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."
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.
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."