Immortalised in the original Star Wars trilogy as Obi-Wan Kenobi, Alec Guinness brought serious gravitas to George Lucas’ sci-fi saga. The only person to date to have earned an Oscar nomination for acting in a Star Wars movie, Guinness won acclaim and a huge new fanbase for his starring role in the 1977 original; even so, it’s long been rumoured that the late star detested his experience making the film.
In reality, Guinness was full of love for Star Wars – his fee most of all. Guinness’ Star Wars pay amounted to $150,000 up front and millions more in royalties, with the veteran actor having negotiated for 2.25% of the blockbuster’s box office takings. Made a millionaire by Star Wars, Guinness was in later life light years away from the poverty-stricken world he came from.
Long before he became a master Jedi knight, Alec Guinness was raised in London in the 1910s, his childhood marred by a restless lifestyle and an abusive stepfather. “I was born to confusion,” Guinness later wrote, “owning three different names until the age of 14 and living in about 30 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.”
Guinness became a Shakespearean actor in his 20s and joined the Royal Navy during the Second World War. He won fame starring in Ealing comedies, and his other famous works prior to Star Wars included the David Lean epics The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia and Dr Zhivago.
So it was as a seasoned actor that Alec Guinness came to Obi-Wan Kenobi, a role that he accepted with some trepidation. Aged 62 when Star Wars began shooting, Guinness was excited to work with young up-and-coming director George Lucas, whose 1973 film American Graffiti he liked, but said that his heart sank when he realised Lucas wanted to make a science fiction movie.
“I thought, ‘Oh crumbs, this is certainly not for me'”, Guinness recalled in a 1977 interview with Michael Parkinson. “And then I started reading it, and it seemed to me the dialogue is pretty ropey. But I had to go on turning the page… and I went on reading and thought, ‘No, I like this, if only we can get some of the dialogue altered.’ And then I met him, we got on very well, and I found myself doing it.”
Guinness was often vocal about frustrations with his projects, the most popular ones included. According to Alec Guinness: The Authorised Biography, the star quarrelled ferociously with David Lean over their various collaborations, finally falling out with the director while filming 1984’s A Passage to India. Even the 1979 BBC miniseries Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which Guinness said he “enjoyed…more than any job I’ve done”, left the actor complaining he was “feeble” in the role.
The publicity-averse Guinness agreed to join the cast of Star Wars only after Lucas assured him that he would not have to publicise or promote the film, although he ultimately wound up giving interviews in which he sang the film’s praises anyway. Released in 1977, Star Wars earned ten Oscar nominations and grossed $410 million worldwide on its initial run, while winning critical acclaim.
“It’s a pretty staggering film”
Ever the perfectionist, Alec Guinness had mixed feelings after watching Star Wars upon its release. “It’s a pretty staggering film as spectacle and technically brilliant,” he wrote in his diary. “Exciting, very noisy, and warm-hearted. The battle scenes at the end go on for five minutes too long, I feel, and some of the dialogue is excruciating and much of it is lost in noise, but it remains a vivid experience.”
“[It has] a marvellous, healthy innocence,” Guinness later told Parkinson. “Great pace, wonderful to look at… No horrors, no sleazy sex – in fact, actually, no sex at all, when it comes to that. And a sort of wonderful freshness about it, kind of like a wonderful fresh air. When I came out of the cinema at Tottenham Court Road, I thought to myself, ‘Oh Lord, London’s awfully gritty and dirty and full of rubbish, isn’t it’. Because it had all been so invigorating.”
“It’s simple stuff for all ages,” Guinness concluded warmly.
Despite his initial coldness on the set, in a 1987 interview Guinness claimed that he had defended Star Wars from detractors during its making: “I heard now and then people disparaging the work, and I would say ‘you mark my words, it’s being done with great taste and imagination. There’s something more to it than you think.'”
Still, Guinness always struggled with Lucas’ dialogue (of course, he’s far from the only Star Wars actor to criticiseLucas’writing), and so according to the star himself Guinness suggested to Lucas that Obi-Wan perish in the first movie: “What I didn’t tell Lucas was that I just couldn’t go on speaking those bloody awful, banal lines. I’d had enough of the mumbo jumbo.”
It’s this particular gripe that has given rise to longstanding rumours that Guinness uncomplicatedly hated Star Wars. This, however, is far from the truth.
Throughout the making of the first Star Wars movie and two sequels (despite Obi-Wan’s death in the first film, Guinness would agree to return as a Force ghost in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi), Guinness and his co-stars spoke glowingly of working alongside each other.
While at first Guinness struggled even to recall Harrison Ford’s name (“Tennyson… Ellison?”), he later came to say his Star Wars colleagues “couldn’t have been nicer”. Lucas praised Guinness for uplifting the cast and making useful edits to the script, while set decorator Roger Christian later said that the actor “held the production together”.
As the shoot rolled on, Guinness grew fond of Mark Hamill, to the point of playing pranks on other actors with him. Guinness was such a cinematic icon that Hamill questioned him incessantly about his past movies. Carrie Fisher fondly remembered how Guinness at one point jokingly offered Hamill £20 to stop quizzing him, which Hamill accepted with laughter.
Making a fortune
Aside from the good memories, Star Wars also made Alec Guinness a wealthy man in later life. Paid $150,000 up front, when he joined the cast Guinness also negotiated for 2% of the film’s royalties.
Thanks to his extra input with the script, George Lucas decided to offer Guinness a further 0.5% – which the film’s producer Gary Kurtz then brought down to a 0.25% bonus. Lucas eventually received 20% of the film’s overall box office takings, while Guinness got 2.25%.
This was truly a life-changing stream of income. Star Wars grossed $775 million before Guinness passed from liver cancer in 2000, meaning Guinness’ 2.25% overall share would have put his royalties earnings in his lifetime at around $17 million.
“Blessed be Star Wars”
Guinness commented that, when it came to the Star Wars franchise, he had “no complaints”: “Let me leave it by saying I can live for the rest of my life in the reasonably modest way I am now used to, that I have no debts and I can afford to refuse work that doesn’t appeal to me.”
From the fortune to the on-set friendships, Guinness ultimately found Star Wars to be a rewarding experience – and a compelling franchise to boot. In his autobiography Blessings in Disguise, Guinness summarised his feelings towards the franchise in four simple words: “Blessed be Star Wars.”