SIR ALEC GUINNESS Biography - Actors and Actresses


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Name: Alec Guinness de Cuffe                                                               
Born: 2 April 1914 Paddington, London, England                                             
Died: 5 August 2000 Midhurst, West Sussex, England                                         
Sir Alec Guinness, CH, CBE (2 April 1914 - 5 August 2000) was an Academy Award             
and Tony Award-winning English actor.                                                       
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.                                             
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 throughout 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. He returned to the Old Vic in 1946 and stayed through 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               
From the 1970s, Guinness made regular television appearances, including the part           
of George Smiley in the serializations of two novels by John le Carre: 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           
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.                                                 
Despite that, Guinness was never happy with being identified with the part, and             
expressed great dismay at the fan following 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[4]. Despite his dislike of the               
films, fellow cast members Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher (as               
well as Lucas) have always spoken highly of his courtesy and professionalism on             
and off the set; he did not let his distaste for the material show to his co-stars.         
In fact, Lucas credited him with inspiring fellow cast and crew to work harder,             
saying he was instrumental in helping to complete filming of the movies.                   
Many have also persistently suggested that he did not dislike Star Wars or the             
role of Obi-Wan Kenobi, as several of his diary entries would indicate.                     
What he disliked was that many Star Wars fans were only familiar with his work             
in those films, despite his distinguished career prior to that.                             
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.                                                   
Guinness married the artist, playwright, and actress, Merula Salaman in 1938,               
and they had a son in 1940, 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 of time, though Read nonetheless acknowledges Guinness's essential                   
While serving in the Royal Navy, Guinness for a while planned on becoming an               
Anglican minister. 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 Guinness died of cancer two months later and was interred                   
alongside her husband of 62 years.