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Sir Alec Guinness dies at age 86

British actor won Oscar in '57, was knighted in 1959

LONDON — Sir Alec Guinness, a Shakespearean actor who was knighted after his role in "The Bridge on the River Kwai" and was introduced to a new generation of fans as a wise Jedi knight in "Star Wars," has died at age 86.

Guinness died Saturday at the King Edward VII Hospital after becoming ill at his home near Petersfield in southern England, hospital spokeswoman Jenny Masding said Monday. The cause of death was not revealed, although news reports said he was battling liver cancer.

Guinness, whose career spanned more than 60 years, was one of the last surviving members of Britain's greatest generation of actors, which included Sir Laurence Olivier and Sir John Gielgud.

From postwar comedies to Hamlet to the light-saber-wielding knight Obi-Wan Kenobi in "Star Wars," Guinness played a variety of characters with subtlety and intelligence. He received an Oscar in 1957 for his role as a colonel in "The Bridge on the River Kwai" and a knighthood for his art and skill in 1959.

"He was one of the most talented and respected actors of his generation and brought an amazing range and versatility to his work," said "Star Wars" creator George Lucas.

"He was one of the all-time greats of both stage and screen," filmmaker Ronald Neame, who produced "Oliver Twist" and five other films with Guinness, told the British Broadcasting Corp. "Professionally and personally, he was one of my greatest friends, and I am absolutely shattered."

Guinness was a reluctant superstar, however, preferring to walk down the street unnoticed. He modestly dismissed the publicity tag given to him by his agent — "The man of a thousand faces."

"It's absolute rubbish — it has plagued me all my life," he complained. Born April 2, 1914, Guinness was an illegitimate child who did not know the name on his birth certificate was Guinness until he was 14.

"I have to admit that my search for a father has been my constant speculation for 50 years," he said.

The mysterious father whose identity he never learned provided money for private schools but not university. Guinness was sent away to boarding school at age 6.

"I wasn't miserable — children accept what happens — but I had a lonely childhood, and I suppose acting came from inventing things for myself," he once said.

Following boarding school, Guinness worked briefly as an advertising copywriter, spending most of his pound-a-week salary on theater tickets.

After saving enough for elementary lessons with actress Martita Hunt, he won a place at the Fay Compton School of Acting. There, John Gielgud judged the end-of-term performance and chose him as the prize winner.

It was Gielgud who later gave Guinness his big break, casting him as Osric in his production of Hamlet in 1934.

While performing, Guinness met actress Merula Salaman, whom he married in 1938. They had a son, Matthew, and remained happily married, living away from the spotlight in a country house near Petersfield, 50 miles southwest of London.

Guinness first made his mark in films in the Ealing Studio comedies of the late 1940s and the 1950s — "The Man in the White Suit," "The Lavender Hill Mob," "The Lady Killers" and most remarkably in "Kind Hearts and Coronets." In that classic black comedy, he played the entire d'Ascoyne family — in his own words, "eight speaking parts, one non-speaking cameo and a portrait in oils."

Midway through his blossoming career, Guinness joined the Royal Navy and became a commissioned officer in 1942. His first command was delayed because of construction problems with a new ship, so Guinness opted to spend the time performing in his first Broadway play, "Flare Path."

Following World War II, his career again soared. In parts such as Fagin in "Oliver Twist," Guinness was barely recognizable behind his makeup and costume.

But with "The Bridge on the River Kwai" in 1957, he established that his versatility had nothing to do with disguise. He won an Oscar for his performance as the disciplined, inflexible Col. Nicholson in a World War II Japanese prison camp.

Three years later, he played Nicholson's opposite — the boorish, hard-drinking Scottish Lt. Col. Jock Sinclair in "Tunes of Glory."

He once described it as his favorite film role — "perhaps the best thing I've done."

Guinness had a long film partnership with director David Lean, beginning in 1946 as Herbert Pocket in "Great Expectations," through "Dr. Zhivago" and finally "A Passage to India" in 1984.

His 1977 role as Obi-Wan Kenobi introduced him to a new generation of filmgoers and made him financially secure. Guinness appeared in the 1980 sequel "The Empire Strikes Back" and again in 1983's "Return of the Jedi," but he detested the "Star Wars" phenomenon and the fans that went along with it.

He once described the dialogue as "frightful rubbish" and said he threw away all "Star Wars" fan mail unopened.

But Lucas said Monday that in casting Guinness he was looking for an actor "who brought a certain authority to the role. Someone who was powerful yet gentle, and that came across in Alec as a person and as an actor."

Guinness did little television, but became John Le Carre's quiet spy George Smiley in "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy," and "Smiley's People" in 1979 and 1981.

Guinness's entertaining memoir, "Blessings in Disguise," published in 1985, told more about the talented and eccentric people he knew than about himself.

In one of the stories he told about himself, Guinness checks his hat and coat at a restaurant and asks for a claim ticket. "It will not be necessary," the attendant says smiling.

Pleased at being recognized, Guinness later retrieves his garments, puts his hand in the coat pocket and finds a slip of paper on which is written, "Bald with glasses."

Guinness is survived by his wife and son. Funeral arrangements were not immediately available.