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Yesterday & Today

Alec Guinness, Reluctant Intergalactic Icon

Liver cancer took the legendary actor and his wife of 62 years just months apart. Twelve years later, where do efforts to prevent and treat the disease stand? By Jocelyn Selim
​Photo by Michael Ward / Getty Images​
​Photo by Michael Ward / Getty Images​

When Star Wars opened in 1977, Sir Alec Guinness' role as Obi-Wan Kenobi made him an instant cult hero. In a very real sense, Guinness was perfect for the role of the master Jedi knight who would uphold the metaphysical sense of good and spirituality embodied by "the force."

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Guinness had not only been knighted in real life, but he had established himself as one of the greatest British actors of his generation. He had also developed a famously retiring, sage-like persona and a reputation as a devoted follower of Catholicism. In letters to his friends, Guinness described the Star Wars script as “fairy-tale rubbish,” but the movie’s sense of moral good—and the studio’s doubling of his initial salary offer—appealed to him, and he signed on. 

Guinness’ participation lent the film much-needed credibility—the bizarre sets of George Lucas’ space opera had more than a few people doubting the film would be a success, and most of the actors, including Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher, were relative newcomers. Guinness, on the other hand, had started his career onstage doing Shakespeare with the likes of Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud, and he had successfully navigated the transition to television and film, starring in classics like the Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago.

​​To generations of movie fans, Alec Guinness was best known as Star Wars’ master Jedi knight, a role that suited him but that he took on with some hesitation. Photo by John Jay / 
By the time Guinness died of liver cancer at age 86 in 2000, his career had spanned six decades and included parts in about 70 theater productions, more than 50 films and over a dozen television shows. He had received two Oscars, been knighted by Queen Elizabeth II of England, and been made a Companion of Honour as well.

Today, a dozen years after his death, the liver cancer that ended his career still remains a frustrating disease. “I think it’s fair to say that … we haven’t seen dramatic increases in life expectancy,” says Robert J. Mayer, a gastrointestinal oncologist at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. But that doesn’t mean advances haven’t been made: The last two decades have seen the emergence of treatments designed to cut off the blood vessels that feed liver tumors. Those treatments have been only modestly successful, but they do suggest a new approach to therapy. “While they’re not home runs, they are certainly base hits,” says Mayer.

Humble Beginnings to Legendary Career
When asked what it was that drew him to acting, Guinness was fond of telling interviewers, “One became an actor to escape from oneself.” That Guinness might have a deep-seated need to escape was understandable. The circumstances of Guinness’ birth in 1914 were scandalous: His mother, Agnes Cuff—perhaps in an attempt to give her illegitimate son some semblance of social acceptability—listed his name on his birth certificate as Alec Guinness de Cuffe. His real father, he later believed, was a Scottish banker named Andrew Geddes, whom Guinness saw only occasionally. Geddes, posing as an uncle, paid for the boy’s boarding school fees but had little else to do with his life.

“I … was born to confusion,” Guinness recounted in a journal in 1985, “owning three different names until the age of fourteen and living in about thirty different hotels, lodgings and flats, each of which was hailed as ‘home’ until such time as my mother and I flitted, leaving behind, like a paper-chase, a wake of unpaid bills.”

At age 5, young Alec had his last name changed to Stiven, when his mother married a violent army lieutenant, who at various times held him by his ankles over a river threatening to drown him, or held a gun to his head. The marriage lasted less than a decade, and Alec’s escape to a young gentleman’s boarding school was a mixed blessing. It afforded young Alec some protection from his promiscuous, often tipsy, and notoriously thieving mother. But an awareness of gentlemanly conduct instilled by his schoolmasters also led him to a sense of embarrassment and shame about his mother that he would carry with him the rest of his life.
Guinness’ ability to blend into any role was the stuff of legend. In the 1949 classic Kind Hearts and Coronets, he took on eight different roles. 

Guinness caught the acting bug early, putting on productions for his schoolmates in a makeshift cardboard theater and spending his small amount of pocket money on theater tickets whenever possible. After he graduated from secondary school, he worked briefly at an advertising agency and then enrolled in a drama school after winning a scholarship—the only way he could afford to pursue training. By his early 20s, Guinness had already begun to establish a name for himself onstage, most notably in a version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Minus a stint in World War II as a British navy lieutenant, he would work steadily as an actor until his 70s.

Guinness’ ability to blend into any role was the stuff of legend. In the 1949 classic Kind Hearts and Coronets, he took on eight different roles. His career saw him playing an improbable range of characters, from the acquiescing Herbert Pocket of Great Expectations to Adolf Hitler in Hitler: The last ten days. In a 1953 study of Guinness’ work, theater critic Kenneth Tynan mused that “were he to commit a murder … the number of false arrests following the circulation of his description would break all records.” 

Tynan also gave Guinness credit for an almost preternatural acting ability. “At the core of Guinness’s impersonations there is a kind of impersonal peace,” he wrote. “He is a master, but he is the master of anonymity. His obsequious magic gets its results not by noise or declamation, but—almost—by spells.” 

Cancer Diagnosis
In his final decades, Guinness found success as an author as well, publishing three best-selling autobiographical journals. In the last, A Positively Final Appearance, Guinness reflected, “My life has been enjoyable and basically content; the rewards I have received, both professionally and privately, have been undeserved and surprising. If, God forbid, I am struck gravely ill in my last days, I pray I won’t have the effrontery to complain.” In another chapter, in an entry in June 1998, he writes, in a moment of uncharacteristic moroseness, “I sat up abruptly in bed on this gloomy morning saying to myself, you have only another 700 days to live. … A quick rough reckoning gave me until November 2000.”

Guinness’ premonition would prove eerily close to reality. In February 2000, he was diagnosed with early stage prostate cancer, which he referred to in a letter to a friend as “the old gent’s disease.” Tests showed that the cancer was confined to his prostate, and Guinness began anti-androgen hormone treatment. In his letter, he wrote that his doctors “tell me I’m far more likely to die from being knocked down by a train in Liverpool than from the disease. So I am avoiding Liverpool.” 

But despite the good prognosis for Guinness’ prostate cancer, by that spring, his legs had become swollen. He was thought to have phlebitis—inflammation of the veins—and was given pills to reduce the swelling. He also lost his appetite, refusing to eat anything but fruit and spending more and more time in bed.


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