Actor Sir Alec Guinness Dead at 86

Sir Alec Guinness, who was knighted after his Oscar-winning role in The Bridge on the River Kwai and delighted audiences as Jedi knight Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars, has died. He was 86.

A hospital spokeswoman says Guinness died Saturday after becoming ill at his home in southern England. News reports in Britain say he’d been battling liver cancer.

Guinness’ career spanned more than 60 years. He was a tall man, with large, expressive blue eyes and otherwise unremarkable features, including a deep baritone voice.

He earned praise for his stage performances in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and after a string of postwar comedies, rose to prominence in such blockbusters as Lawrence of Arabia, repeatedly earning praise as one of the most versatile of actors.

“He was one of the all-time greats of both stage and screen professionally,” said Ronald Neame, who produced Guinness’ 1946 film Great Expectations.

“The wonderful thing about Guinness was he became the part he was playing, he was like a chameleon, he would change colors,” he added.

Guinness once said, “I might never have been heard of again if it hadn’t been for Star Wars.” Yet he leaves behind a rich legacy.

A Versatile Performer

Guinness first made his mark in films in the Ealing Studio comedies of the late 1940s and the 1950s — The Man in the White Suit, The Lavender Hill Mob, The Lady Killers, and most remarkably in Kind Hearts and Coronets. In that classic black comedy he played the entire d’Ascoyne family — in his own words, “eight speaking parts, one non-speaking cameo and a portrait in oils.”

“I had countless first impressions of him,” playwright Ronald Harwood wrote. “Each time I saw him, in films, later in the theater, I had the uncanny feeling I had never before watched him act.”

In parts such as Fagin in Oliver Twist, Guinness was barely recognizable behind his makeup and costume.

But with The Bridge on the River Kwai in 1957 he established that his versatility had nothing to do with disguise, portraying the disciplined, inflexible Col. Nicholson in a World War II Japanese prison camp.

Guinness once described it as his favorite film role — “perhaps the best thing I’ve done.”

Guinness had a long film partnership with director David Lean, beginning in 1946 as Herbert Pocket in Great Expectations, through Oliver Twist, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Dr. Zhivago, and finally A Passage to India in 1984.

Star Wars Offers New Notoriety

His 1977 role as Obi-Wan Kenobi introduced him to a new generation of filmgoers and made him financially secure.

Guinness did little television, but became John Le Carre’s quiet spy George Smiley in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy, and Smiley’s People in 1979 and 1981.

Some of his best-known stage performances were in T.S. Eliot’s Cocktail Party; in Ross as T.E. Lawrence; Dylan Thomas in Dylan, and as a blind lawyer in John Mortimer’s Voyage Round My Father.

Humble Beginnings

Born April 2, 1914, Guinness was an illegitimate child who did not know the name on his birth certificate was Guinness until he was 14.

“I have to admit that my search for a father has been my constant speculation for 50 years,” he said.

The mysterious father whose identity he never learned provided money for private schools, but not university. Guinness worked briefly as an advertising copywriter, spending his pound a week salary on theater tickets, and survived on sandwiches and apples given him by friends at work.

After scraping together the funds for some elementary lessons with actress Martita Hunt, he won a place at the Fay Compton School of Acting. There, John Gielgud judged the end-of-term performance and chose him as the prize winner.

Guinness got some of his first stage roles in Gielgud’s plays.

In one of them, Guinness met actress Merula Salaman, whom he married in 1938. They had a son Matthew and remained happily married, living in a country house in Petersfield, 50 miles southwest of London.

Little Bow Tied on Life

Guinness’s entertaining memoir, Blessings in Disguise, published in 1985, told more about the talented and eccentric people he knew than about himself. He was seldom recognized in public.

In one of the stories he told about himself, Guinness checks his hat and coat at a restaurant and asks for a claim ticket. “It will not be necessary,” the attendant smiles.

Pleased at being recognized, Guinness later retrieves his garments, puts his hand in the coat pocket and finds a slip of paper on which is written, “Bald with glasses.”

Guinness converted to Roman Catholicism in 1956, but resisted attempts to paint him as a pious person.

In 1985 he told the Guardian newspaper he hoped by the end of his life to have put everything in order — “a kind of little bow, tied on life. And I can see myself drifting off into eternity, or nothing, or whatever it may be, with all sorts of bits of loose string hanging out of my pocket. Why didn’t I say this or do that, or why didn’t I reconcile myself with someone? Or make sure that someone whom I like was all right in every way, either financially or, I don’t know...” ABCNEWS Radio and The Associated Press contributed to this report