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Star Warrior

updated 08/21/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/21/2000 01:00AM

The Force was always with him. For 60 years, Sir Alec Guinness mesmerized audiences with an elastic face and understated elegance. He played it both straight and slapstick, won two Oscars and sailed on his own smooth sea. "He wore his Obi-Wan Kenobi robe as if it were a tuxedo," recalls his Star Wars costar Carrie Fisher. "While the rest of us were sitting on the set, it was as if he were sitting on the deck of a yacht."

Guinness's long and placid voyage came to an end Aug. 5. The 86-year-old actor, who was ailing with prostate cancer and coronary thrombosis, died in the cancer ward of King Edward VII Hospital in Midhurst, West Sussex, England, not far from the country home in Hampshire he shared with Merula, 86, his wife of 62 years and an artist. (The couple had one son, actor Matthew, 60.)

A child of poverty and loneliness, Guinness was an elusive presence. "I can walk through a crowd at the stage door, who are presumably waiting to see me," he told Britain's Daily Telegraph in 1993, "and nobody will notice me at all." Though extremely shy, he nurtured his comrades. "We all felt we knew him in a way," says Star Wars pal Mark Hamill. Recalls costar Harrison Ford: "He helped me find a place to live and made sure I knew where to eat. It was a prince of the theater being very generous to an apprentice."

Guinness was active until the end. He starred in a BBC TV family comedy in 1996 and published his third book of memoirs last year. And yet for all his celebrity, his calling was always clear. Once asked how he would like his obituary to read, Guinness replied, "If my ghost could hover outside some London underground station on a foggy I November night just as the crowds were pouring down, I'd like to see the newspaper poster: ACTOR DIES."

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