Alec Guinness Biography

Alec Guinness was an Oscar-winning British actor best known for his performance in the film ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’. Check out this biography to know about his childhood, life, achievements, works & timeline.

Quick Facts

Birthday: April 2, 1914

Nationality: British

Famous: Quotes By Alec Guinness Actors

Died At Age: 86

Sun Sign: Aries

Also Known As: Sir Alec Guinness, Alec Guinness de Cuffe

Born in: Maida Vale

Famous as: Actor

Height: 5'10" (178 cm), 5'10" Males

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Spouse/Ex-: Merula Salaman

mother: Agnes Cuff

children: Matthew Guinness

Died on: August 5, 2000

place of death: Midhurst

Cause of Death: Cancer

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Alec Guinness is a renowned name in the English film industry till date, best remembered as one of the three actors who successfully transitioned from Shakespearean theatre to Hollywood blockbusters following World War II. Guinness developed his passion for acting, early in his life. He stepped into the world of stardom with miniscule roles for theatre groups. No sooner he was enrolled as a professional theatre actor. Guinness found his early success playing major roles in Shakespearean plays such as Hamlet, Merchant of Venice, Twelfth Night, Romeo and Juliet and Tempest. He made his maiden appearance on the big screen in 1946 with David Lean’s film, ‘Great Expectations’. Following this, he starred in a number of Ealing Comedies. Guinness’s collaboration with Lean spelled success and triumph for both the actor and the director. Lean’s 1957 movie, ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’ became a major blockbuster in Guinness’ career. Also, it won him several significant awards including Academy Award and Golden Globe. Though Guinness had established his reputation as an actor, worldwide recognition eluded him until Lucas’s ‘Star Wars’ trilogy happened. The series made him a household name and catapulted his fame internationally.

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Childhood & Early Life
  • Post completing his education in 1932, Alec Guinness started working as an apprentice copywriter for an advertising agency in London. It was during this time that Guinness realised his passion for acting.
  • He won a scholarship at the Fay Compton Studio of Dramatic Art, following his victory in an audition held by the drama institute. Guinness first ever appearance in theatre was in the year 1934 for the play ‘Libel’.
  • Following his inaugural performance at the old King’s theatre, Hammersmith, Guinness appeared in several plays such as ‘Hamlet’, ‘Thunder Rock’ etc, for various theatre groups. It was during this time that he befriended many of his future friends and co-stars.
  • Towards the end of the 1930s, Guinness starred in a number of Shakespearean roles for Shakespearean plays such as ‘The Merchant of Venice’, ‘Hamlet’, ‘Romeo and Juliet’, ‘Twelfth Night’, ‘Henry V’, ‘The Tempest’.
  • With the onset of World War II, Guinness enlisted himself in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve as a seaman. In 1942, he received a commission as an officer. Meanwhile, Guinness did not let go off his acting career completely and appeared in a Broadway production during his service in World War II
  • Post war, Guinness resumed his career on stage. He played a variety of characters, each with full conviction and élan. Besides his career as a theatre artist, Guinness commenced his film career as well. He made his maiden appearance on the big screen in 1946 with David Lean’s film, ‘Great Expectations’; he played the role of Herbert Pocket.
  • Following his debut on big screen, he appeared as Fagin in Lean’s ‘Oliver Twist’ in 1948. Next year, Guinness was applauded for playing eight different characters in the film, ‘Kind Hearts and Coronets’
  • The early phase of Guinness’s film career saw him feature in many Ealing Comedies including, ‘The Mudlark’, ‘The Lavender Hill Mob’, ‘The Ladykillers’, ‘The Swan’ and ‘The Man in the White Suit’.
  • In 1957, Guinness collaborated with Lean yet again for the film ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’; he played the role of British POW commanding officer Colonel Nicholson. The film won him his first Academy Award and Golden Globe award. Following year, he won Academy Award nomination for the satirical film ‘The Horse’s Mouth’ as a screenwriter.
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  • Guinness collaborated with Lean for a number of films wherein he played character roles such as Arab leader Prince Feisal in ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, Bolshevik leader Yevgraf in ‘Doctor Zhivago’, Professor Godbole in ‘A Passage to India’. These roles cemented his acting credentials.
  • Following the superlative success of the 1960s, Guinness was successful in the 1970s too. He appeared in many notable films including ‘Cromwell and Scrooge’, ‘Hitler: The Last Ten Days’, ‘Caesar and Cleopatra’ and so on.
  • Though Guinness acting career was surging upwards and he had already attained a name for himself as brilliant actor, the pinnacle of success came with Guinness's role as Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original ‘Star Wars’ trilogy in 1977. The film instantly catapulted him to international fame and success.
  • Following the unparalleled success of the first film, Guinness reprised his role of Obi Wan Kenobi for the next two sequels, ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ and ‘Return of the Jedi’. Interestingly, strange as it may seem, Guinness hated his involvement with the Star Wars trilogy and himself gave the idea to Lucas for the character’s death so as to end his relationship with the film series.
  • Besides his film career, Guinness made regular television appearances in the 1970s decade. He featured as master spy George Smiley in two television miniseries, ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ and ‘Smiley’s People’.
  • In 1988, he appeared as William Dorrit in the film, ‘Little Dorrit’. His role was highly appreciated and it won him nominations for best supporting actor.
  • In 1989, he made his final stage performance, at the Comedy Theatre, for the play ‘A Walk in the Woods’. This was his 77th performance on stage as theatre actor. His career’s final role came for TV movie ‘Eskimo Day’ in 1996.
Major Works
  • Guinness most acclaimed work came in 1957 with the release of the movie ‘The Bridge on the Rive Kwai’. Guinness played the character of British POW, Colonel Nicholson, in the film. He won the Academy Award, the BAFTA and the Golden Globe Award for his performance in the film.
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  • Guinness artistic prowess had well been established by his theatre roles and films but his popularity didn’t cross oceans. However, in 1977, that too changed when he was roped in to play the role of Obi Wan Kenobi for the Star Wars trilogy. The role gained him international fame and worldwide recognition.
Awards & Achievements
  • Guinness most prestigious award came for the movie ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’, in 1957 for which he won Academy Award for Best Actor. Other awards won by him include Golden Globe for Best Actor, BAFTA Award for Best Actor, National Board Review Award and New York Film Critics Circle Award for his role as Colonel Nicholson in ‘The Bridge on the Rive Kwai’.
  • In 1979, he won the British Academy Television Award and Broadcasting Press Guild Award for Best Actor for the television series ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’. He later won the British Academy Television Award for ‘Smiley’s People’.
  • For his brilliant portrayal of the character of Dylan Thomas for the Broadway show ‘Dylan’, he won a Tony award.
  • In 1959, he was knighted by Elizabeth II for his services to the arts. Following year, he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
  • In 1980, he received the lifetime achievement Academy Honorary Award for his outstanding work in films, theatre, and television. In 1989 he was bestowed with the BAFTA Academy Fellowship Award.
Personal Life & Legacy
  • Alec Guinness married actress Merula Sylvia Salamanartist in 1938. The couple was blessed with a son, Matthew Guinness, who became an actor.
  • Alec died of liver cancer on August 5, 2000, at Midhurst, West Sussex. He was interred at Petersfield, Hampshire. His wife died two months later and was interred alongside him.
  • While filming ‘Father Brown’, Guinness was mistaken for a real Catholic priest by a young boy. The confidence and affection that the clerical attire brought forth left a deep impact on Guinness; so much so that in 1956, he converted to Roman Catholic Church.

1. Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

  (Action, Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Adventure)

2. Star Wars (1977)

  (Action, Sci-Fi, Adventure, Fantasy)

3. Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

  (Adventure, War, Biography, Drama, History)

4. The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

  (Drama, Adventure, War)

5. Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi (1983)

  (Adventure, Action, Sci-Fi, Fantasy)

6. Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

  (Comedy, Crime)

7. Doctor Zhivago (1965)

  (War, Drama, Romance)

8. Great Expectations (1946)

  (Romance, Drama, Mystery, Adventure)


Academy Awards(Oscars)
1958 Best Actor in a Leading Role The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
Golden Globe Awards
1958 Best Actor - Drama The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
BAFTA Awards
1983 Best Actor Smiley's People (1982)
1980 Best Actor Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979)
1958 Best British Actor The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

See the events in life of Alec Guinness in Chronological Order

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- Alec Guinness Biography
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Last Updated
- July 21, 2017
Alec Guinness

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