Ewan McGregor wanted to play the young Obi Wan Kenobi, even though he was already a recognized actor at the time he joined the cast of the prequels, directed by George Lucas. By this time, the mentor of Luke Skywalker was already iconic in the Star Wars universe. Ewan had one more challenge than the rest of the cast. There was a great actor before playing the role, none other than the legendary Sir Alec Guinness, so the young Scotsman had to print his interpretation and at the same time respect and fit the previous reference.
In contrast to Ewan, Sir Alec wasn’t even the first choice for the role (the director had Toshiro Mifune in mind) and later was known for not being as much of a fan of the Star Wars universe as others. In 1977, his was the strongest name in the cast, an Oscar winner, revered in film and theater, as much as his presence in a sci-fi production was found odd. It made him rich because in his contract included receiving 2% of the film’s earnings.
The biggest legend since then was that he “hated” the role and everything that had to do with the universe created by Lucas. Not exactly true, but the actor did – more than once – complain about it publicly. He kind of was upset that amongst great roles and performances that people would quote Obi-Wan first. He was right, when he passed away in 2000 at age 86, all obituaries cited the Jedi Master.
Born illegitimately and registered as Alec Guinness de Cuffe (after he stopped using De Cuffe, which was his mother’s surname) he decided to enter the theater when he was about 20, after working for two years as a copywriter at an agency of advertising. He soon rose to prominence, appearing in Hamlet with John Gielgud and soon gaining awareness by taking the lead role in a more modern take on the play.
Without classical training, the ultra discreet actor denied having a special technique for acting, which highlighted his talent. Always a chameleon, he “disappeared” in his roles and, as he said, his goal was to make people believe in what he was playing. His Oscar for best actor in 1957 as Colonel Nicholson in The Bridge on the River Kwai is considered his best role in a vast filmography. His partnership with director David Lean was legendary too.
Sir Alec was even nominated for an Oscar, as a supporting player, for Star Wars in 1977. As The Guardian reported in 2000, “Guinness later dismissed his stint as Obi Wan in Star Wars as his most miserable cinematic experience, and claimed that he deleted all fan mail. But Lucas’ intrepid space adventure showed the aging actor to a whole new generation and made him a multi-millionaire – a share of the profits netted him around £120m (“Divide that by 20 and you might be closer to the mark”, said Guinness).”
To fuel the controversy, in his autobiography Sir Alec said that killing Obi Wan was his idea and that he would have convinced George Lucas. “What I didn’t tell George was that I couldn’t keep speaking those horrible, banal lines. I was fed up with nonsense,” the actor wrote in the book. In his diary, he also recorded his irritation: “I cannot say that I am enjoying the film. New useless dialogue comes to me every day on pieces of pink paper – and none of it makes my character clear or even bearable. All I can think of, thankfully, is the lovely bread, which will help me keep going until next April. . .”, he shared.
However, fans believe more in the director’s cut, which, contrary to what he wrote in his biography, Sir Alec was actually even irritated to learn that Obi-Wan would be killed by Darth Vader. “It’s a very impressive film as a spectacle and technically brilliant. Exciting, very loud and warm. The battle scenes at the end are five minutes too long, I feel, and some of the dialogue is excruciating and a lot of it is lost in the noise, but it remains a vivid experience.
To play Obi Wan in 1999’s The Phantom Menace, Ewan McGregor studied the actor’s old films to perfect the correct vocal impression and gestures as well. And in the series, which debuts this week on Disney Plus, it was still Sir Alec’s shadow that determined the characterization of the character we love so much. Even with his legendary bad temper, he himself admitted: “I might never be talked about again if it weren’t for ‘Star Wars,'” he said. Exaggeration, but also true.