By Mark Harris
Updated January 05, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST

London, 1934. imagine yourself lucky enough to have secured a ticket in the stalls for the opening night of Hamlet at the New Theatre. Directing and starring is one of the British stage’s leading lights, John Gielgud, who at 30 is about to stake his claim to greatness. And playing the small role of Osric is Alec Guinness, a promising lad barely out of his teens whom Gielgud recently discovered at an academy for aspiring performers and brought into his repertory company. Take your seat, and watch the curtain rise on six decades of acting brilliance.

To understate things considerably, they just don’t make actors like John Gielgud and Alec Guinness anymore. With their deaths this year, the last giants of the Olivier generation are gone, and the superabundance of talent, work ethic, devotion to their art, self-deprecation, and generosity that distinguished both men now belongs to the past as much as the century of acting they helped to define.

Their origins were poles apart. Gielgud was born into a wealthy and successful family whose acting roots stretched back into the 19th century; Guinness was the illegitimate son of a barmaid. But they came to have much in common, including careers of extraordinary longevity. Guinness made his last TV appearance in 1996, while Gielgud’s professional life, which began with one line in Henry V at the Old Vic in 1921, lasted an almost unimaginable 80 years; his final appearance, in David Mamet’s adaptation of the Samuel Beckett short play Catastrophe, was filmed last spring. Although they were polished raconteurs who enjoyed evenings with friends, both men were homebodies. Guinness kept by the side of Merula Salaman, his wife of 62 years, and Gielgud lived peacefully on a country estate with his companion of 40 years, Martin Hensler, who died in 1999.

And both actors won their largest audiences late in life for bringing dignity and vigor to roles they faintly disdained. After playing Obi-Wan Kenobi, Guinness came to dread the ”thud” of letters from autograph hounds in his mailbox (”Star Wars — No Peace,” read one of his diary entries), and Gielgud found 1981’s Arthur, for which his impeccable comic turn as the butler Hobson won him an Oscar, ”rather common.” (Arthur, incidentally, was Gielgud’s real first name.) But neither man was a snob: Gielgud confessed to a fondness for Cheers and Dynasty, while Guinness took delight in Wallace and Gromit.

For 65 years, as their careers intertwined but rarely intersected, Guinness and Gielgud were friends. After World War II, Gielgud, already a star and touring in America, would ship eggs to his ration-starved colleague, and though Guinness sometimes fell victim to the notorious gaffes known as Gielgoofs — ”Alec, dear, I just can’t think why you want to play big parts. Why don’t you stick to the little people you do so well?” Gielgud once asked him — their mutual admiration was never in doubt. At 84 Guinness wrote, ”If I were to gauge lasting influences on my subsequent professional life I would head the list with John Gielgud (hero-worshipped).”