Sir Alec Guinness

Definition

Theater

  • (1914 - 2000) One of the English theater's most versatiletalents, who also enjoyed a distinguished career in films. He wasknighted in 1959.

    At 18 he joined an advertising agency but found the work soboring that he telephoned John Gielgud, then unknown to him,to ask his advice on becoming an actor. After taking voice lessons,Guinness won a scholarship to the Fay Compton Studio of Dramatic Art.

    His first professional appearance was as a junior counselin Libel (1934). Gielgud gave him several minor parts in hisproduction of Hamlet (1935), despite having fired him duringrehearsals. "You're terrible," Gielgud had told him oneday, "I don't want to see you again." When Guinness askedhim if he was sacked, the director spluttered "No! Yes! No,of course not. But go away. Come back in a week. Get someone to teachyou how to act." Guinness was also unceremoniously dropped fromthe cast of the Old Vic's 1936 revival of Wycherley's The CountryWife, at the behest of the US actress Ruth Gordon. Despite thesesetbacks and a severe stage fright that afflicted him with cripplingpain in his knees and back, Guinness showed considerable promise inseveral Shakespearean roles and went on to take the lead in Hamlet(1938).

    During the war Guinness was a lieutenant with the Royal Navy.While his ship was being repaired in New York, he would rush nightlyto Broadway to play Flight-Lieutenant Graham in Rattigan's FlarePath. After the war he returned to the Old Vic, where his self-effacingstyle, weary pale face, and general air of frailty became increasinglyfamiliar to the public in a range of Shakespearean and other roles. Manyof his greatest triumphs were on the US stage. In 1950 he was voted BestActor in the New York Drama critics Poll for his appearance in T. S. Eliot'sThe Cocktail Party at the Henry Miller Theatre. He returned to New Yorkin 1964 to play Dylan Thomas in Dylan at the Plymouth Theatre, earningthree Best Actor awards, including a Tony.

    In Britain, he created the role of T. E. Lawrence in Rattigan'sRoss (1960), and made impressive work of playing the blindfather in John Mortimer's A Voyage Round My Father (1971).He returned to the stage at the age of 70 to play Shylock in TheMerchant of Venice (1984).

    Guinness's many films include David Lean's The bridge onthe River Kwai (1957) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962); healso appeared in several Ealing comedies, including Kind Heartsand Coronets (1949), in which he played eight parts. His best-knowntelevision role was as the inscrutable spymaster George Smiley inTinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1979) and Smiley's People(1981 - 82).

    Olivier...ransacks the vaults of a part with a blowlamp,crowbar, and gunpowder; Guinness is the nocturnal burglar, the humbleHoudini who knows the combination.
    Kenneth Tynan: Harper's Bazaar, 1952
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