copy for advertising before making his debut at the Albery Theatre in 1936 at the age of 22, playing the role of Osric in John Gielgud's wildly successful production of Hamlet. During this time he worked with many actors and actresses who would become his friends and frequent co-stars in the future, including John Gielgud, Peggy Ashcroft, Anthony Quayle, and Jack Hawkins. An early influence from afar was Stan Laurel, whom Guinness admired.

Guinness continued playing Shakespearean roles throughout his career. In 1937 he played the role of Aumerle in Richard II and Lorenzo in The Merchant of Venice under the direction of John Gielgud. He starred in a 1938 production of Hamlet which won him acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic. He also appeared as Romeo in a production of Romeo and Juliet (1939), Andrew Aguecheek in Twelfth Night and as Exeter in Henry V in 1937, both opposite Laurence Olivier, and Ferdinand in The Tempest, opposite Gielgud as Prospero.

In 1939, he adapted Charles Dickens' novel Great Expectations for the stage, playing the part of Herbert Pocket. The play was a success. One of its viewers was a young British film editor named David Lean, who had Guinness reprise his role in the former's 1946 film adaptation of the play.

Guinness served in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve in World War II, serving first as a seaman in 1941 and being commissioned the following year. He commanded a landing craft taking part in the invasion of Sicily and Elba and later ferried supplies to the Yugoslav partisans.

During the war, he appeared in Terence Rattigan's West End Play for Bomber Command, Flare Path.

Post-war career

He returned to the Old Vic in 1946 and stayed until 1948, playing Abel Drugger in Ben Jonson's The Alchemist, the Fool in King Lear opposite Laurence Olivier in the title role, DeGuiche in Cyrano de Bergerac opposite Ralph Richardson in the title role, and finally starring in an Old Vic production himself as Shakespeare's Richard II. After leaving the Old Vic, he had a success as the Uninvited Guest in the Broadway production of T. S. Eliot's The Cocktail Party (1950, revived at the Edinburgh Festival in 1968), but his second attempt at the title role of Hamlet, this time under his own direction at the New Theatre (1951), proved a major theatrical disaster.

He was initially mainly associated with the Ealing comedies, and particularly for playing eight different characters in Kind Hearts and Coronets. Other films from this period included The Lavender Hill Mob, The Ladykillers, and The Man in the White Suit. In 1952, director Ronald Neame cast Guinness in his first romantic lead role, opposite Petula Clark in The Card.

Invited by his friend Tyrone Guthrie to join in the premier season of the Stratford Festival of Canada, Guinness lived for a brief time in Stratford, Ontario. On July 13, 1953, Guinness spoke the first lines of the first play produced by the festival (Shakespeare's Richard III): "Now is the winter of our discontent/Made glorious summer by this son of York."

Guinness won particular acclaim for his work with director David Lean. After appearing in Lean's Great Expectations and Oliver Twist, he was given a starring role opposite William Holden in Bridge on the River Kwai. For his performance as Colonel Nicholson, the unyielding British POW leader, Guinness won an Academy Award for Best Actor. Despite a difficult and often hostile relationship, Lean, referring to Guinness as "my good luck charm", continued to cast Guinness in character roles in his later films: Arab leader Prince Feisal in Lawrence of Arabia; the title character's half-brother, Bolshevik leader Yevgraf, in Doctor Zhivago; and Indian mystic Godbole in A Passage to India. He was also offered a role in Lean's adaptation of Ryan's Daughter (1970), but declined.

Other famous roles of this time period included The Swan (1956) with Grace Kelly in her last film role, The Horse's Mouth (1958) in which Guinness played the part of drunken painter Gulley Jimson as well as contributing the screenplay, for which he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium, Tunes of Glory (1960), Damn the Defiant! (1962), The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), The Quiller Memorandum (1966), Scrooge (1970), and the title role in Hitler: The Last Ten Days (1973) (which he considered his best film performance).

Guinness turned down roles in many well-received films - most notably The Spy Who Came in From the Cold - for ones that paid him better, although he won a Tony Award for his Broadway triumph as poet Dylan Thomas in Dylan. He followed this success up by playing the title role in Macbeth opposite Simone Signoret at the Royal Court Theatre in 1966, one of the most conspicuous failures of his career.

From the 1970s, Guinness made regular television appearances, including the part of George Smiley in the serializations of two novels by John le Carré: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley's People. Le Carré was so impressed by Guinness's performance as Smiley that he based his characterization of Smiley in subsequent novels on Guinness. One of his last appearances was in the acclaimed BBC drama Eskimo Day.

Guinness received his fifth Oscar nomination for his performance in Charles Dickens' Little Dorrit in 1989. He received an honorary Oscar in 1980 "for advancing the art of screen acting through a host of memorable and distinguished performances."

Star Wars

Guinness' role as Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original Star Wars trilogy, beginning in 1977, brought him worldwide recognition by a new generation. Guinness agreed to take the part on the condition that he would not have to do publicity to promote the film. He was also one of the few cast members who believed that the film would be a box office hit and negotiated a deal for two percent of the gross, which made him very wealthy in later life. His role would also result in a Golden Globe Nomination and Academy Award Nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

Despite all this, Guinness was never happy with being identified with the part, and expressed great dismay at the fan following that the Star Wars trilogy attracted. In the DVD commentary of Star Wars: A New Hope, director George Lucas says that Guinness was not happy with the script re-write in which Obi-Wan is killed. However, Guinness stated in a 1999 interview that it was actually his idea to kill off Obi Wan, persuading Lucas that it would make him a stronger character. Lucas agreed to the idea, but Guinness confided in the interview, "what I didn't tell [Lucas] was that I just couldn't go on speaking those bloody awful, banal lines. I'd had enough of the mumbo jumbo". He continued by saying that he "shrivelled up" every time Star Wars was mentioned to him. Despite his dislike of the films, fellow cast members Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Anthony Daniels, and Carrie Fisher (as well as Lucas) have always spoken highly of his courtesy and professionalism on and off the set, wherein he did not let his distaste for the material show to his co-stars. Lucas credited him with inspiring fellow cast and crew to work harder, saying he was instrumental in helping to complete filming of the movies.

Guinness has been quoted as saying that the royalties he obtained from working on the films gave him "no complaints; let me leave it by saying I can live for the rest of my life in the reasonably modest way I am now used to, that I have no debts and I can afford to refuse work that doesn't appeal to me". In his autobiography, Blessings In Disguise, Guinness tells an imaginary interviewer "Blessed be Star Wars!", while in the final volume of the book A Positively Final Appearance (1997), he recounts grudgingly giving an autograph to a young fan who claimed to have watched Star Wars over 100 times, on the condition that the fan promised to stop watching the film, because as Guinness put it "this is going to be an ill effect on your life". The fan was stunned at first, but later thanked him. Guinness grew so tired of modern audiences seeming to remember him only for his role of Obi-Wan Kenobi that he would throw away the fan mail he received from Star Wars fans without reading it .

Personal life

Guinness married the artist, playwright, and actress Merula Salaman in 1938; in 1940, they had a son, Matthew Guinness, who later became an actor.

Guinness consulted Tarot cards for a time, but came to the conclusion that the symbols of the cards mocked Christianity and Christ. He then burned his cards and shortly afterwards converted to Roman Catholicism.

In his biography Alec Guinness: The Unknown, Garry O'Connor reveals that Guinness was arrested and fined 10 guineas for a homosexual act in a public lavatory in Liverpool in 1946. Guinness avoided publicity by giving his name as "Herbert Pocket" to both police and court. The name "Herbert Pocket" was taken from the character in Charles Dickens' Great Expectations that Guinness had played on stage in 1939 and was also about to play in the film adaptation. The incident did not become public knowledge until April 2001, eight months after his death. The authenticity of this incident has been doubted, however, including by Piers Paul Read, Guinness's official biographer, who believes that Guinness was mixed up with John Gielgud, who was infamously arrested for such an act at the same period, though Read nonetheless acknowledges Guinness's bisexuality .

While serving in the Royal Navy, Guinness for a while planned on becoming an Anglican priest. In 1954, however, during the shooting of the film Father Brown, Alec and Merula Guinness were formally received into the Roman Catholic Church. They would remain devout and regular church-goers for the remainder of their lives. Their son Matthew had converted to Catholicism some time earlier. Every morning, Guinness recited a verse from Psalm 143, "Cause me to hear your loving kindness in the morning".


Guinness died on August 5, 2000, from liver cancer, at Midhurst in West Sussex. He had been receiving hospital treatment for glaucoma, and had recently been diagnosed with prostate cancer. He was interred in Petersfield, Hampshire, England. Merula Sylvia Guinness died of cancer in Petersfield in October 2000, aged 86 and was interred alongside her husband of 62 years.

Encounter with James Dean

On Friday, September 23, 1955, Guinness was at the Villa Capri restaurant in Los Angeles, and found no table available. The actor James Dean, then filming Giant, invited Guinness to sit at his table. During lunch, Dean talked about his new car, a Porsche 550 Spyder. On leaving the restaurant, Dean insisted on showing off the car to Guinness, who said "Please never get in it. If you do, you will be dead within a week". Dean died in a fatal car crash in the Porsche the following Friday, September 30 .

Awards and honours

Guinness won the Academy Award as Best Actor in 1957 for his role in Bridge on the River Kwai. He was nominated in 1958 for his screenplay adapted from Joyce Cary's novel The Horse's Mouth and for Best Supporting Actor for his role as Obi-Wan Kenobi in 1977. He also received an Academy Honorary Award for lifetime achievement in 1980.

He was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1955, and was knighted in 1959. He became a Companion of Honour in 1994 at the age of 80.

He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1559 Vine Street.


Guinness wrote three volumes of a bestselling autobiography, beginning with Blessings in Disguise in 1985, followed by My Name Escapes Me in 1996, and A Positively Final Appearance in 1999. His authorised biography was written by his close friend, British novelist Piers Paul Read. It was published in 2003.


Brother Sun, Sister Moon >
Year Title Role Notes
1934 Evensong Extra (WWI soldier in audience) uncredited
1946 Great Expectations Herbert Pocket
1948 Oliver Twist Fagin
1949 Kind Hearts and Coronets The Duke, The Banker, The Parson, The General, The Admiral, Young Ascoyne, Young Henry, Lady Agatha
A Run for Your Money Whimple
1950 Last Holiday George Bird
The Mudlark Benjamin Disraeli
1951 The Lavender Hill Mob Henry Holland
The Man in the White Suit Sidney Stratton
1952 The Card Edward Henry ‘Denry’ Machin
1953 The Square Mile narrator short subject
Malta Story Flight Lt. Peter Ross
The Captain's Paradise Capt. Henry St. James
1954 Father Brown Father Brown
The Stratford Adventure narrator short subject
1955 Rowlandson's England narrator short subject
To Paris with Love Col. Sir Edgar Fraser
The Prisoner The Cardinal
The Ladykillers Professor Marcus
1956 The Swan Prince Albert
1957 The Bridge on the River Kwai Col. Nicholson Academy Award for Best Actor
Barnacle Bill Captain William Horatio Ambrose released in the US as All at Sea
1958 The Horse's Mouth Gulley Jimson also writer
1959 Our Man in Havana Jim Wormold
The Scapegoat John Barratt/Jacques De Gue
1960 Tunes of Glory Maj. Jock Sinclair, D.S.O., M.M.
1962 A Majority of One Koichi Asano
HMS Defiant Captain Crawford
Lawrence of Arabia Prince Feisal
1964 The Fall of the Roman Empire Marcus Aurelius
1965 Pasternak Himself short subject
Situation Hopeless ... But Not Serious Wilhelm Frick
Doctor Zhivago Gen. Yevgraf Zhivago
1966 Hotel Paradiso Benedict Boniface
The Quiller Memorandum Pol
1967 The Comedians in Africa Himself uncredited, short subject
The Comedians Major H.O. Jones
1970 Cromwell King Charles I
Scrooge Jacob Marley’s ghost
1972 Brother Sun, Sister Moon Pope Innocent III
1973 Hitler: The Last Ten Days Adolf Hitler
Pope Innocent III 1976 Murder by Death Jamesir Bensonmum
1977 Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope Obi-Wan "Ben" Kenobi Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor nomination
1980 Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back Obi-Wan "Ben" Kenobi
Raise the Titanic John Bigalow
Little Lord Fauntleroy Earl of Dorincourt
1983 Lovesick Sigmund Freud
Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi Obi-Wan "Ben" Kenobi
1984 A Passage to India Professor Godbole
1988 Little Dorrit William Dorrit
A Handful of Dust Mr. Todd
1991 Kafka The Chief Clerk
1993 A Foreign Field Amos
1994 Mute Witness The Reaper


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