This week’s famous Catholic is another actor; Sir Alec Guinness.
Catholic Credentials: Converted to Catholicism at the age of 42, preceded by his son and followed by his wife; remained a devout Communicant for the rest of his life.
Nerd Credentials: He’s Obi-Wan frickin’ Kenobi! Also one of the finest actors of his generation and a skilled comedian.
It’s unfortunate that by far his most famous role was one he grew to hate, because Alec Guinness was one of the greatest actors of his generation, skilled both at stage and screen, drama and comedy. He also happened to become a Roman Catholic midway through his life’s journey, after considering being an Anglican Priest for a while.
His conversion began in a curious way: he was in France filming Father Brown a loose adaptation of G.K. Chesterton’s short story The Blue Cross. Guinness played Father Brown, and, of course, was in full cassock. On his way to the set one day, a small French boy came running up calling “mon pere! Mon pere!” and seized his hand. Unable to communicate to the boy that he wasn’t actually a priest (Guinness couldn’t speak French), he was obliged to simply smile and listen while the little boy chatted on and on while swinging from his hand. Finally, after a little ways, the boy piped “au revoir, mon pere!” and sped off.
Guinness, like most Englishman (and indeed, most Protestants), had been raised with certain prejudices against the Catholic Church; that it was secretive, aloof, sinister even. Yet, here was this little boy who, upon seeing a priest’s cassock, immediately took this man, whom he had never seen before, as someone to be trusted, confided in. It occurred to Guinness, walking along after the incident, that a Church that could inspire such an attitude in a child was not likely to be quite as grim and uncaring as he had been told. “Slowly,” he said. “I began to shake off my long-held prejudices.”
It was the turning point in Guinness’s life, this small little moment, far from the eyes of the audience, but quite a lot had happened in the meantime.
Alec Guinness de Cuffe was born on April 2nd, 1914, in London to Agnes Cuff. No one really knows who his father was. A Scottish banker named Andrew Geddes (who may or may not have been Guinness’s biological father, and whom he never met) paid for young Alec’s education. His mother wrote his last name into his birth certificate, while his father’s name was left blank. Alec had little relationship with his mother, nor she to him. He spent most of his time at school, and after he left he worked at an advertising agency. It was while working there that he discovered the theater, spending most of his small salary on tickets and quickly conceiving the dream to become an actor.
Somehow or other, Guinness scrapped together the money to pay for acting lessons before longg he had landed his first role in the play Libel at the Old King’s Theater, which got him accepted into the Fay Compton School of Acting, where his teacher told him that he had “absolutely no talent.” Fortunately for him, however, a rather more important person came to a different conclusion: Sir John Gielgud, widely considered the greatest Shakespearean actor of his generation, saw great promise in young Guinness and cast him, at 22, as Osric in Gielgud’s production of Hamlet. The production, naturally, was a smashing success and Guinness had found his place in the acting world.
Gielgud continued to cast young Guinness in his plays, including as Lorenzo in The Merchant of Venice, Ferdinand in The Tempest (opposite Gielgud himself as Prospero), and, most importantly, as Hamlet himself a mere two years after that first, fateful production.
While Guinness was soaking in the grandeur of the Shakespearean stage, however, he was, privately, making a study of his own. He enjoyed film and comedies, and in particular he admired the work of Stan Laurel, of Laurel and Hardy fame. Quietly, and help along by the classical comedies he played in, Guinness honed the comedic talent that would serve him so well.
But, in the meantime, he also tried his hand at writing with a stage-adaptation of Charles Dickens’s novel Great Expectations. Guinness himself forewent the lead role of Pip in favor of the part of Herbert Pocket; Pip’s friend and moral superior. The adaptation was remarkably well-done; capturing the essence of the novel while at the same time paring the massive tome down to a reasonable length and giving it an altered, more triumphant ending. It turned out to be perhaps the most important role of his career. In the audience that night was a literature-adverse filmmaker named David Lean, who had been dragged there by his wife. Lean was mesmerized by the story, and in particular was impressed by the pale young actor playing the pale young man.
However, whatever Lean’s plans they would have to wait. That very same year, German and Soviet tanks rolled into Poland, and Europe was once again plunged into war. Guinness, like all able-bodied young Englishmen, signed up. In his case, it was the Royal Navy, first as a seaman in 1941, then as an officer from 1942 onward. In this capacity, he commanded landing craft at Sicily, Elba, and Yugoslavia.
It seems also that around this time, no doubt brought on by the terror and death that surrounded him, that his religious feelings were awakened. So strong were they, in fact, that he considered leaving the stage he loved so much for God’s sake (as another famous actor during that same war would do). Yet, in the end, though he kept his love of God, he concluded that his place was on the stage rather than behind the pulpit.
The War wound down at last in 1945, with Guinness among the lucky ones who emerged alive and unscathed. And it was then that David Lean contacted the young actor with a proposition: he had been so struck by Dickens’s story that he was determined to adapt it for the screen, and he thought he couldn’t do much better than to start with Guinness’s own adaptation for the stage. What’s more, he wanted Guinness to reprise his role from the stage.
Guinness was eager to pass his play on to the capable director and his writing team, but he was less enthusiastic by the prospect of acting in front of the camera. He had only been in one film before, as an extra, and hadn’t liked it much. The camera made him nervous, and he found his costume uncomfortable. Nevertheless, a consummate professional, he mastered his own discomfort and delivered a perfectly fine performance with his limited screen-time.
As his success on the stage had been first ensured by Shakespeare, so his success on screen was the work of Charles Dickens. Following the critical and commercial success of Great Expectations (including Oscar nominations both for Best Picture and for the screenplay), Guinness was cast as Fagin in Lean’s follow-up adaptation of Oliver Twist (1948). It was here that he had his first change to truly demonstrate his talents as a character actor with a strong, eccentric turn as the famed Jewish pick-pocket (indeed, the performance was accused by some of anti-Semitism).
But though he had received acclaim for both his performances, Guinness didn’t really hit his stride until he found himself cast in director Robert Hamer’s black comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), in which he played no less than eight distinct characters (including a woman), all of whom were murdered over the course of the film. The comedic skill he had developed early in his career had paid off, and now he took a string of dark comedies: The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), about a meek banker who hatches a scheme to steal a million pounds worth of gold, The Man in the White Suit (1951) about an inventor who creates a fabric that is impossible to get dirty, sparking the wrath of the manufacturing world, and The Ladykillers (1955) about a gang of thieves who have unexpected difficulty murdering a little old woman.
It was in the middle of these dark, occasionally alarming roles that Guinness took his fateful part in Father Brown (1954); an unusual turn for him, hearkening back to his first performance as the gentle Herbert in Great Expectations more than his grimly comedic roles of the intervening years. But more important than the film itself (which is, by most accounts, mediocre both in itself, and as an adaptation) was what happened during the filming, which changed him forever. Two years after this production, Guinness was received into the Catholic Church. His beloved wife, Merula, joined him a year later. The two of them remained faithful communicants for the rest of their lives.
In the meantime, he continued his stage career, which he much preferred. In 1955, Queen Elizabeth II, in recognition of his contributions to the arts, dubbed him Commander of the British Empire. Four years later, he was knighted.
Between these honors, David Lean approached him with another role; as a proud British Commander in a Japanese prisoner of war camp whose attempts to make things better for his men leads him, by degrees, into complicity with the enemy. The film, The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) is today considered one of the finest English-language films ever made. Guinness, for his part, received the Academy Award.
Lean and Guinness didn’t like each other much. Nevertheless, Lean considered Guinness his “good-luck charm.” After his soaring success in The Bridge Over the River Kwai, Lean cast Guinness in his subsequent epics: Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Dr. Zhivago (1965), both of which met with success very nearly as, or more spectacular as River Kwai. All in all, he would appear in six films with Lean, all of which met with success to a greater or lesser extent.
Despite these successes, and his continued work on the London stage, Guinness’s popularity as a film actor was in decline. As he grew older, roles became more and more scarce, as producers looked elsewhere.
Then, one day, while working on another film, someone passed him a script by an enthusiastic young artist by the name of George Lucas. Though he didn’t care much for science-fiction or what he called “fairy-tale rubbish,” he was impressed by Lucas’s work on American Graffiti (1973), and he appreciated the story’s strong moral center. He agreed to meet the young director, and after a lunch-interview he decided he liked the man, intense and incomprehensible as he found him. Moreover, he found the story compelling, despite being science-fiction, and he predicted the film would be a hit, opting to take 2% of the box office in lieu of a flat salary.
Guinness’s experience on the film was not a particularly happy one. He found the dialogue excruciatingly poor and difficult. He was by far the oldest and most experienced actor on the set most of the time (his fellow British thespian, Peter Cushing, was also on hand, but they had no scenes together). Nevertheless, he was, as always, professional, and his fellow actors held him in awe, working twice as hard (and not goofing off) whenever he was on set.
Most everyone involved in the film expected Star Wars (1977) to be a failure. Guinness was one of the handful of people who expected a success. But he could never have imagined the sheer magnitude of the film’s triumph. It was more than just a popular and well-regarded film; it was an event, a cultural benchmark. It became part of the language, the shared mythology of the American people. More than its box-office take, more than its critical reception, Star Wars was and is a touchstone of American life.
Guinness himself was moderately impressed by the film; he thought the effects and technology overwhelmed the actors, but the heart and moral decency of the movie impressed him, and he described it as being, ultimately, “powerful.”
But the reaction, the unprecedented response of the people to this one, in his opinion, fairly moderate film annoyed and disturbed him. More than anything, he was bothered by the fact that it was becoming increasingly clear that this was the one he would be remembered for. After all his brilliant work, on screen and stage, after his spectacular turns in his films with David Lean, his delightfully ghoulish comedies, he was going to be remembered for a special-effects extravaganza.
Ever the professional, Guinness agreed to reprise his role as Obi-Wan Kenobi briefly in the subsequent sequels. His share of the box-office meant that he would never have to work again, but of course that wasn’t in the cards for him. It seems that film held little interest to him now, and he did only a few more movies, including his final collaboration with David Lean, A Passage to India (1984). His work brought him a number of awards, including a nomination for Star Wars and an honorary, lifetime achievement Oscar (which he said he was flattered by, but that there was no way he would fly out to California just to pick it up).
Slowly, he allowed his career to wind down. He performed for the last time on stage in 1989 (the comedy A Walk in the Woods), and on screen in the 1998 TV movie Interview Day. After this, failing health forced him to retire. He took to writing his final memoirs, A Positively Final Performance, reading his Bible, and spending time with his family, until, in 2000, he succumbed to liver cancer. His wife, as she had when they entered the Church, followed him into eternity two months later.
Alec Guinness was an unusually gifted actor who provided some of the very finest performances ever to grace the screen. Yet, his acting led him to an even greater gift, when, one day, a small boy mistook his art for reality and, in so doing, set him on the path to the truth. He teaches us that God gives us our gifts for a reason: to lead us back to Him.
Vive Christus Rex!
Vive Christus Rex!