April 07, 1986 12:00 PM

He wandered anonymously through the streets of Manhattan, a grandfatherly Englishman in a navy topcoat. The crowds did not pause for Sir Alec Guinness, who has played so many rogues, dotty aristocrats and plain old eccentrics over the years that his own features are rarely recognized. But Sir Alec, 72, noticed the crowds. Blue eyes cast downward, he was testing one of his pet theories—that mentally unhinged gentlemen generally wear their pants’ legs either much too long or much too short. “There’s a certain type who has given up, who doesn’t face up to life, and their trousers reflect that,” explains Guinness. “I can tell an insane person from one hundred yards away, and I’m nearly always right. But do you know what happened yesterday? I was wrong. I saw a man with his pants hitched halfway up his leg. When I got close, as far as I could see there was nothing wrong with him. It was a good lesson for me.”

The journey from his rural Hampshire home to New York has proven edifying in other ways for one of Britain’s six living actor-knights. Here to promote his first book, an anecdotal, gracefully written memoir called Blessings in Disguise (Alfred A. Knopf, $17.95), Guinness got his first taste of a book tour. “I loathe all this,” he announces as a photographer asks him to pose on a windowsill and hold back a filmy curtain. “This won’t look like I’m coming out of some boudoir, will it?” asks Guinness. Ah, well, at least he could take in a show at the end of this tiresome publicity business. Studying a newspaper, he looks up after checking the off-Broadway listings. There is an exquisitely timed pause before Sir Alec asks in his powerful, resonant voice: “Tell me, do I want to see Vampire Lesbians of Sodom?”

Finally, Guinness settles down to the uneasy business of discussing the amorphous personality that has for so long been submerged behind various wigs, turbans, monocles and beards. “I’m a very simple person,” he says. “I don’t have any great psychological hang ups. I enjoy life in a quiet way, and I get very uncomfortable if I feel discussed. I always used to want to be in disguise and heavy makeup, though I’ve gotten better about that.”

Naturally, after reluctantly promising a publisher friend that he would try to write something about himself, Guinness ruled out an autobiography. “I don’t like those rivulets of ‘I’s running down a page,” he says. “So I thought I’d write about people who had influenced me when I was very young. By doing that, I thought I could stop someone else from writing about me and getting it wrong. I rather resent that others can use your life while you’re still here. I could be dying in the gutter and there might be someone doing not too badly off a book about me. I’ll take the cash myself, thank you.”

Inevitably, Guinness himself slips in and out of the book as he relates tales of Evelyn Waugh in church and George Bernard Shaw at lunch. He writes of his spiritual conversion (he is a Roman Catholic in Anglican England) and, most startlingly, of his illegitimacy. “My birth certificate registers me as Alec Guinness de Cuffe, born in Marylebone, London, 2nd April 1914,” writes Guinness. “My mother was a Miss Agnes Cuffe; my father’s name is left an intriguing, speculative blank.” No enlightenment was forthcoming from his mother, who dragged him around from one tawdry rooming house or hotel to the next and eventually married a brutish Scottish army captain. Years later, after piecing together clues, Guinness determined that his father most likely had been a banker named Andrew Geddes. Following a curious Edwardian custom, Geddes had probably asked a buddy named Guinness to give the boy his name.

Sir Alec’s mother died two months ago at age 97, avoiding, he says, the issue of her son’s paternity until the end. “Yes, I asked her, but she always pretended she didn’t hear or felt faint. Two or three weeks before she died, I saw her staring at a photograph of me on the wall. ‘Who is that?’ she asked. I said, ‘Why, it’s me,’ and she said, ‘No, it’s not. I know who it is.’ ” Guinness waited patiently, but his mother drifted on to another topic. “Now,” he says, “I shall never know.”

The quest for an identity has preoccupied Guinness since his days as an impoverished young drama student. Mesmerized by the acting profession after a childhood visit to a London music hall, he would follow passersby on the street and imitate their gait and mannerisms. He was—and still is—fascinated by feet. “I suppose it’s because we’re balanced on them, that is if we’re balanced at all,” he mutters.

In 1934 at age 20, Guinness became part of John Gielgud’s theater troupe. The next year, he met an actress named Merula Salaman. They were married in 1938. Merula soon gave up acting and took up landscape painting. “I was never very happy at her being in the rough-and-tumble of the theater,” Guinness recalls. “I didn’t want her trudging through the back streets of Liverpool on tour.”

Merula, to whom the book is dedicated, settled down with the goats and dogs in Hampshire to raise their only child, Matthew, now an actor. “I cannot imagine life without her or what it would have been like had I never known her,” writes Guinness. As his career widened from theater to films, Merula often accompanied him on location.

Guinness was soon delighting audiences by playing eight different roles in Kind Hearts and Coronets, a diffident bullion thief in The Lavender Hill Mob and the stiff-upper-lipped colonel Nicholson in The Bridge on the River Kwai. His mastery of the cool, dignified Britisher is perhaps best evident in his portrayal of masterspy George Smiley in the television dramatizations of John le Carré’s novels Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People. Despite all his success, Guinness says, “I’m very insecure about my work. I’ve never done anything I couldn’t pull to bits.”

One movie in which Guinness says he was flat out “lousy” was 1984’s A Passage to India. Feeling instinctively that a native actor should have played the Indian Professor Godbole, Sir Alec nevertheless threw himself into the part. He studied with a Brahmin for weeks so that he could do the appropriate dances described in the E.M. Forster novel. But when it came time to film a dance, Guinness says that director David Lean was no longer interested. ” ‘I don’t want all that. Just twiddle around in the middle or something,’ he told me,” says Guinness. “Well, that’s pretty dismissive of anyone’s work. I’m rather cross about that.”

A far less traumatic experience was the shooting of Star Wars. “When we were making it [in England] some of the set people didn’t understand George Lucas at all. They would come up to me and say: ‘What’s with this American chap? He doesn’t know his ass from his elbow.’ I’d tell them: ‘I think he’s rather marvelous, and I can promise you that the film may never be heard of, but it’s rather good.”

For his role as the sage Ben Obi-Wan Kenobi, Guinness earned an estimated $3 million. Though he points out that some two-thirds of his take went to taxes, he was left, he says, with “a nice nest egg.” He could easily retire and drift into a golden old age as an esteemed knight of the realm, but he insists he’d be bored. Hence, Sir Alec recently appeared in Graham Greene’s Monsignor Quixote on British television. “I imagine it will turn up here briefly on some remote channel,” he says with a wry smile. Next is a feature film based on Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit. “I don’t want to think beyond that,” he explains. “I may be in a different mood.”

For the moment, he is relishing life as a published author, though he was dumbfounded the first time he walked down a London street and saw a stack of Blessings in Disguise in a bookstore window. “I thought: ‘I wonder if they’ll have to remainder all those.’ ” He then hurried away.

By the time Guinness reached Manhattan, he was comfortable enough to march into a store that featured not only a display of his book, but a large picture of the author. “The guard was staring at the picture of me as I walked in,” Guinness reports. “But he didn’t notice me, which was slightly ironic.” Afterward, with that eye for absurdity that has long distinguished Sir Alec’s art, he thought to himself: “What would that guard have done if, just as a sort of joke, I snatched one of my books and ran?”

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