People have been going on for years about how Alec Guinness hated Star Wars

He didn’t, not really. What he hated was that so many filmgoers who loved his portrayal of Obi-Wan Kenobi seemed to know him only for that role and were unfamiliar with the long, lengthy career he had enjoyed prior to the 1977 classic.

While Guinness noted in several interviews that he did not really understand the film when it was in production (in a letter to a friend after getting the role, he described the script as “fairytale rubbish”), he also went on the record numerous times as saying was greatly pleased with the end result. Upon his first viewing of the film, Guinness described it in his diary as “Exciting, very noisy and warm-hearted.”

Star Wars set decorator Roger Christian stated in a 2016 book about the film that Guinness came to director George Lucas’ defense and “held the production together” when some members of the crew began a mutiny against Lucas. As production on the original film was winding down and the studio was refusing to spend any more money, Guinness went so far as to agree to a few days' work for free. 

That decision turned out to be quite wise indeed, financially speaking. In gratitude for his gesture, and in appreciation for Guinness’ support throughout the production, Lucas repaid him with a few shares of the Star Wars profits. The film made Guinness a millionaire and earned him an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actor. 

And according to Dale Pollock’s biography of George Lucas (Skywalking) Guinness’ admiration for Lucas was such that, after he was finished on the film, Guinness gave Lucas a set of silver cups as a token of his esteem.

Yes, Guinness disliked the fact that Star Wars seemed to be all some fans knew him for. It’s the age-old story; actors quite often find themselves expressing some measure of disdain for the roles that made them famous. Think Adam West and Batman; Leonard Nimoy and Mr. Spock; Sean Connery and James Bond… You get the picture.

Usually in such cases, the actors have been toiling in their profession for years - for the most part without much in the way of acclaim but grateful that the work has been steady -  before landing what turns out to be the role of a lifetime. For Guinness the situation was reversed; here was one of the most talented and acclaimed actors of his generation - the man won an Academy Award for Bridge on the River Kwai, for Pete’s sake! - and suddenly an entire generation of filmgoers know him only as an aging Jedi Knight and nothing else. (More than one biographer has noted that Guinness was an insecure man in private, which no doubt added to his frustration regarding the character of Kenobi.)

It’s a shame, because his talent is certainly worthy of attention and recognition on the part of modern movie fans. Although I knew Guinness’ name because it was listed on the soundtrack my dad had of a movie entitled Tunes of Glory (one of the great Scottish bagpipe recordings of all time, by the way), I was one of those teenagers who really only became aware of Guinness in 1977 because of Star Wars and so enjoyed his performance that I actively sought out his earlier films.

And what a filmography I discovered as a result! Kwai and Tunes of Glory have become two of my favorite films ever. Kind Hearts and Coronets, his 1949 comedy for the Ealing Studios in London, is the very definition of an acting tour de force; Guinness plays nine different members of the D'Ascoyne family - at one point he appears as six of those character all at once in a single scene - and does so with such wit and ability that he steals the show from top-billed star Dennis Price. Guinness’ role in 1951’s The Lavender Hill Mob secured him the first of his five Academy Award nominations (four for acting and one in 1958 for Best Writing for his screenplay adapted from Joyce Cary's novel The Horse's Mouth). 

Throw in such wonderful and diverse films as The Man In The White Suit, The Ladykillers, Great Expectations, The Captain’s Paradise, The Fall of the Roman Empire, Scrooge, Lawrence of Arabia, A Passage To India and Murder By Death and others - not to mention his TV work in such productions as Caesar and Cleopatra and his two acclaimed mini-series as British spy George Smiley, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley’s People - and the question I find myself left with is: Why is Guinness typically not held in the same regard as Lawrence Olivier, an actor often referred to as “the greatest of all time” but whose work for the most part I’ve never been all that impressed with?

That, I’m afraid, is just one more query thrown atop an ever-growing pile of questions I cannot answer. 

What I do know is this: as much as I love Obi-Wan Kenobi, Alec Guinness was so much more than that. His work deserves to be seen and appreciated by a new generation of film fans. For my money, Guinness stands head and shoulders above Olivier, John Gielgud, Michael Redgrave and other British actors of their generation. 

And anyone wanting to become an actor himself could do far worse indeed than to study the work of Sir Alec Guinness.