Alec Guinness

Alec Guinness
by Piers Paul Read

One can almost feel charitable toward George Lucas-perhaps even forgive him for the sheer tedium of the most recent installment of the Star Wars saga, Revenge of the Sith-when one recalls his outreach to Alec Guinness. Back in 1975, when the Star Wars epic was little more than a gleam in Lucas’s eye, the director offered the role of Jedi master Obi-Wan Kenobi to Guinness, a sixty-one-year-old stage and film veteran who had occasionally been mentioned in the same breath as Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson, but had more often been classed, in critic Kenneth Tynan’s words, as “the best living English character actor.”

As Piers Paul Read recounts in Alec Guinness, his entertaining if overly thorough biography, the Star Wars gig gave a bizarre twist to the career of this intellectual, devoutly Roman Catholic performer, who had started out as a protégé of John Gielgud and had performed the works of Shakespeare and T. S. Eliot. “New rubbish dialogue reaches me every other day on wadges of pink paper-and none of it makes my character clear or even bearable,” the bemused Guinness wrote to a friend during the filming of Star Wars, a movie that would earn him unanticipated celebrity and wealth. He wrapped up the letter in order to run a scene with “Tennyson (that can’t be right) Ford. Ellison (?-No!)-Well, a rangy, languid young man who is probably intelligent and amusing. But Oh, God, God, they make me feel ninety-...

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About the Author

Celia Wren is Commonweal’s media and stage critic.