He was the antithesis of the Hollywood star, a great film actor who submerged himself in his roles so completely that he was often unrecognizable from one to the next - a British colonel in The Bridge on the River Kwai, a Soviet commissar in Doctor Zhivago, a sheik in Lawrence of Arabia and Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars. But Sir Alec Guinness, who died earlier this month at the age of 86, was also a legendary stage actor who played a key role in Canadian theatre when Tyrone (Tony) Guthrie hired him to headline Ontario's very first Stratford Festival in 1953. There, Guinness left an indelible mark on two young actors, William Hutt and Timothy Findley. Findley, author of the current Stratford hit Elizabeth Rex, later lived with Guinness in London for six months while working on The Prisoner with him. The two men share their memories:
Hutt: "Alec was always a highly professional and very precise performer. I remember a rehearsal of All's Well that Ends Well, in which he was playing the King of France. And it turned out to be one of the sharpest lessons I've learned in my life. At that time, I was playing a listener, a spear-carrier as it were. I was listening to him and suddenly in the middle Tony Guthrie, who was six-foot-four, decided he was going to creep up onto the stage behind Alec and rearrange the choreography a bit, and my eyes wandered to see what Tony was doing. At that point, Alec simply lost his lines, paused, then looked at me and said, 'Bill, the reason I dried is that you were more interested in what Tony Guthrie was doing than what I was saying.' In other words, despite the fact that I was just a listener, it's vitally important that you listen, that you have contact."
Findley: "He taught me a huge lesson. When The Prisoner was being rehearsed, I only had to learn one line, so that was very easily done. Well, I made a ghastly mistake. Since I had very little formal education, I read a paper every day thinking I'd better get to know this new world in the 1950s now that I am an adult. I was sitting in the wings when suddenly there was a great silence, and I thought, 'Oh, something must have gone wrong.' A shadow fell across my newspaper, which was spread out in front of me, and Guinness's hand - he was wonderful with his hands - came over the top of the paper and he gently pulled it towards him and there he stood. He just looked at me and said, 'Mr. Findley, do you want to be an actor?' Oh shit. I just died. Then he said, 'Never, never, never do that again. At rehearsal you are here not only to learn how to do what you do in this play. You are here to learn as much about the theatre as you can. I will say no more, but I want you to never forget this moment.' "
Hutt: "He had enormous care with the language, whether Shakespearean or not. And his gestures were breathtaking. His Richard III was very subtle, very sly in its humour, suggestive in its body language. His walk was rather lascivious, sort of from the pelvis, from the privates."
Findley: "Alec had incredible concentration. He could arrive at what a role might be about by going to an art gallery or visiting someone's grave. I did these things with him. He taught you how to explore your life as an artist through the lives of other artists who might not be involved necessarily in your discipline."
Hutt: "He's the last of the greats, really. Olivier, Gielgud, Richardson, Redgrave. The last of the knights."
Findley: "There are lots of great actors, but the only giants left are Paul Schofield and Bill Hutt."
Maclean's August 21, 2000