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Renowned actor Alec Guinness dies at 86

August 07, 2000|From a Times staff writer

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.

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.

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.

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