In a career spanning six decades, Alec Guinness (actually, Sir Alec Guinness, as he was knighted in 1959) made more than 60 appearances in film and on television. Like many British actors of his and subsequent generations, Guinness trained for the stage, developing a lifelong friendship with John Gielgud. Guinness's extensive theater background helped him prepare for a career in film defined not by a single role or star persona (he was everything but a movie star) but by versatility, by range and depth few actors of his generation (or since) have possessed. Guinness could seemingly handle any role, from memorable supporting turns in various dramas, intimate or epic, to light comedies that allowed Guinness to display masterful comic timing.
Collaborating with Oscar-winning director David Lean in Guinness showed remarkable range and depth. A small, if still substantial part, in Lean's 1946 adaptation of Charles Dickens' oft-filmed classic, 'Great Expectations,' led to a larger part in Lean's follow-up two years later, 'Oliver Twist,' another Dickens' adaptation. Guinness' performance as Fagin, the unscrupulous, unseemly criminal who adopts the title character into his den of teen and preteen pickpockets, wasn't without controversy. Guinness, with Lean's obvious approval, played Fagin too close to the then still prevalent Jewish stereotype, including an extra-long proboscis. Guinness' performance led to a delay in 'Oliver Twist's' stateside release. When it was, additional editing worked out some of the rougher edges in Guinness' performance.
Guinness didn't reunite with Lean for almost a decade. During that hiatus, Guinness turned to comedy, starring in several "Ealing comedies" (named for the studio where they were filmed). Never one to turn down a challenge, Guinness starred in 'Kind Hearts and Coronets," a 1949 comedy in which he played eight different characters, both men and women, young and old, each one the target of the murderous central character (he's ninth in line to an inheritance). It was, unsurprisingly, a tour-de-force. Additional comedies in the same period included 'The Lavender Hill Mob,' 'The Man in the White Suit' (both released in 1951), and 'The Ladykillers' (released four years later), all worthwhile endeavors for Guinness. Creatively, however, it was becoming obvious that Guinness was pigeonholing himself into lighter, lightweight fare.
The reunion with Lean, their third collaboration, together, occurred in 1956 when Guinness signed on to play, Colonel Nicholson, a key character in Lean's adaptation of Pierre Boulle's ('Planet of the Apes') World War II novel, 'The Bridge on the River Kwai.' A marked departure from his roles in the Ealing comedies (as intended), Guinness' role in 'The Bridge on the River Kwai,' allowed him to tap into the flipside of his range as an actor. Guinness' Colonel Nicholson, a POW held by the Japanese in Burma, acts as the de facto commander of the British and American POWs. Nicholson initially resists cooperating with the Japanese in building the bridge of the title. The Japanese officer in charge of the camp, Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), tries to break Nicholson, but seemingly fails.
It's Nicholson's pride, pride in his men, in himself, in his British-ness (where mediocrity isn't allowed) that sways Nicholson into ultimately cooperating with Saito. Under his guidance, the men build a sturdy bridge. Swept up, first by the actual bridge building and, later, by the accomplishment, Nicholson willfully blinds himself to the consequences: the bridge will be used against the British and Americans. The turn in Nicholson's personality, from resistance to cooperation, is made all the more convincing by Guinness' tightly wound performance. His mannerisms, body language, and clipped speech all speak to a man who, by choice and temperament, mirrors his Japanese counterpart's authoritarian nature. Guinness justly won an Academy Award for Best Actor that year.
Guinness, however, subsequent collaborations with Lean were always in supporting capacities. Five years later, Guinness played Prince Faisal in Lean's masterpiece, 'Lawrence of Arabia.' Despite edging close to Orientalist caricature, Guinness imbued Prince Faisal with self-respect, self-possession and, like Colonel Nicholson, pride, but a different kind of pride: pride in his people's history and their yearning for freedom from colonialist oppression. Three years later, Guinness appeared in Lean's adaptation of Boris Pasternak's bestselling novel, 'Doctor Zhivago,' as the title character's brother, Yevgraf, a disillusioned idealist turned converted to the Marxist-Leninist cause. Yevgraf bears a close resemblance to Colonel Nicholson, but pushes Nicholson's authoritarian personality into unblinking support for totalitarianism.
When he wasn't collaborating with Lean, Guinness worked steadily throughout the late 1950s and the 1960s, taking a light comic turn in the 1959 adaptation of Graham Green's bestseller, 'Our Man in Havana,' a satire of the spy trade, and a darker turn in 'The Comedians,' another adaptation of a Graham Greene novel eight years later. While Guinness turned in memorable performances in both films, his performance as Marcus Aurelius in Anthony Mann's 1964 epic, 'The Fall of the Roman Empire' (the unacknowledged blueprint for Ridley Scott's 'Gladiator' sixteen years later). Like Richard Harris almost two decades later, Guinness only appears in the first 35-45 minutes, but his world-weary, introspective philosopher-emperor casts a long shadow over the rest of the film.
For better or for worse (late in life, Guinness seemed to lean toward the latter), Guinness is best known to American audiences for his iconic role as Obi Wan Kenobi in George Lucas' 1977 blockbuster, 'Stars Wars' (later retitled 'Star Wars IV: A New Hope'). 'Star Wars' made Guinness a wealthy man (he received two percent of the gross), something he didn't achieve (probably because it wasn't as important) in his previous three decades as a film actor. There's little dispute, however, that Guinness elevated Lucas' often hooky dialogue into another level (not quite metaphysical, but close) or that, despite Kenobi's absence in the third act (because every apprentice-student must walk alone into the final battle, or so said Joseph Campbell's "Hero of a Thousand Faces," or at least Lucas' interpretation of Campbell's study of myths), he's 'Star Wars' emotional and dramatic anchor.
Only two years after co-starring in 'Star Wars,' Guinness gifted audiences, this time on television, with his last, iconic role: the title character in John le Carré 's Cold War dramatic thriller, 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,' for British television. As George Smiley, a retired British spy on the hunt for a mole, Guinness brought a lifetime of personal and professional experience. Smiley had seen it all, if not done it all (he's more observer than participant). He may be world-weary and Cold War-weary, but Smiley still lives by an honor code grounded in common-sense beliefs. Guinness reprised the title role in a second adaptation for British television, 'Smiley's People,' in 1982.
One, last collaboration with Lean awaited Guinness: Godbole, a Hindu mystic, in 'A Passage to India' in 1984. It was Lean's last film as a director. Guinness continued to act, but less frequently, making his last screen appearance in 'Interview Day,' a made-for-television film in 1996. Sir Alec Guinness passed away at the age of 86 in August of 2000, leaving behind one of the most impressive bodies of work for a screen actor.