When Sir Alec Guiness accepted the award for best actor at the 1979 BAFTAs for his brilliant performance as spy George Smiley in the BBC drama Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy he seemed ill at ease, a quick thank you and then he was off – it was always such with Guiness. The archetypal actor who let his roles do the talking for him. Very much behind the mask in fact. Few critics were able to get a true picture of what maketh the man. Kenneth Tynan who wrote a book on Guiness said he was “a master of anonymity – guarded and evasive” whilst Guiness himself remarked “I was glad to go into a thin cardboard disguise”.
Alec Guiness was born in 1914, in London and had a private school education before joining an advertising agency at the age of 18. The stage was his natural home though and by 1934 was beginning a scholarship at the Fay Compton Acting School where he was spotted by John Gielgud which in turn led to his big break – playing Oscric in Gielgud’s 1938 modern dress version of Hamlet at the Old Vic. War intervened on his career though, Guiness spent much of World War II in the Royal Navy where he became an officer.
The Ealing Years
The end of the war saw a return to the stage but even more importantly he made his proper film debut (he had previously appeared as an extra in the 1934 film evensong) as Herbert Pocket in David Lean’s Great Expectations. This was followed by a star role as Fagin in Lean’s version of Oliver Twist which along with his now legendary performances as the d’Ascoyne family in Kind Hearts and Coronets made him into a star.
It was also Kind Hearts that began his association with Ealing studios where he made some of his best loved films including The Lavender Hill Mob and The Man in the White Suit. By now one of the biggest stars in the UK Guiness was reunited reunited in 1957 with David Lean for his mesmeric Colonel Nicholson in Bridge Over The River Kwai.
Alec became Sir Alec when he was knighted in 1959 and by the 1960’s had settled mostly into character roles but a key role as Obi-Wan Kenobi in George Lucas’s all conquering Star Wars meant a major financial payday (Sir Alec had wisely chosen to take a tiny percentage of profits as payment for his role).
After Star Wars
Following Star Wars Guiness moved to the small screen for two superb series for the BBC, the aforementioned Tinker, Tailor and it’s sequel Smiley’s People. By now Guiness was in semi-retirement with only occasional appearances on the big and small screen.
Guiness was the personification of the gentle actor, never one for histrionics and an actor whose many films have mostly stood the test of time. Always one to shy away from publicity and self promotion one can only surmise that he would have been horrified to find himself immortalised in Lego. Although maybe he would have delighted in it.