With Sir Alec's death, we mourn the end of the character actor

By John Mortimer
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The Independent Online

The last time I saw him he was 84 and I asked him if he would still act if the right part came along. The elfin face of the young Guinness was still there, and the surprisingly deep, almost mournful voice, which seemed to come from what was now a capacious stomach.

The last time I saw him he was 84 and I asked him if he would still act if the right part came along. The elfin face of the young Guinness was still there, and the surprisingly deep, almost mournful voice, which seemed to come from what was now a capacious stomach.

"Oh, no. I'm far too old."

"But Gielgud keeps at it."

"Johnny always enjoyed acting. Many of us thought it was a rather silly profession."

Did he mean it? Probably not, there was something always elusive about him. He could be very funny, but you were never quite sure if you were meant to laugh. Two things are certain, acting isn't a silly profession and he was marvellously good at it.

I first met him when he agreed to play in Voyage Around My Father. He took me to lunch at the Dorchester and I was amazed at his attention to detail. He clung to a line about my father finding "nothing wrong with a drop of eau de cologne on the handkerchief". From this he evolved an entire character that had wonderful comic moments and ended in a moving death - a state which Alec described "as the great come-uppance". Only one thing, I thought, was slightly missing: my father was alarming, even terrifying in his rages, and I thought Alec not quite fierce enough. "But," he protested, "I do hit my egg extremely hard in the breakfast scene."

He remembered Hamlet's advice to the players, not to over-act, shout or "saw the air". But the speech goes on, "Be not too tame neither." "That's my temptation," he said. "Being too tame."

Of course he wasn't. He could not only be a charming Mr Pocket, but a sinister Fagin. He suffered from an eccentric mother who, it was said, when he was on stage with Olivier, would steal his clothes from the dressing-room when she was hard up, leaving him to go home in his tights. He played, beautifully, the Fool in Olivier's Lear, but attributed his excellent notices to the fact that the Fool always enters and leaves with King Lear, and the lights went up brightly when Olivier came on stage and dimmed when he left, leaving other members of the cast staggering round in the dark.

His entry into films was remarkable and shows the depth of his determination as well as the clarity of his talent. Ronald Neame and David Lean had decided to make a film of Great Expectations, a wise decision, and they had heard that somewhere a young actor was doing it in an adaptation he had made himself and was performing with Martita Hunt, a remarkable actress and one of nature's Miss Havershams, whom Alec had got to know.

Lean and his producer went to see the play and had no doubt that Alec was the perfect Mr Pocket to accost and fight, and finally become best friends with, John Mills as Pip.

Despite the success of Great Expectations, Neame and Lean were cautious when they decided to follow it with Oliver Twist and Alec told them that he wanted to play Fagin.

The producers thought there was a wide gulf between the irrepressible young Pocket and the elderly, miserly and criminally inclined old Fagin. So Alec insisted on a screen test, in which the remarkable transformation seemed to be almost effortlessly achieved.

Listening again to Fagin's sly, jokey, ingratiating and horribly persuasive voice, you can easily tell that here was an actor well able to play the wide assortment of male and female parts in Kind Hearts and Coronets.

One of the sadnesses of today is the death of the idea of the character actor. Actors are cast because they look like the part or because they look like the director's idea of the part. The concept of a performer who can turn himself from a cheeky young gentleman to a runner of boy pickpockets, or from an obstinate, bloody-minded and heroic army officer to an elderly cleric, or maiden aunt, is no longer conceivable.

In The Bridge On The River Kwai, perhaps his greatest performance and the one that earned him an Oscar, Alec became all he wasn't by nature, dominating, extroverted, and, from time to time, drunk.

So in lamenting his death, perhaps we are celebrating the last of the great character actors; performers who can relish the part for what it is, and not just be recognised, and even praised, for what they are.

When he was filming John le Carré's Smiley, Alec visited the zoo, observing animals that seem, although potentially dangerous, quietly asleep. The character actor is an obsessive people-watcher and perhaps an animal-watcher too.

His unlikely, but rewarding, friendship with Edith Sitwell led him towards the Catholic church, but he said, perhaps afraid of sounding too serious and self-important, that if the first priest he called on hadn't happened to be charming and entertaining he might not have been converted.

When we first met he seemed to regard me, in the middle of a divorce, with some religious disapproval. All that passed and he soon became the friendly and generous person I remember. From time to time he could be unexpectedly and wonderfully entertaining, repeating some scabrous piece of gossip, or saying to Simone Signoret, who played Lady Macbeth to his Thane, "Aimez-vous Glamis?"

He was a meticulous professional who appreciated, unlike many great stars, the talent of others, and actresses such as Eileen Atkins were assured of his friendship and continued support. As he grew older writing became his successful second profession, and his books are, like him, wonderfully cool, funny and entertaining but finally unrevealing about the self behind the performer. He has written about his difficult childhood and youth, but much of the Alec that lay behind his inspired character acting may still be a mystery.

Our three greatest actors have left us. Olivier was a miraculous extrovert. Gielgud was a loveable devotee of the theatre. Alec can't be described so easily. One thing is clear. He became, after Star Wars, amazingly rich. We met in a club gents and I admired his jacket.

"Feel it," he said. "What do you thing it's made of?"

It was very soft and I guessed "cashmere".

"No," his voice rumbled, deeply amused. "Mink."

I'm still not sure if he was joking.