6 August 2000 | Sir Alec Guinness (1914-2000)

From my email: "Do you have any comments you'd like to share about Sir Alec Guiness? Did you know him? What did you think of him as an actor? What do you think about his immortality in pop culture through Star Wars?"

To begin with he wouldn't have appreciated your misspelling his surname! Nor would he reply to letters addressed to his home in the county of "Hampshire" if the correspondent used the widely accepted abbreviation of "Hants". It is a pity that a man whose friends testify to his gentle self-deprecating humour should be famous amongst actors for his temper. He couldn't bear noisy audiences and would use his famous talent for mimicry by repeating a cough from the auditorium with one of his own in exact imitation. Years ago he was quoted complaining of the increasing number of Japanese in audiences in London's West End who didn't understand English. I'm sure he regretted that one and for all I know he was misquoted. Nor can I vouch for the following story — actors beware.

Entering onstage he noticed a lady on the front row who was following his every move through opera glasses, an irritant which he eventually coped with by leaning down towards her, peering back through circles made from the fingers of each hand. The lady put aside her glasses. At the interval the house manager delivered her apology to Guinness - "The blind lady on the front row says she's sorry."

Throughout my lifetime Alec Guinness has been there as an example. Better than his contemporaries he mastered the subtlety and intimacy of film-acting but presented his characters with a theatrical flair which I found irresistible. Just see him play eight parts in Kind Hearts and Coronets and you will see why. Then you can put aside Star Wars, which made him rich but gave him no pleasure to play, apparently. Onstage, ironically, he was less flamboyant, drawing the audience toward him rather than the other way round. There was no hint of showing off nor was it even easy to see that he was acting rather than just being the character.

I never worked with him and met him twice only. He came backstage alone after a performance of Bent at the Criterion Theatre in London where he quietly handed out compliments and, to me, an invitation to dine. I wasn't, unfortunately, free. Shortly after his congratulations on my knighthood (written in the tiniest script not unlike John Gielgud's handwriting) he repeated the offer and we met for lunch at his favourite Italian restaurant. He recalled Bent and drew the conversation round to gay affairs, including my own involvement with Stonewall, which works for lesbian and gay equality in the United Kingdom. I asked for his support but he was adamant. It was not appropriate, he said, for gay people to talk publicly about their sexuality nor to campaign openly for law reform. He gave no reasons. He paid the hefty bill discreetly, as he did everything in life and art. — Ian McKellen, 6 August 2000

ps The late Ian Charleson (Chariots of Fire and the most startlingly moving Hamlet ever) was partly funded through London Academy of Dramatic Art by Alec Guinness.

Alec Guinness in The Bridge over the River Kwai

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