Few movies have attracted as great a following and fandom as 1977’s Star Wars, the first movie in what has become a nine-part series and a multibillion dollar franchise. The original 1977 movie alone earned more than $750 million at the box office and went on to be nominated for ten Academy Awards—including Best Picture and Best Director. Sound designer Ben Burtt received a special citation Oscar award for his achievements in creating the bizarre mixture of noises for the movie’s cast of alien creatures and robots.
Another of Star Wars’ Academy Award nominees was the acclaimed English actor Sir Alec Guinness, whose performance as Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi brought some much-needed respectability and dramatic gravitas to the movie. Despite it securing him his 5th Oscar nomination, however—and despite the enduring success and popularity of the movie— Guinness himself was not too enamored with Star Wars. Over the years, clues as to just how little he enjoyed the movie and its production have continued to come to light.
“I have returned to London this evening for my stint at the studio for the rest of the week,” Guinness wrote to his friend Anne Kaufman during a break in filming in 1976, before adding, “Can’t say I’m enjoying the film. New rubbish dialogue reaches me every other day on wads of pink paper— and none of it makes my character clear or even bearable. I just think, thankfully, of the lovely bread [i.e. money] which will help me keep going.”
The following day, Guinness wrote once more to Kaufman, giving some tantalizing details of just how bizarre a movie Star Wars was to work on. “I must head off to studio and work with a dwarf,” he wrote—adding that the actor in question, Kenny Baker (who portrayed the droid R2-D2), was, “very sweet—and he has to wash in a bidet!”
Guinness may not have been able to recall Kenny Baker’s name, but it seems he had just as much trouble with the film’s now legendary leads too. When it came to listing his co-stars, Guinness correctly remembered the name of, “Your fellow countryman Mark Hamill,” who played Luke Skywalker, but struggled when it came to remembering who had been cast as Han Solo. “Tennyson (that can’t be right) Ford,” he wrote, before guessing again, then finally giving up. “Ellison (?—No!)—well, a rangy, languid young man who is probably intelligent and amusing. But Oh, God, God, they make me feel ninety—and treat me as if I was 106.” Happily, Guinness did eventually remember his co-star’s name, by adding a footnote to his letter: “Harrison Ford,” he wrote at the bottom of the page. “Ever heard of him?”
He may not have quite known what he let himself in for when he took on the role of Obi-Wan, but Alec Guinness at least took his Oscar nomination from the Star Wars filming process. Once a sequel was mooted, however, Guinness was not keen to reprise his role and reportedly wanted absolutely nothing to do with the next film in the series, The Empire Strikes Back.
Director George Lucas, knowing that Guinness’ role was still imperative to the story, eventually convinced Guinness to appear in the follow-up movie, albeit almost entirely on his terms: his single scene had to be shot in one day between the hours of 8 a.m. and 1 p.m. and in lieu of a fee he was paid a quarter of 1% of the film’s full box office gross. With that deal set in stone, Guinness’ five hours of work on The Empire Strikes Back eventually earned him more than $450,000.
What he thought of the film itself, however, we don’t know.