As most people know, Alec Guinness was not thrilled about his role in SW and his quotes here help to put that into perspective. It's interesting to see some of his thoughts during the production of ANH. At the very least, it's nice to see that he recognized the quality of the movie and was gracious enough to reprise his role even though it wasn't something he would have chosen to do.
"Big part. Fairytale rubbish, but could be interesting"
By Piers Paul Read
Alec Guinness was unimpressed by the Star Wars script, but a percentage of the film's profits was to make him a rich man, according to this extract from a biography of the actor.
WHILE ALEC GUINNESS was in Los Angeles in 1975 making Murder by Death, a screenplay was sent to his hotel by a young director, George Lucas, who in 1973 had won Oscar nominations as both writer and director for American Graffiti.
His new project, Star Wars, was a science-fiction adventure with a role for Alec as Ben Obi-Wan Kenobi, a Jedi knight. Alec was "attracted to the idea of the film", reputedly because it was a fable of the battle of good and evil in which good is triumphant.
He took Lucas to lunch and recorded in his diary: "I liked him. The conversation was divided culturally by 8,000 miles and 30 years; but I think we might understand each other, if I can get past his intensity."
He wrote to a friend, Anne Kaufman: "Science fiction ó which gives me pause ó but it is to be directed by Paul (sic) Lucas, who did American Graffiti, which makes me feel I should. Big part. Fairytale rubbish, but could be interesting." There was also a handsome fee attached. In January 1976, Alecís agent informed him that 20th Century Fox had come through with an offer of $150,000, plus a small participation: "This is double what they offered last week." The "small participation" was 2 per cent of the producerís profit.
Filming started at EMI studios in March. "Canít say Iím enjoying the film," he wrote to Kaufman. "New rubbish dialogue reaches me every other day on wadges of pink paper ó and none of it makes my character clear or even bearable. I just think, thankfully, of the lovely bread, which will help me to keep going until next April . . . I must off to studio and work with a dwarf (very sweet ó and he has to wash in a bidet) and your fellow countrymen Mark Hamill and Tennyson (that canít be right) Ford. Ellison (? ó no!) ó well, a rangy, languid young man who is probably intelligent and amusing. But oh, God, God, they make me feel 90 ó and treat me as if I was 106 ó Oh, Harrison Ford, ever heard of him?"
Filming in North Africa, he wrote to his son Matthew: "The set-ups and costumes etc all looked good . . . trying to get the feel of the character. Not much comes to me, I must confess; there is an indecisiveness in the script which troubles me. And I cannot yet find a voice which I think suitable."
Lucas also seemed to have his doubts over Alecís role. "Irritated by Lucas saying he hadnít made up his mind whether to kill off my part or not," he wrote in his diary. "A bit late for such decisions. And Harrison Ford referring to me as Mother Superior didnít help."
Later he wrote: "Apart from the money, I regret having embarked on the film. I like them all well enough, but itís not an acting job, the dialogue ó which is lamentable ó keeps being changed and only slightly improved, and I find myself old and out of touch with the young."
In another letter to Kaufman he said: "The film plods on. Iíve had a week off while they all blow themselves up electrically etc. I only have three brief scenes more to play. Play? Drift through aimlessly. I like Harrison Ford, but doubt if heís going to fire the Thames or the East River."
A little over a year later, when Alec was recovering from his hernia operation, Star Wars was released in the United States. "George Lucas telephoned from San Francisco," Alec noted in his Small Diary on May 22, "to say trade reviews of Star Wars excellent and wanting me to accept another quarter per cent." It was a gesture of unique generosity which, Matthew recalls, astonished and delighted his father: Alec had never before been offered an unsolicited benefit of this kind.
When Alec himself saw the finished film he was impressed: "Itís a pretty staggering film as spectacle, and technically brilliant. 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. The only really disappointing performance was Tony Daniels as the robot ó fidgety and over-elaborately spoken. Not that any of the cast can stand up to the mechanical things around them."
It soon became apparent that Alecís 2ľ per cent would make him "a temporary fortune". "Bank telephoned to say theyíd received £308,552," Alec noted in his diary on February 1, 1978. "First Star Wars money." Another £131,700 followed on November 10.
The gush of money brought on protracted quarrels with Alecís tax inspector. "The tax authorities here are being quite awful about my Star Wars earnings, and it looks as if Iíll have to employ a top tax counsel and fight them in the law courts . . . Iím not sure that Iím not going to be out of pocket for having neared a rough million pounds and only spent £6,000 (on the new kitchen ó already shabby)."
Another disadvantage, for Alec, of the filmís great success was Lucasís plans for a sequel. "Itís dull, rubbishy stuff, but, seeing what I owe George Lucas, I finally hadnít the heart to refuse. Also he was clever enough not to plead his cause. I have insisted on no billing and minimum publicity."
Less than a year later, he was invited back to Cecconiís restaurant with George and Marsha Lucas. "He was sounding me out, of course, about apppearing in Star Wars III. I was non-committal, but said I couldnít see myself in it if I had to expound the force or any phony philosophy. I left them saying ĎIím an unreliable characterí."
However, Alec finally agreed, again accepting as payment a small percentage. "Itís a rotten, dull little bit, but it would have been mean of me to refuse."
His few days of tedium were well paid. In November 1983 he recorded "an unexpected windfall from Star Wars ó $250,000. That will pay for Sallyís schooling, our Italian holiday and our pre-filming holiday in India (where he was making A Passage to India)."
The extraordinary success of Star Wars and its offspring made Alec wealthy ó though he complained that the extent of his wealth was exaggerated in the press. "The Times reports Iíve made £4Ĺ million in past year. Where do they get hold of such nonsense?" It also made him known to a new generation of moviegoers and spread his fame worldwide. Yet while Alec, as he had always done, loved making money, he was depressed that his celebrity was based on work that he himself did not esteem.
When a mother in America boasted of how often her son had seen Star Wars, Alec made him promise that he would never see it again. His hut at Kettlebrook Meadows grew cluttered with unopened sacks of fan mail. "Star Wars people ask me for an interview ó I continue to refuse," he noted in his Small Diary on January 16, 1997. "They are ghastly bores." February 13: "Was unpleasant to a woman journalist on Telegraph, who wanted to know how much I earned on Star Wars. Oh, Iím sick of that film and all the hype." March 12: "Head waiter (at Dorchester Oriental Room) said, as I was leaving, ĎNow Star Wars is to be shown again, youíll be famous once moreí."
Alec would live in the shadow of Ben Obi-Wan Kenobi for the rest of his life, and felt demeaned by the tinselly nature of his worldwide fame. However, to his peers his life seemed quite enviable.
Extracted from Alec Guinness: The Authorised Biography by Piers Paul Read, to be published by Simon & Schuster on October 6 at £20. Order a copy for £16, plus £1.95 p&p, from Times Books Direct, 0870-160 8080.