A member of a generation of British actors that included Sir Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson, Sir Alec Guinness possessed an astonishing versatility that was amply displayed over the course of his 66-year career. Dubbed "the outstanding poet of anonymity" by fellow actor Peter Ustinov, Guinness was a consummate performer, effortlessly portraying characters that ranged from eight members of the same family to an aging Jedi master. Synonymous throughout most of his career with old-school British aplomb and dry wit, the actor was considered to be second only to Olivier in his popularity on both sides of the Atlantic.
Theater critic J.C. Trewin once described Guinness as possessing "a player's countenance, designed for whatever might turn up." The latter half of this description was an apt summation of the actor's beginnings, which were positively Dickensian. Born into poverty in London on April 2, 1914, Guinness was an illegitimate child who did not know the name on his birth certificate was Guinness until he was 14 (until that time he had used his stepfather's surname, Stiven). Guinness never met his biological father, who provided his son's private school funds but refused to pay for his university education.
It was while working as an advertising copywriter that Guinness began going to the theatre, spending his pound-a-week salary on tickets. Determined to become an actor himself, he somehow found the money to pay for beginning acting lessons and subsequently won a place at the Fay Compton School of Acting. While studying there, he was told by his acting teacher Martita Hunt that he had "absolutely no talent." However, Sir John Gielgud apparently disagreed: as the judge of the end-of-term performance, he awarded Guinness an acting prize and further rewarded him with two roles in his 1934 production of Hamlet. Three years later, Guinness became a permanent member of Gielgud's London company and in 1938, playing none other than Hamlet himself.
In 1939, Guinness' stage version of Charles Dickens' Great Expectations, which featured the actor as Herbert Pocket, caught the attention of fledgling director David Lean. Seven years later, Lean would cast Guinness in the novel's screen adaptation; the 1946 film was the actor's second screen engagement, the first being the 1934 Evensong, in which he was an extra. It was in Lean's Oliver Twist (1948) that he had his first memorable onscreen role as Fagin, although his portrayal -- complete with stereotypically Semitic gestures and heavy makeup -- aroused charges of anti-Semitism in the United States that delayed the film's stateside release for three years.
Guinness won bona fide international recognition for his work in Robert Hamer's Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), an Ealing black comedy that featured him as eight members of the d'Ascoyne family. He would subsequently be associated with a number of the classic Ealing comedies, including The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), The Man in the White Suit (1951), The Detective (1954), and The Ladykillers (1955). In 1955, Guinness' contributions to the arts were recognized by Queen Elizabeth, who dubbed him Commander of the British Empire. Two years later, he received recognition on the other side of the Atlantic when he won a Best Actor Oscar for his role as Colonel Nicholson, a phenomenally principled and at times foolhardy British POW in The Bridge on the River Kwai. Ironically, Guinness turned down the role twice before being persuaded to take it by producer Sam Spiegel; his performance remained one of the most acclaimed of his career.
In 1960, Guinness once again earned acclaim for his portrayal of another officer, in Tunes of Glory. Cast as hard-drinking, ill-mannered Scottish Lieutenant-Colonel Jock Sinclair, a role he would later name as his favorite, the actor gave a powerful performance opposite John Mills as the upper-crust British officer assigned to take over his duties. He subsequently became associated with David Lean's great epics of the 1960s, starring as Prince Feisal in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and as Zhivago's brother in Dr. Zhivago (1965); much later in his career, Guinness would also appear in Lean's A Passage to India (1984) as Professor Godbole, an Indian intellectual.
Although Guinness continued to work at a fairly prolific pace throughout the 1960s and 1970s, his popularity was on the wane until director George Lucas practically begged him to appear as Obi Wan Kenobi in Star Wars (1977). The role earned the actor his third Academy Award nomination (his second came courtesy of his screenplay for Ronald Neame's 1958 satire The Horse's Mouth) and introduced him to a new generation of fans. Guinness reprised the role for The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983); although the role Obi Wan was perhaps the most famous of his career and earned him millions, he reportedly hated the character and encouraged Lucas to kill him off in the trilogy's first installment so as to limit his involvement in the subsequent films.
After receiving an honorary Academy Award in 1979, Guinness did a bit of television (most notably a 1979 adaptation of John LeCarre's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) and acted onscreen in supporting roles. In 1988 he earned a slew of award nominations -- including his fourth Oscar nomination -- for his work in a six-hour adaptation of Dickens' Little Dorrit. In addition to acting, Guinness focused his attention on writing, producing two celebrated memoirs. He died on August 5, 2000, at the age of 86, leaving behind his wife of 62 years, a son, and one of the acting world's most distinguished legacies.