For weeks, the cast and crew of the comedy film "Lovesick" awaited the arrival of Sir Alec Guinness.
"Sir Alec is coming," they whispered excitedly. "What do we call him?" costars Dudley Moore and Nastassja Kinski worried. Tales of the esteemed actor began circulating. He was a stickler for punctuality. He had it written in his contract that the dialogue would not be changed at the last minute; he was too old to learn it on the set.
On the day of arrival, a storm dumped six inches of snow on Manhattan, and Guinness was shown to his trailer. Director Marshall Brickman hurried over to greet the actor and found the trailer listing at a 30-degree angle. Two burly Teamsters had jacked up one end and were rocking it back and forth, trying to get the generator started.
Inside, the lights were flickering on and off, and Guinness stood, a blanket wrapped around his shoulders Navaho style.
"I'm terribly sorry," a flustered Brickman said, opening the trailer door.
"No, no," Guinness calmly replied. "I happen to like being rolled back and forth in the dark."
He lumbers through the door, a surprisingly burly man in a blue worsted three-piece suit, carrying a tired-looking hat, his eyes moist from the cold, his bulbous nose slightly pink at the tip. His lips are chapped, his hands are puffed and ruddy, and his fingers look like plump, raw sausages.
A photographer suggests a pose. Guinness looks uncomfortable. What should he do with his hands? Should the coat be over the shoulders? Suddenly, the great actor is seized with insecurity.
"I've no part to play, you see." Then, he brightens. "The Reluctant Lunch Guest!"
He has been invited to lunch to talk about his recently published memoir, "Blessings in Disguise." The interview embraces a number of topics, including stage fright, William Holden's chest hair, the death of James Dean, country houses, tarot cards, Catholicism, surrogate motherhood and lamb cutlets.
On his knighthood: "I suppose they think you'll carry out some public function and not misbehave yourself too terribly. I'm not a person who misbehaves."
On his voice: "It's extremely gravelly and low today. Maybe I've had a stroke and don't know it."
On his career: "I get awfully irritated with taxi drivers.sw,-2 sk,2 ld,10 If you haven't been on the telly box or on the screen for a few weeks then the taxi drivers will say, 'Are you retired?' . . . I shall NEVER retire."
On his social life: "I don't have many friends. I don't like parties. When I go into a pub, if I see people I don't know or don't feel secure with, I go in one door, say, 'How lovely to see you,' and I'm out the other door within three minutes."
In this decadent decade, when "Miami Vice" passes for culture, it's comforting to know there still exists an Alec Guinness. At 72, he's been married to the same woman for 48 years and still thinks the telly box is brazen. "When I press a button here in the U.S. , I see a lady in a shiny purple leotard doing things I wouldn't think of doing."
He speaks in paragraphs, gesturing with his hands, mimicking different voices and accents. He is reserved, yet also warm and garrulous, with a touch of the fuddy-duddy, using words like gramophone, higgledy-piggledy and willy-nilly. His eyebrows arch quizzically over bulging blue eyes, and his mammoth ears protrude like paddles from a bald head fringed with silver fuzz.
David Letterman told him he had beautiful eyeballs. Says Marshall Brickman, "He's the fifth face on Mount Rushmore." His career has spanned more than half a century, including roles in 44 films, 66 stage productions, eight television specials.
Guinness has embodied a flotilla of unforgettable characters: Herbert Pocket ("Great Expectations"), Fagin ("Oliver Twist"), the entire d'Ascoyne family ("Kind Hearts and Coronets"), Colonel Nicholson ("The Bridge on the River Kwai"), Gulley Jimson ("The Horse's Mouth"), Jock Sinclair ("Tunes of Glory"), George Smiley ("Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" and "Smiley's People"), cardinals, popes, Hitler, Caesar, Romeo, Hamlet, Freud, Disraeli -- and, of course, intergalactic wizard Obi-Wan Kanobi.
Playing Obi-Wan not only gave the actor a certain financial security (in lieu of a salary, he took 2 1/2 percent of the gross; "Star Wars," the biggest box office moneymaker of all time, has made well over $200 million), it also introduced him to a new generation of filmgoers. "I might never have been heard of again if it hadn't been for 'Star Wars.' "
But being every young boy's Merlin is sometimes a burden.
"I was in San Francisco about three or four years ago and a mother brought her 12-year-old boy very proudly to me for an autograph and said he had seen 'Star Wars' a hundred and twelve times . . . He was a nice-looking boy. He didn't look like an idiot. His mother said, 'Have you got any advice for him?' I said, 'Do you want any advice from me?' He said, 'Oh yes.' I said, 'You mustn't be angry with me, but you must promise me something. You must never ever see 'Star Wars' again."
"Thereupon," says the actor, "he burst into tears."
As if it weren't enough to be rich, famous and internationally beloved, Guinness is now garnering praise as an elegant writer. The New York Times called "Blessings in Disguise" "charming and original"; gushed People, "There won't be another actor's autobiography published for a long time that provides as much enjoyment as this book."
"I can't emphasize enough that it was an amateur job," Guinness says, "therefore I tackled it with amateur enthusiasms. I would rush down to the kitchen, because I was awfully proud of a paragraph or two, and my wife would be doing the vegetables" -- here, he imitates a woman peeling a carrot, preoccupied with her task -- "and she'd say, 'Fine.' "
As for his recall of facts and language, which is extraordinary: "Actors on the whole have a very good memory for dialogue particularly. I've always been interested in the focusing on someone. Trying to absorb something on them."
And what a stellar cast of comrades to focus on: Noel Coward, Edith Evans, Sir John Gielgud, Sir Laurence Olivier, Ernest Hemingway, Edith Sitwell, Graham Greene. They traveled and drank and fought and said bitchy things about each other. But while everyone else in the book is drawn with a fine pen, Guinness himself is a blur. As critic Kenneth Tynan wrote in 1953, he is "a master of anonymity . . . The whole presence of the man is guarded and evasive. Slippery sums him up; when you think you have him, eel-like he eludes your grasp."
"It was never meant to be an autobiography, you know," Guinness says, turning prickly at the mention of his own reticence. "I told the publishers I'd try and write about the people and events that have influenced me."
Any bad influences along the way?
"I don't think any person was a bad influence," he says. "I think the way of life in the theater in the '30s would have been a bad influence. I think it was very frivolous. I mean, I'm a very frivolous person actually, however grandly I'm speaking this morning."
The West End/Hollywood life must have been exciting.
"I don't know about exciting," he shrugs, "but I've had an enjoyable life. I still enjoy it. I get tired a bit more quickly. I haven't quite the energy."
But "Star Wars" costar Mark Hamill says Guinness is no slouch in the energy department. "There was one shot where we're standing on top of a ridge, looking down at this grand canyon. It took us the better part of a morning to get up there. Guinness walked all the way up. It occurred to me, why didn't anyone get this man a helicopter? He didn't complain."
The young actor, who credits his colleague with having steered him back to the theater, says he once made the mistake of addressing Guinness as "Sir Alec."
"He tapped my cheek three times with his fingers -- the last tap was actually over the line, more like a slap -- saying all the while, 'I want to be known by my name, not my accolade.' "
From then on, Hamill called him "Big Al."
"I was born to confusion and totally immersed in it for several years," Guinness writes, "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."
The name on his birth certificate was Alec Guinness de Cuffe. His mother's name at the time was Miss Agnes de Cuffe. His father's was left "an intriguing, speculative blank."
For years, young Guinness believed his father might be related to the wealthy Guinnesses, but now he believes his father -- as was the custom in Victorian times -- merely "borrowed" the name from a friend.
When he was 5, his mother married David Stiven, a Scottish Army captain and "a bully and a horror," Guinness recalls.
He was a lonely child, left for long periods of time to amuse himself. At the age of 6, as Alec Stiven, he was sent to boarding school.
"I think you accept what life is. You don't think there must be another life, so it's only in retrospect you look back and think how lovely it would have been to be in a nice, loving family and the solidity of knowing where you were, where you were going to be each time holidays came 'round. I was always on the move. That's why, in latter years, I always wanted to be anchored at home."
He leans forward, The Reluctant Lunch Guest warming to the subject.
"I built my house 35 years ago. A very modest place." It is located on 10 acres in the Hampshire countryside. "Last summer, a bypass was to be built, very close to our house. We thought, 'Oh the bother, the noise, we'd better move.' I bought another house, fairly near, but in a beautifully quiet position. Then my wife and I went off on a holiday, and coming back up the drive I thought, 'We're mad. We don't want to move.' . . . It absolutely proved to me that I want to hold on to one particular place."
Ironically, Guinness chose as his career the most insecure one he could find: acting. He had decided fairly early on, perhaps even as young as 11, but was told by a teacher that he lacked the ability. He left school at the age of 17, called Gielgud for advice (Gielgud told him to take voice lessons) and won a scholarship to a London drama school.
He was so poor he ate one meal a day. (Although he took many parts to pay the rent, years later he would turn down offers to do commercials, saying he "would rather die in the gutter of poverty.") But "There was something about those days I still miss," he told an interviewer -- "a feeling that at any moment, something wonderful and unexpected would happen to me."
The unexpected did happen: Guinness' reputation grew.
His first film was "Evensong," made in 1933. Guinness was an extra. Over the next 13 years, he appeared in more than two dozen stage productions, mostly doing Shakespeare.
In 1946 he made his second film, "Great Expectations," directed by a young David Lean. They collaborated again on "Oliver Twist" in 1948.
Guinness' work was widely respected, although often uneven. He earned the reputation of a droll funny man (along the lines of Buster Keaton, whom he greatly admired), mostly on the strength of now classic comedies, such as "The Lavender Hill Mob" and "The Ladykillers," made by Ealing Studios.
Still, he was a realist. "Until you've had a nice big failure or two, you don't know what you're up against."
His sk,3 biggest failure, he says, was his second "Hamlet." "I directed it. I probably did it for the wrong reasons." It was 1950, and he was appearing in New York in "The Cocktail Party." The producer had promised to take the play to London. But while Guinness was still in America, the producer went ahead with the London production, leaving Guinness out. He was furious. The producer promised him anything. "I said 'Hamlet,' knowing it would cost a lot of money. I was angry."
The play was a disaster, with the actor/director telling his cast, "It was my fault. Don't blame yourselves. I gave up in the first act."
Guinness does not like to analyze his acting technique.
He does say, "Some sort of iron has to get into the soul. Determination. I had that . . . a kind of pigheadedness, I suppose. Not taking no for an answer." He smiles. "Some sort of madness."
He will go no further. "I don't know what it is. I don't want to know too deeply. I always said I would never go to a psychiatrist or go through analysis in case it was revealed to me what the source of any talent that I may have were.
"I'd rather be in ignorance."
Very likely, he says, his penchant for disguises has stemmed from the lack of a strong identity. His self-image, however, is not necessarily the image others have of him.
Bette Davis blames Guinness for her disastrous performance in "The Scapegoat," a film they made in 1959. The two did not hit it off. "This is an actor who plays by himself, unto himself," Davis wrote in her memoirs, "and in this particular picture he plays a dual role, so at least he was able to play with himself."
Says Guinness: "I remember during 'Doctor Zhivago,' I was between shots and I said something, a jokey thing, which made one or two people laugh and it made David Lean not laugh. He said, 'I don't know why you say that. That will get repeated,' and I said, 'Why should anyone repeat it? It was silly.' And he said, 'Don't you realize what a strong personality you have?'
"This had never occurred to me in my life before. I was a bit shattered."
Guinness has always thought of his work as the art of doing nothing.
Coward, writing in his journal in 1959, observed that Guinness' performance in "Our Man in Havana" was "faultless . . . but actually I'm afraid, a little dull. By developing this fault, Sir Alec has turned it to his advantage. Dullness is now his specialty."
According to Guinness, that colorless facade is real. "I've always thought of myself -- not my personal self, but my professional self -- as a kind of blank." His strongest desire was to become someone else, to be always in disguise and blessedly ignorant.
"With no money to spend, as a drama student, I used to follow people in the street, thinking that from their walk or their manner or whatever they were doing I could learn something about them. I think that made a sort of habit, not deliberately done, which made a little storehouse. I don't like, when I'm performing, to know where something's come from. I don't want to unravel the source of that idea because then it becomes very prosaic."
He eases forward on the sofa, smoothing down the silver gray tie into his snug waistcoat. "In days when I used to read notices, which I don't from theater things now, if a kindly critic would say it was a marvelous moment when I did something or other, I could never do it again. It had been something I had been doing weeks on end, but when I read that, it became mechanical. I did the same thing, but it had no feeling to it, no lightness."
Guinness finds it amusing that on a recent visit to a Manhattan bookstore in search of an Elmore Leonard novel, he was frisked by the guard at the door. Several feet away was a huge display of "Blessings in Disguise," with a life-size poster of the actor.
"I don't think I am what you would call famous, and I don't think that was ever an ambition. It's awfully difficult to unravel," he says, eyes searching a distant spot on the sofa as he tries to explain what he loves about his work. "I seem to remember when I was 15, by which time I was besotted by the theater, some actress I knew, a very nice woman -- she'd obviously been a lousy actress -- was chucking out some things. She said, 'They're not for you, but there are some wigs in there.' "
He beams, eyes crinkling in a mischievous leer. "I said, 'Wigs?' "
He took a light brown pageboy number and put it on. Then he found a mustache and a beard. "I thought I looked like Charles the First. I turned and looked at myself in the mirror. I can see myself in front of that mirror. Suddenly, not at all myself in a wig, but thinking I am Charles the First. I had done some changeover inside."
He folds his hands in his lap.
"It's always been like that since."
It's no use asking Alec Guinness which character he most identified with.
"There was a great Russian actor who came to England some 20 years ago, in a series of Chekhov plays, and he was playing all sorts of things, tiny parts, big parts. He was asked by the press which was his favorite. I thought he gave such a wise answer. 'I couldn't possibly tell you that. You see, if I did, the other two would be jealous.' "
He smiles. "It's true."
Has he ever been miscast?
"Yes. I think I was miscast in 'Passage to India.' But that's my own fault for acquiescing. I was talked and charmed into doing it."
He and Lean had a falling out over the picture when the director decided not to shoot a scene of Guinness, as Professor Godpole, performing a Hindu dance. "It made a huge difference. Although I'm no dancer, I was relying on that to compensate for other things in the performance.
"I've only seen him once since," Guinness says quietly, "but he sends kindly messages through people. It's all right." He leans forward. "Perhaps I didn't pay enough attention to the fact that he hadn't made a film in 16 years and was probably in a nervous state. I always think of directors being in charge, without any worries."
Guinness first went to Hollywood in the fall of 1955 to make "The Swan" opposite Grace Kelly. Tired and rumpled on his first night in town, he agreed to meet a friend for dinner. The Italian bistro was very crowded. A young man walked up and said, "My name is James Dean. Come and join my table."
After the meal, Dean took Guinness outside to see his new Porsche. It was a birthday present, just delivered, still wrapped in cellophane. "I said, 'If you get in that car you will be dead by this time next week.' I apologized immediately. It was as if something else had taken over."
A week later, James Dean was killed while driving the Porsche.
"I thought I had been some strange vehicle of warning," says Guinness. "I was sad about it. I liked him. He was very amusing."
He sk,3 pauses. "Nothing would convince me that the telepathic doesn't happen. When I go to London for the day and I'm at a luncheon, I always have to ask my wife before I leave home what we're going to have for dinner that night. Because if I don't do that, I have what we're having for dinner.sk,2
"If I have the lamb cutlets, I'll go home and say, 'What's for dinner?' Lamb cutlets."
By his own account, Guinness leads a quiet life.
He rarely goes to the theater -- it's too expensive now, he says -- but he goes to the cinema often (he's a fan of Woody Allen, Robert De Niro and Jon Voight) and likes to read ("Private Eye" is especially appreciated).
"I love two or three people for lunch or dinner," he says, "preferably in my own home, sitting out in summers on the patio. If it's a warm night, up until all hours, chatting about anything, listening to the gramophone. Being a host and pouring out some fairly decent wine. That's my favorite sort of occupation."
His son Matthew was an actor for a while, but now is an inventor. Of the young crop of English actors, he mentions Daniel Day Lewis ("A Room With a View," "My Beautiful Laundrette") as a performer to watch.
He says he's not a snob, but he is "a bit of an elitist over the arts, maybe. I mean you walk into someone's house, sweet, darling people, and you see the most ghastly picture on the wall. I feel snobby about that. I think, 'All that money, and there's this tacky picture of a cardinal eating fruit.' "
He laughs heartily, then leans back with a sigh. "You can't accept everyone's enthusiasms, can you?"
Guinness is shown into a small dining room. Wine is poured. The table is round, but he is clearly at the head.
While theater was his first love, he says, the films paid the bills. He would copy down his parts in longhand, then memorize them.
Perhaps his greatest film role was that of Colonel Nicholson in "The Bridge on the River Kwai." It earned him an Academy Award for Best Actor, although he was not director Lean's first choice for the role. Lean reportedly walked up to Guinness the first day on the set and snarled, "I really wanted Charles Laughton."
Says Guinness, "I think that was his way of putting people down so he could get his own way."
Guinness had already turned down the part, he recalls, because the first script was "absolute nonsense . . . Full of elephant charges and jungle girls with banahhnas on their heads."
The principals got along well during filming. Guinness recalls the late William Holden with fondness.
"We used to make ourselves up because the makeup artist had been in a grave accident." Here, a small chuckle. "He was riding in a jeep. An elephant had picked it up and thrown it across the road. And so Jack Hawkins, Bill Holden and I were always sticking on something." He gestures rubbing mud on his face.
"Bill Holden was actually quite hirsute but he always used to shave. All over. And one would say, 'What's all this shaving?' He'd say, 'American women don't like hair on men's bodies.' Jack Hawkins was very smooth and spent a half hour sticking hair on his chest."
After Guinness received the Oscar, he didn't hear a word from Lean.
"Thesk,3 English are very funny about that. I remember very well, I was filming 'The Horse's Mouth' when the Oscar was given out. I had a chauffeur-driven car taking me down to the studio. It was the chauffeur who told me I had gotten the Oscar. I was thrilled and delighted. Not one other person that day at the studio said anything.
"I love my country, but I think there's a basic difference. You all fall over for success and acclaim, and the British resent it."
He also won an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay for "The Horse's Mouth."
"I had read the book and enjoyed it. Then my wife said, 'You know, I think this book would make a film.' I said, 'Couldn't possibly.' Then I got so bored on the set one day with what I was doing, I thought, 'I wonder if Merula is right.' I started jotting down scenes and bits of dialogue without consulting the book. It wasn't until I'd virtually finished the script that I reconsulted the book to check up on it."
He is about to start his 45th film, "Little Dorrit," in England. Some day he would like to work with Woody Allen -- "a tiny, tiny part." And he would love to do another play, but says good ones are hard to come by.
"Whenever I open my trap and say, 'I'm looking, if only there were a lovely new play,' within two weeks every vicar's daughter who's frustrated will have sent me play, with a cast of 80 and 63 sets and unreadable, and I really oughtn't to say that."
Lunch is nearly over. Guinness is asked about Geroge Smiley, the master spy heportrayed on television. Yes, he says, he knows, author John Le Carre. He describes him precisely the way one might describe The Reluctant Lunch Guest.
"I know him very well," he says evenly. "He's a very, very, funny man. He does wonderful imitations of people. But I never know wht he really thinks about anything.