A portrait of actor Alec Guinness (1914-2000), from his 1951 comedy, "The Man in the White Suit."
On Friday, June 13, to celebrate the centenary of Guinness' birth, New York City's Film Forum will launch a retrospective of 30 films (several recently restored) from the actor's remarkable career. The retrospective, "Alec Guinness 100," will later play in Chicago, Silver Spring, Md., and Bryn Mawr, Pa.
Among the films featured are his collaborations with David Lean (including "Oliver Twist," "The Bridge on the River Kwai" and "Lawrence of Arabia"), comic gems from Ealing Studios, and the movie that defined him for a new generation, "Star Wars."
By CBSNews.com senior producer David Morgan
Born in London on April 2, 1914, Alec Guinness de Cuffe never knew his father, a bank manager, who was not married to his mother. After her marriage to another man, Alec was sent off at a young age to boarding school.
"I think I always was an actor from the age of five or six," Guinness told the BBC in 1973. "I was always in dormitories at school telling stories [and] acting them out."
He studied briefly at the Royal Academy (making his first stage appearance at age 20), and later joined John Gielgud's theatre company.
After appearing in a stage production of Charles Dickens' "Great Expectations," Guinness was contacted by director David Lean and producer Ronald Neame to appear in their 1946 film version, as Herbert Pocket (left).
Alec Guinness as Fagin, with John Howard Davies as Oliver, in David Lean's "Oliver Twist" (1948). Guinness said it was the only role he actively went after, winning it after being given a screen test by Lean.
"Kind Hearts and Coronets"
In the Ealing Studios comedy "Kind Hearts and Coronets" (1949), Alec Guinness played the Duke of D'Ascoyne and seven other members of the family - all of whom are targeted for murder by a poor relation eager to claim the family title for himself.
Guinness said he was originally offered four parts in the movie, and told Roger Ebert in 1982 that he couldn't see the sense in playing only half the D'Ascoyne family: "I cabled them offering to play all eight. To my surprise, they accepted."
"Kind Hearts and Coronets"
Alec Guinness as seven surviving members of the D'Ascoyne family.
Though "Kind Hearts and Coronets" is today considered a comedy classic, it had at least one detractor. The real-life Bishop of Matabeleland, The Rt. Rev William James Hughes, was "very aggrieved and indignant" and sought to have the film banned, according to a letter from his attorney sent to the film's producer in 1957. The letter stated that the murderous central character's claim to be the Bishop of Matabeleland had caused Rev. Hughes "extreme embarrassment."
"A Run For Your Money"
Alec Guinness, with rugby ball, starred in the Ealing comedy "A Run for Your Money" (1949), playing a London columnist caught in the misadventures of two Welshmen visiting the city to collect a newspaper contest's prize money.
In the 1950 comedy "Last Holiday," written by J.B. Priestley, Alec Guinness plays a man who decides to live it up at a fancy hotel after receiving a doctor's prognosis that he's only a few weeks to live.
Alec Guinness played Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli opposite Irene Dunn's Queen Victoria in the historical drama, "The Mudlark" (1950).
"The Lavender Hill Mob"
"The world is ours!"
One of Ealing's most successful comedies, "The Lavender Hill Mob" (1951) starred Alec Guinness as a bank clerk who hatches a plot to steal gold bullion and smuggle it out of the country disguised as Eiffel Tower paperweights.
"The Lavender Hill Mob"
Alec Guinness (who received his first Academy Award nomination for Best Actor) and Stanley Holloway - before the complications ensue in their gold heist plot - in "The Lavender Hill Mob" (1951).
"The Man in the White Suit"
Another winning Ealing comedy was "The Man in the White Suit" (1951), in which Alec Guinness played a scientist who invents an indestructible fabric that resists dirt. His purported boon to mankind is less than welcomed by business interests, trade unions and washerwomen.
The film earned an Oscar nomination for its screenplay.
In 1938 Alec Guinness married actress Merula Sylvia Salaman (with whom he appeared at the Old Vic). They had one son, Matthew.
Left: The Guinness family poses at an airport in London, December 27, 1951.
In the 1952 comedy "The Promoter" (a.k.a. "The Card"), Alec Guinness played a social climber whose misadventures include romance with Glynis Johns.
Alec Guinness cavorted with Yvonne de Carlo in the 1953 comedy, "Captain's Paradise."
In this 1953 photo, actor Alec Guinness poses in flying kit at Pinewood Studios near London, for his starring part as an RAF pilot in "Malta Story."
During World War II Guinness served in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve, commanding a landing craft as part of the invasion of Sicily.
"Looking for a black cat in a coal hole during an eclipse of the sun would be a child's task compared with mine."
The 1954 comedy "The Detective" (a.k.a "Father Brown"), based on a G.K. Chesterton character, starred Alec Guinness as a Catholic priest who matches wits with a nimble thief.
A Soviet block interrogator (Jack Hawkins) tries to get a jailed cleric (Alec Guinness) to admit to treason in the 1955 drama, "The Prisoner."
Alexander Mackendrick's "The Ladykillers" (1955) starred Alec Guinness as Professor Marcus, leader of a band of thieves disguised as a band of classical musicians, who find themselves having to dispose of their aged landlady when she discovers their true identity.
The delightfully dark comedy co-starred Cecil Parker and Herbert Lom (left), Danny Green and Peter Sellers; it won BAFTAs for its script and for Katie Johnson as the widow whose life hangs in the balance.
Grace Kelly and Alec Guinness are a possible royal match in the 1956 film "The Swan."
Kelly, who had met Prince Rainier of Monaco just prior to filming, would marry into Monaco royalty by the time "The Swan" was released.
"The Bridge on the River Kwai"
"What have I done?"
Alec Guinness as Col. Nicholson, the by-the-book commander of British troops held in a Japanese POW camp in Southeast Asia, who oversees the construction of a railway bridge for the enemy in David Lean's incomparable war film, "The Bridge on the River Kwai" (1957).
"The Bridge on the River Kwai"
David Lean (left), with Alec Guinness and Sessue Hayakawa on the set of "The Bridge on the River Kwai."
The film won seven Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor (Guinness).
"The Horse's Mouth"
"Of course you want to be an artist. Everybody does, once. But they get over it, like measles and chicken pox."
Alec Guinness received an Oscar nomination, not for acting, but for his screenplay of the 1959 film, "The Horse's Mouth," based on Joyce Cary's novel. Guinness' performance as the artist Gully Jimson was masterful.
Alec Guinness played a dual role - a British university professor and a French nobleman who cross paths, and switch lives - in the 1959 film of Daphne du Maurier's "The Scapegoat."
"Our Man in Havana"
In "Our Man in Havana" (1959), from the Graham Greene novel, Alec Guinness is a vacuum cleaner salesman who plays British intelligence after being recruited to spy in pre-revolutionary Cuba.
"Tunes of Glory"
"We're on a first-name basis in this regiment. Your first name is Derek; my first name is Major."
In "Tunes of Glory" (1960), Alec Guinness played a larger-than-life British officer who is to pass on the command of his Scottish regiment to John Mills.
The producers originally wanted Guinness and Mills to play the opposing roles, but Guinness lobbied for the characters that ran counter to expectations.
"A Majority of One"
In the love story "A Majority of One" (1961), based on the stage production by Leonard Spigelgass, Alec Guinness played a Japanese businessman courting Rosalind Russell.
"Damn the Defiant!"
In 1962's "Damn the Defiant" (a.k.a. "HMS Defiant"), Alec Guinness played a ship commander facing mutiny and a clash of wills with his lieutenant (Dirk Bogarde) during the Napoleonic Wars.
"Lawrence of Arabia"
"I think you are another of these desert-loving English."
In David Lean's "Lawrence of Arabia" (1962), Alec Guinness played the Arab Prince Faisal, who works in league with the British officer T.E. Lawrence (Peter O'Toole) in combating Turkish forces during the First World War. Omar Sharif (center) co-starred.
"Lawrence of Arabia"
Alec Guinness as Prince Faisal in "Lawrence of Arabia." Surprisingly, Guinness was not director David Lean's first choice for the role (Laurence Olivier was).
"The Fall of the Roman Empire"
"Please don't bring me his head. I wouldn't know what to do with it."
The Samuel Bronston spectacle "The Fall of the Roman Empire" (1964), directed by Anthony Mann, was a more-intelligent-than-usual epic featuring a cast that included Alec Guinness (as the emperor Marcus Aurelius), James Mason, Mel Ferrer and Rafael Luis Calvo, in addition to Sophia Loren, Stephen Boyd, Christopher Plummer and Omar Sharif.
After two Broadway appearances in the 1940s and '50s - in Terence Rattigan's "Flare Path," and T.S. Eliot's "The Cocktail Party" - Alec Guinness starred with Kate Reid in "Dylan" (1964), about the poet Dylan Thomas.
Guinness won the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play.
In David Lean's epic "Doctor Zhivago" (1965), from the Boris Pasternack novel, Alec Guinness (pictured with Rita Tushingham) played a Soviet KGB officer.
Alec Guinness and Gina Lollobrigida starred in the 1966 bedroom farce, "Hotel Paradiso."
In "The Comedians" (1967), based on the Graham Greene novel, Alec Guinness played a businessman dealing in arms with the Haitian regime of "Papa Doc" Duvalier. Richard Burton co-starred.
Guinness starred as the British monarch Charles I, who has a date with the executioner, in the historical drama "Cromwell" (1970).
Alec Guinness appeared as Marley's Ghost in the 1971 musical, "Scrooge," opposite Albert Finney's miserly Ebenezer Scrooge.
"Hitler: The Last Ten Days"
Alec Guinness portrayed Adolf Hitler in the final hours of the war, in "Hitler: The Last Ten Days" (1973).
"Murder by Death"
So, did the butler do it? Alec Guinness played a blind butler in the Neil Simon spoof "Murder By Death" (1976), in which some of the biggest names in crime-solving (including Elsa Lancaster as Miss Marbles, Peter Sellers as Sidney Wang, and James Coco as Milo Perrier) try to unravel a murder mystery.
In 1977 Guinness told the BBC's Michael Parkinson that the script for "Star Wars" was delivered by George Lucas, "an up-and-coming, very respected young director. And then when I opened it and found it was science fiction, I thought, 'Oh, simply not for me.'
"Then I started reading it and it seemed the dialogue was pretty ropey, but I had to go on turning the page. That's an essential in any script.
"And I met him, and we got along very well, and I found myself doing it."
"You can't win, Darth. If you strike me down I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine."
Alec Guinness added gravitas and a sly wink to "Star Wars" as the Jedi knight Obi-Wan Kenobi, seen here in a light-saber duel to the death with Darth Vader. He earned his third acting Oscar nomination.
Despite appearing in the sequels "The Empire Strikes Back" and "Return of the Jedi," Guinness grew less enamored with the "Star Wars" series as time went on. In his memoir, "A Positively Final Appearance," Guinness reflected on the saga at the time of the 1997 release of the Special Editions:
I have no intention of revisiting any galaxy. I shrivel inside each time it's mentioned. Twenty years ago when the film was first shown, it had a freshness, also a sense of moral good and fun. Then I began to be uneasy at the influence it might be having. The bad penny first dropped in San Francisco when a sweet-faced boy of 12 told me proudly that he had seen 'Star Wars' over a hundred times. His elegant mother nodded with approval.
Looking into the boy's eyes I thought I detected little star-shells of madness beginning to form, and I guessed that one day they would explode.
"I'd love you to do something for me," I said.
"Oh, anything! Anything!" the boy said rapturously.
"You won't like what I'll ask you to do."
"Anything, sir, anything."
"Well, do you think you can promise never to see 'Star Wars' again?"
"Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy"
In the 1979 BBC miniseries "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," Alec Guinness starred as John le Carre's George Smiley, a retired spymaster who is called upon to help finger a Soviet mole in the highest echelons of British intelligence.
Guinness returned to the role in 1982 for "Smiley's People."
In the comedy "Lovesick" (1983), Guinness appeared as the ghostly figure of Sigmund Freud a psychiatrist in need of a romantic intervention.
"A Passage to India"
Alec Guinness as Godbole, with Victor Banner and Judy Davis, in "A Passage to India" (1984), form the book by E.M. Forster. It was Guinness' sixth collaboration with director David Lean.
"A Passage to India"
Guinness had at first resisted playing the Hindu Brahmin, Professor Godbole. He and David Lean quarreled during shooting, and much of Guinness' performance ended up on the cutting-room floor.
In a letter to Lean at the time of its release, Guinness described the film as "marvelously good and [I] do congratulate you most heartily. It is expansive, handsome, gripping and yet somehow intimate. . . . Also I think it is beautifully acted - with one excruciating exception. …
"For my own part I'm afraid I thought I was sickeningly awful. I thought it was poor at the time we were doing it but I hadn't realized how wide of the mark I was. …
"John Brabourne [the producer] was right in his original objection. Well, there it is and some of the press have rightly pointed it out. One thing I am now grateful for is the disappearance of the song and dance - at least the agony isn't protracted."
Among his final film appearances, Alec Guinness' performance as William Dorrit in the 1998 adaptation of Charles Dickens' "Little Dorrit" (released as a two-part film) earned him his fourth Oscar nomination for acting.
Guinness also appeared in "A Handful of Dust" and Steven Soderbergh's "Kafka," as well as the TV productions "A Foreign Field" and "Interview Day."
Guinness died on August 5, 2000 at Midhurst Hospital in Sussex, England, at age 86.
"The Man in the White Suit"
After running at New York's Film Forum, the retrospective "Alec Guinness 100" will be presented later this summer at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago, the AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Springs, Md., and the Bryn Mawr Film Institute in Bryn Mawr, Pa.
For more info:
"Alec Guinness 100" at Film Forum, New York (June 13-July 3, 2014)
"Alec Guinness 100" at the Gene Siskel Film Center, Chicago (July 5-29)
"Alec Guinness 100" at the AFI Silver Theatre, Silver Springs, Md. (July 11-Aug. 13)
"Alec Guinness 100" at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute, Bryn Mawr, Pa. (July 30-Aug.19).