Actor Sir Alec Guinness dies at 86

LONDON, England - Actor Sir Alec Guinness, whose roles in a 66-year career ranged from Hamlet to Obi-Wan Kenobi in ''Star Wars,'' has died, a hospital spokesman said Monday. He was 86.

Guinness became ill at his home near Petersfield, southern England and was taken by ambulance to the King Edward VII Hospital where he died Saturday, said hospital spokeswoman Jenny Masding.

Some newspapers reported that Guinness died from liver cancer, but the hospital would not confirm the cause of death.

Sir Alec was one of the last surviving members of Britain's greatest generation of actors, which included Sir Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson.

From post-war comedies through epics like ''The Bridge on the River Kwai,'' and crowd-pleasers like ''Star Wars,'' Guinness played a vast variety of characters with subtlety and intelligence.

Guinness was a tall man with large, expressive blue eyes and otherwise unremarkable features - ''a player's countenance, designed for whatever might turn up,'' critic J.C. Trewin once said.

His precise, modulated baritone voice was distinctive, but if ever there was an actor who never played himself, it was Alec Guinness.

''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.''

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.''

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. He won an Oscar for his performance as the disciplined, inflexible Col. Nicholson in a World War II Japanese prison camp.

Three years later, he played Nicholson's opposite - the boorish, hard-drinking Scottish Lieut.-Col. Jock Sinclair in ''Tunes of Glory.''

He once described it as his favorite film role -- ''perhaps the best thing I've done.''

Guinness, who was knighted in 1959, 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,'' ''Lawrence of Arabia,'' ''Dr. Zhivago,'' and finally ''A Passage to India'' in 1984.

His 1977 role as Obi-Wan Kenobi introduced him to a new generation of filmgoers and made him financially secure. ''I might never have been heard of again if it hadn't been for 'Star Wars','' he said.

But he detested the ''Star Wars'' phenonenom, and the fans that went along with it. He once described the dialogue as ''frightful rubbish'' and said he felt like a ''caged animal'' on the set.

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.''

His considerable fame left Guinness unmoved.

''You can only be your own personality,'' he once said. ''And I'm just happy to be an actor. If I tried to swan around, I wouldn't know how to behave. If I tried to be a superstar, I'd be a laughing stock!''

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, 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.

It was Gielgud who later gave Guinness his big break, casting him as Osric in his production of Hamlet in 1934. Guinness then went on to take 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.

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 that 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.''

Guinness is survived by his wife Merula and son Matthew. Funeral arrangements were not immediately available.

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