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Shakespearean actor Sir Alec Guinness left the stage for the Royal Navy when he enlisted in WWII and was a key part of invasion of Sicily

Brad Smithfield
Getty Images
Getty Images

Every fan of the Star Wars saga loves the character of Obi-Wan Kenobi. The old, wise, and retired Jedi Master, going by the name of Ben Kenobi, serves as a guide to the young Luke Skywalker, introducing him to “the Force” and sacrificing his mortal existence in a battle with Darth Vader. He is one of the most influential people of the Star Wars universe. As Luke says to Han Solo in Star Wars IV – A New Hope, “Ben is a great man.”

Truer words were never spoken. Kenobi was played by Sir Alec Guinness, who was not only a great actor but also a World War II hero.

Born on April 2, 1914, in London, Guinness began his theater career when he was 20 years old, while still a drama student. The first play he appeared in was Libel, staged at the old King’s Theatre in Hammersmith. Since then, his acting career only went upwards, and by the age of 22, he was performing in Shakespeare. Moving between several theaters, he worked with acting legends such as Ralph Richardson, Anthony Quayle, Jack Hawkins, and Peggy Ashcroft, all of whom became his close friends.

The Shakespearean roles continued, and in the following years, Guinness performed in Richard II, The Merchant of Venice, Romeo and Juliet, and Hamlet. Other plays Guinness appeared in are The Tempest, Prospero, and Great Expectations, where he portrayed Herbert Pocket. He also co-starred with the legendary Laurence Olivier in Henry V.

When the Second World War began, Guinness stepped forward. The actor enlisted in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve in 1941, entering the war at the age of 27. Guinness was trained on the HMS Raleigh frigate on a naval base, as well as at Hampshire and Loch Fyne.

The final practical military education he received was on the HMS Quebec. In 1942, Guinness was given the rank of officer. In 1943, the actor sailed to Boston, where he got his first command. He was in charge of a landing craft that he took through a series of German aircraft shots and successfully landed on the coast of North Africa. There, Guinness and his squad prepared for the invasion of Sicily.

On July 9, 1943, the actor managed to land 200 men on Cape Passero. During the invasion, though, the Allied army had a communication breakdown. Guinness did not receive a message that the landing of the troops had been delayed by one hour, so he arrived on the Sicilian beach alone. Later, the actor was accused of being late instead of early by a Royal Navy commander, who insinuated that his acting career made him unfit for military duty.

In response to the accusation, Guinness said, “And you will allow me to point out, Sir, as an actor, that in the West End of London, if the curtain is advertised as going up at 8:00 PM, it goes up at 8:00 PM, and not an hour later, something that the Royal Navy might learn from.”

After the invasion of Sicily, Guinness was transferred to the eastern Mediterranean front, where he ferried supplies and agents to the Yugoslav partisans. During the war, he was allowed to leave the battlefield in order to appear in the Broadway production of the play Flare Path, written by Terence Rattigan, about the RAF Bomber Command. In 1946, Guinness returned to the Old Vic theater in London, where he remained until 1948. During the war, he had thought about becoming a priest but later decided to continue his acting career. In 1946, Guinness also made his film debut, starring in the movie Great Expectations, directed by David Lean.

His first prominent film role was in Oliver Twist, released in 1948, and since then, he was never short of work. In the following years, Guinness starred in classics such as The Man in the White Suit, The Lavender Hill Mob, Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, and Star Wars. Even though he was marvelous in all of his movies, his role in the Star Wars trilogy ultimately defined his legacy, as he is most recognized as Obi-Wan Kenobi.

In 1951, Alec Guinness was voted as the best British actor. He won an Oscar for his role in The Bridge on the River Kwai in 1957, and two years later, he was knighted by Elizabeth II for his exceptional contribution in the field of arts.

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His star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame came in 1960, the Oscar for lifetime achievement was given to him in 1980, and in 1989, he received the BAFTA Academy Fellowship Award. Sir Alec Guinness died on Aug. 5, 2000, from liver cancer. He died at the age of 86 in Midhurst, West Sussex, leaving behind a wife, Merula Salaman, whom he had married in 1938.

Sir Alec Guiness was buried at the cemetery in Petersfield, Hampshire.