Alec Guinness: The Gift of Kindness


My relationship with Alec Guinness was entirely telephonic, but rich and funny and unpredictable. Guinness was willing to speak for hours about life, the theatre, Tennessee, art--anything that happened to come up in conversation-- but what prompted the first call were my queries to him about two women he loved: Jessica Tandy and Irene Worth. I was having difficulty persuading Irene to meet with me: she found interviews boring when they were not invasive, but a phone call from Guinness--and a letter from Lillian Gish--led her to meet me at Federico's, an Italian restaurant  adjacent to the offices of Penthouse magazine, where I was employed as a copy editor. That particular job amused Guinness and Worth greatly, and they would frequently supply me with synonyms for bodily functions, parts, and reactions, confident that they were being of some help to me, and enjoying what Guinness called the "comical carnality, which does a person no end of good."

My notes from conversations with Guinness are voluminous, and many of them are used in the final text of Follies of God, but hundreds of notes remain, and I love his voice and his view of things, so I am sharing them here.

Alec Guinness always sounded precisely as you would want him to, and hoped he would, and he opened one conversation by listing a series of anagrams of the names of famous people, and would giggle at the appropriateness of the jumbled letters. His own name could be scurried about to reveal "genuine class."

Alec Guinness

Why does there seem now to be no emphasis whatsoever on the actor's voice? I can't recall when I last heard a voice from a stage that gathered my attention or beckoned me closer to the play I was watching. Has the voice fallen away from the list of desirable attributes? Perhaps it is part of the democratization of the stage: let us fill our theatres with regular people, those with whom you can and should feel comfortable. Peers. I find it very unwise, and there is a great deal of texture and color missing from the stage.

Do not mind me: I am an old and pedantic man.

When I found my way into the theatre, I really found for myself a home: I came from shattered foundations, you might say. There was always disorder and frantic maneuverings in my life, and the theatre gave me not only a means by which I could be of some use, but it gave my life--and by extension my mind and my heart--an order and a mission. I am something of a magpie, and my mind used to flitter about and alight on the oddest things, and all of the detritus that I picked up on my flights worked perfectly within the confines of a theatre or a part. I could use everything I had found or learned, and I could use everything I had, and I was finally somewhat happy.

One of the few books from which my mother read to me had lovely lithographs within the stories, and I remember one bedtime tale that was accompanied by images of a mother reading to a child in a big, comfortable, abundant bed. There was no bed in my childhood so full of blankets and clean sheets and care, but I had it in that book's image, and so I had it in my mind and in my heart. The images progressed from the mother reading to the child, to the mother leaning over the child and kissing its forehead, to the mother blowing out the bedside lamp, and walking--backward, mind you--from the room, watching the child in the bed, assuring its safety and its comfort. My mother attempted to provide this sense of comfort to me, but she could only do so through the use of that book, and that is wholly sufficient; it was beautifully conveyed. Here I am today talking about it, remembering it, using it, holding to it. I came to see my theatre life in terms that relate to those images: I cared for my fellow actors, and they cared for me. We comforted them, looked after them, saw to the light, and kept an eye on them. I am not besotted by the stage, really, and I was never particularly starstruck, but I am in awe of friendship, of kindness, of the incredible power of shared aims and talents and gifts, and I brought a childlike, sweet understanding of all of this to my work through the images provided by my mother, by that book, in the nights of my childhood.

Do whatever you wish with that story.

We give ourselves to a part, to a director, to a company, to an audience, and this is a thrilling series of relationships; these may be the relationships for which I am best suited. I never have felt that anyone wanted to see Alec Guinness in a particular role; there may have been a few who might have wanted to see what I might do to and for a role. I enjoy the act of getting lost, not only when I am acting, but when I am reading, or walking about, or listening to music or friends talking. I am frequently accused of being distant, of being absent while present, and I think it is so wise of me, really--removal as renovation.

I have been inordinately lucky in friendship, and so many people have been so kind to me. The greatest gift is kindness, and it can become a life study to look at the degrees and the designs of the kindness of others. What is given and how. When it is given and why. I have been given opportunities and affection and money and affirmation, over and over. It amazes me still. Of course the only thing more powerful than the receiving of these gifts is the giving of your own. A perfect circle of giving. A perfect life.


I had immense affection for Irene Worth, and I am so glad that you now know her. She has the finest mind of any actress I know. She is tough but loving, and I trust her on just about every matter. Irene has a love of literature that is so intimidating: she knows and understands and imparts poetry in a way that leaves me trembling. She understands the plays that leave me slack-jawed with stupidity. I don't know how she manages to remain aware of all things at all times.

Irene has allowed me to better understand myself over the years--as both a man and as an actor--and this is a great gift, and one that expands as you proceed with life. I used to wonder how I might be able to help her in a commensurate manner, a desire on my part that annoyed her, I think. Irene was not a score-keeper, you see. Very rare among our peers. I love her terribly.

As it happens, Irene was placed in a situation where she was forced to purchase her apartment, and she did not have the funds. Needless to say, this terrified her, but she set about looking for opportunities to work, hopeful that she would raise the money. John [Gielgud] and I commiserated and put together some money that would help Irene. We had it; we loved her; we wanted to help. This was a very simple matter, as far as I saw it. Irene was furious: she did not wish to be dependent upon anyone. She resisted even when we assured her it was a loan, if she wished. I grew tired of the argument, but felt compelled to tell her that it was important for me to express, however I might, how much I loved her, how much I wanted her to be safe and well and comfortable. I told her the story of the lithographs in the children's book, and reminded her that she had frequently tucked me in, kissed my brow, and had walked, backwards, from my room, so to speak, until she knew I was safe and well. At that point Irene knew she was loved and felt she could take the aid, and our friendship grew ever greater from that point on. I don't think she ever realized how loved she was, how important she had been, and I tell you this story to stress how important it is to seek, acknowledge, and share the love and comfort you have in your life.

This is the advice of an old and grateful man.

I look back now at that young man's face and I wonder how I could have been so young--both in age and in experience. I was guided by so many wise and loving people. Remember that your shares increase when you offer them to others. That is where my wealth lies--in the gifts of others and my gifts to others. I have lost some innocence, I suppose; I have certainly lost my youth. I am still enamored of people and of the way we share our gifts. I sometimes lose my patience, and I sometimes find myself guilty of not being sufficiently interested in what is being done in the world. I have never, as I have said many times, lost a friend, or the desire to find a new one.

This makes me happy still.


  1. What a remarkable testimony, and how fortunate for you both that each of you knew the other! Thank you for posting this; it was reassuring on every front, and also delightful.


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