The role of a lifetime made the actor rich -- and rueful, says Ty Burr
Sir Alec Guinness hated being remembered as ”Star Wars”’ Jedi Knight
What if you played a crucial part in one of the defining phenomena of modern pop culture — and came to regret it intensely? That, apparently, was the fate of Sir Alec Guinness, who died on Saturday at 86 — an actor who to your parents was the shape shifting soul of classic British comedy and/ or a dramatic, Oscar winning actor of unparalleled subtlety but who to anyone 40 and under was simply… Obi Wan Kenobi.
The discomfiting little not so secret about Guinness’ appearance in ”Star Wars” was that he went into the job expecting it to be another genre quickie and was stunned and dismayed when it became the touchstone film experience for an entire generation. It made him richer than Croesus, of course — when George Lucas threw the actor 2 1/4 percent of the grosses as a come on, even the director had no idea what kind of payday was coming. But as ”Star Wars” quickly turned into a hit, then a megahit, then a defining line in the cultural sand, Guinness found himself the object of a very different kind of affection than he was used to. For one thing, it was global. For another, it was primarily young. For a third, it was largely inarticulate — the starry eyed appreciation of kids who’d just seen the greatest comic book ever made.
And Guinness blinked — and kept blinking for the rest of his life. He begged Lucas to kill Ben Kenobi off for good, later confessing ”I just couldn’t go on speaking those bloody awful lines. I’d had enough of the mumbo jumbo.” He returned all ”Star Wars” related fan mail unopened, grousing that American fans enclosed return envelopes stamped with U.S. postage useless in England. In one particularly fiendish — and, okay, extremely funny — incident (related in the last of his three autobiographies), Guinness was approached by a young boy who begged for his autograph, claiming to have seen ”Star Wars” countless times. Sir Alec agreed, on one condition — that the boy never, ever watch the film again. The kid burst into tears, the kid’s mother called Guinness a nasty man, and one clearly envisions the actor leaving the encounter with a quietly satisfied smile playing about his lips.
Was the man a snob? Well, he was of his generation, and of his country, and of a theatrical tradition stretching back centuries. Guinness honed his acting chops at London’s Old Vic Theatre in the 1930s, apprenticing under John Gielgud and playing Hamlet at the tender age of 24. He also seems to have had a lonely childhood, spent in near poverty, in which his hobby was building model theaters and staging imaginary plays in which he enacted all the parts. Who knows? If Guinness been born a few decades later, his youthful imagination might have been fired instead by science fiction and movie serials and comic books and all the other pop cult flotsam that beguiled another lonely boy named George Lucas.
And it’s not like the man lacked a sense of humor, as anyone knows who has seen the riotously funny films Guinness made for Ealing Studios in the 1950s. No, I think the real reason he resisted the Force unto death may be that, as an actor, he prided himself on his facelessness — on his chameleonic ability to assume, with or without the aid of wigs, funny teeth, and fake noses, the personality of anyone he chose. Guinness was the most unassuming of the British theater knights, the blandest of all major stars. He intentionally used that blandness as an empty canvas on which to paint. And then George Lucas went and tagged the face of Obi Wan Kenobi on the canvas in indelible Day-glo.
Here’s one more parting thought: Guinness acknowledged, in his last book, that not all was initially rotten in the Empire. ”Twenty years ago, when it was first shown, [”Star Wars”] had a freshness, also a sense of moral good and fun. But it has led to a worldwide taste for a fantasy world of secondhand, childish banalities.” He won’t get any arguments from me there. Rest in peace, Sir Alec. May the Force roll on without you.