Sir Alec Guinness, convert

When Sir Alec Guinness began pouring himself into a new character, the first thing he focused on was the legs.

The goal was to discover how the character carried himself day, after day. Once Guinness had the walk right, he could ask why the man walked that way. This would then affect his stature, speech and mannerisms. If he could get the feet and legs right, the rest would follow.

This truth also could be applied to Guinness, 86, who died last week (Aug. 5). What, for example, would compel this most reserved and private of superstars to run through a London street and then fall on his knees?

In his autobiography, "Blessings in Disguise," the actor described one such scene: "I was walking up Kingsway in the middle of an afternoon when an impulse compelled me to start running. With joy in my heart, and in a state of almost sexual excitement, I ran until I reached the little Catholic church there ... which I had never entered before; I knelt; caught my breath, and for 10 minutes was lost to the world."

Guinness was at a loss to explain his actions. He finally decided it was a "rather nonsensical gesture of love," an outburst of thanksgiving for the faith of the ages. The actor dashed into that church not long after March 24, 1956, when he converted to Roman Catholicism and ended his pilgrimage from atheism to Christianity.

The actor liked to quote the witty British writer G.K. Chesterton, who said: "The Church is the one thing that saves a man from the degrading servitude of being a child of his time."

Public tributes to Guinness have emphasized his remarkable range in a 66-year career on stage and in film, from "Hamlet" to "Murder By Death," from "The Bridge on the River Kwai" to "Star Wars." Few have mentioned his conversion -- including a faith-free 3,100-word New York Times obituary -- or pondered its impact.

"Guinness didn't have to show off his faith. It had soaked in," said Joseph Pearce, author of "Literary Converts: Spiritual Inspiration in an Age of Unbelief."

"He just was who he was. All that we really know about Sir Alec Guinness -- right down the line -- is that he did not consider his life to be public property. ... He was particularly irritated when people would, literally, come up to him after Mass and try to talk to him about his movies."

Now there's a scene. Picture someone confronting Guinness, moments after he had knelt to receive Holy Communion, and asking about Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Guinness took his first steps to faith while playing Father Brown, Chesterton's great detective-priest. Shortly before work began on the 1954 film, which in America was called "The Detective," the actor's young son, Matthew, was stricken by polio. As Guinness walked home each night from the studio, he began visiting a Catholic sanctuary, to sit -- alone.

Finally, he struck what he called a "negative bargain" with God. If his son recovered, Guinness vowed never to prevent the son from converting. Soon the boy walked, and then ran. The next year, Guinness made the first of many retreats to Mount St. Bernard Abbey. By 1957, father, mother and son were Catholics.

It's crucial, said Pearce, to note that Guinness converted in an era when a spiritual lightning bolt crackled through British intellectual life -- affecting the faith and work of Chesterton, T.S. Eliot, Evelyn Waugh, C.S. Lewis, Dorothy L. Sayers, J.R.R. Tolkien, Graham Greene, Malcolm Muggeridge and many others.

"It would be wrong to try to see Alec Guinness in isolation," said Pearce, whose book covers this period and drew a letter of gratitude from the actor. "But Guinness was not as outspoken as some others. He did not wear his faith on his sleeve, like a Chesterton. He was not an evangelist. ... But his faith did affect his life and his work.

"For most artists who are Christians, there is just no way of disentangling the two -- the life and the art. It's a meaningless question. That is, if the person was genuinely committed to practicing his faith, which Guinness most certainly was."