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Monday, 7 August, 2000, 01:11 GMT 02:11 UK
The shy genius

Sir Alec as Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars
Sir Alec Guinness once said he gave of his best in the parts which looked impossible.

His career spanned more than 60 years, his roles ranging from Shakespeare to Ealing comedies.

His great film roles included the Colonel in Bridge On the River Kwai - for which he won an Oscar - and the Fuhrer in Hitler, The Last Ten Days.

But his considerable fame left him 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!"

It's all done from the inside, don't rely on just a false nose and beard

Sir Alec Guinness
He was born in London on April 2 1914.

He was educated at Pembroke Lodge and Roborough, Eastbourne, but despite his acting ambitions, he joined an advertising firm as a copy writer at 18.

He then landed a scholarship at the Fay Compton Studio of Dramatic Art. It was a vital boost for the aspiring actor who had been brushed off by Sir John Gielgud after he rang him for advice.

Eight parts in one film

He joined the Old Vic in his early 20s and it was Sir John who later gave Sir Alec his big break, casting him as Osric in his production of Hamlet in 1934.

After the war, the films came thick and fast. He played Herbert Pocket in Great Expectations and then one of his most memorable roles at the age of 34 - Fagin in Oliver Twist.

One of his most notable achievements followed in Kind Hearts and Coronets, for the Ealing Studios, where he played eight different characters.

HIs next films for Ealing included The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), The Man in the White Suit (1951) and The Ladykillers (1955).

Then came his Oscar-winning performance in Bridge On the River Kwai (1959) and, to cap it all, his knighthood in the same year. He had been made a CBE in 1955.

Sir Alec Guinness:
Sir Alec Guinness: Awarded two Oscars
Later films which consolidated his status as one of Britain's greatest actors included Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Hitler: The Last Ten Days (1973), Star Wars (1977) and A Handful of Dust (1988).

In 1980, Sir Alec was awarded an honorary Oscar "for advancing the art of screen acting through a host of memorable and distinguished performances".

His career took another step forward when he portrayed Le Carre's Smiley on television, first in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and then in Smiley's People.

He starred in a film version of EM Forster's A Passage to India - and returned to Shakespeare after 20 years, playing Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, at Chichester.

In his 60s, Star Wars made him a fortune when he played Obi-Wan Kenobi, a Jedi knight, as he took a percentage of the profits.

Most recently he appeared in the American televised film Eskimo Day (1996), playing the character of James.

Private life crucial

But despite his hugely successful professional career, Sir Alec's private life remained intensely important to him.

His memoirs, Blessings in Disguise written more than 10 years ago, kept his life shrouded in mystery.

In 1997 he wrote the first part of his diary, My Name Escapes Me, which was followed two years later by A Positively Final Appearance in 1999. Neither gave great insight into his true personality.

He married playwright Merula Salaman in 1938 and for many years they lived near Petersfield, Hampshire. They had one son, Matthew.

In 1956, Sir Alec became a Roman Catholic, saying later that he "bared his soul" once a month to an anonymous priest, but to no one else.

In his later years he battled against chronic glaucoma and cataracts and underwent extensive surgery to restore his vision.

His views on acting were straightforward. Asked what he admired in an actor, he replied: "Simplicity, purity, clarity of line."

His idea of Heaven, he once said, was to "sit on the terrace on a summer's evening, enjoy a drink with one or two close friends and listen to the silence..."

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07 Aug 00 | Entertainment
Sir Alec Guinness dies
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