Sir Alec Guinness was a singular paradox of pop culture: a household name without a persona. Even if he hadn’t played Obi-Wan Kenobi in 1977’s Star Wars — and, in so doing, become a Gandalf for a generation weaned on (and reliant on) pop mythology — he would be revered for a gallery of exquisitely crafted performances that are by turns deeply comic and intensely profound, and that give no glimmer whatsoever of the man behind them. Even Guinness, who died at 86 on Aug. 5 in England, reportedly of liver cancer, conceded to The Washington Post in 1986, ”I’ve always thought of myself — not my personal self, but my professional self — as a kind of blank.” The actor titled his droll autobiographies Blessings in Disguise and My Name Escapes Me and diplomatically turned down roles that came to him with assurances that they were ”written just for you.” Of course he refused them; how do you tailor a part to a changeling?
He was born illegitimate in 1914 and raised in near poverty; one of his childhood hobbies was building model theaters and staging imaginary plays in which he acted all the roles. The real world was less accepting, however, with one early drama teacher warning, ”You’ll never make an actor, Mr. Guinness.” Thankfully, John Gielgud, whom he met in 1934, disagreed and mentored the young performer in his first professional roles; by World War II, when Guinness joined the Royal Navy, he was an established star of the British stage.
His first major screen role (and the first of six movies with director David Lean) was 1946’s Great Expectations, but it was the eight parts he played in the darkly comic Kind Hearts and Coronets and the riotous Ealing Studio films that followed — slapstick farces all the funnier for being so veddy British — that turned Guinness into an internationally recognized man of many faces. He went dramatic with 1957’s The Bridge on the River Kwai, for which he won a Best Actor Academy Award (he was awarded a second, honorary Oscar in 1980), but despite being knighted in 1959 and continuing his association with Lean as Prince Feisal in Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Guinness slowly sloped into a career rut from which only Star Wars rescued him.
Ah, Star Wars. Guinness’ 2 1/4 percent of the grosses made him a millionaire many times over, yet the actor came to detest the way the movie ”led to a worldwide taste for a fantasy world of secondhand, childish banalities.” He threw away all Kenobi-related fan mail unopened; in one memorable anecdote in his 1999 book, A Positively Final Appearance, he promises a young acolyte an autograph only if the boy will never, ever see the film again. This may have just been the peevishness of a cultured soul faced with mass popularity, but perhaps it was something more: With Star Wars, Alec Guinness, the gifted cipher of the screen, was forever labeled ”Obi-Wan Kenobi.” To the dismay of the man and the delight of millions, the Force was always with him.