Luke Skywalker: "My uncle says he's dead."
Obi-Wan Kenobi: "Oh, he's not dead; not yet."
I was without a doubt the only person in the theater who laughed out loud on hearing these lines. The Sony IMAX in New York was full to capacity with eager Star Wars watchers, even though it was past midnight on Sunday, and I would say that a healthy number of them stared at me bewildered for some time after my outburst. Of course, the confused spectators had not been privy to a discussion I had with my best friend earlier in the week, one which made these lines extremely funny.
I should at this point come clean and admit that Star Wars and I go way back. When I was four years old I had every single action figure, every ship, every model, every Burger King glass, and an authentic Darth Vader Halloween costume (in fact, the one glaring gap in my collection was the Imperial Walker from the Hoth segment of Empire Strikes Back--but I seem to have recovered). My relatives put themselves through unspeakable torments trying to locate the newest Star Wars toy or trinket, as they are wont to remind me, and my oldest friends still harangue me for having stubbornly insisted that I had to play the "cool characters" in our games. My best friend Adam and I have known each other since those times, so it is entirely understandable that our relationships to Star Wars are quite similar. We know the same trivia and we still cling to toddler's wisdom when it comes to evaluating the Trilogy--our opinions on the subject have been pretty much fixed since the first grade. We thought we knew the score.
Imagine my shock, then, when he called me up two weeks ago in a complete panic and told me to brace myself for extraordinary news: Sir Alec Guinness, the distinguished British actor who played Obi-Wan Kenobi, was not dead. Very maturely, I replied, "You wanna bet?" But he was convinced and began to recite the evidence. He had just come home from a family vacation and had seen a copy of a book written by Guinness in 1996. What's more, he read an article in Time magazine which seemed to make it very clear that the man was not dead. I was speechless.
Somehow, and I know not how, I was given the impression that Alec Guinness had died years ago. I transmitted this misinformation to my trusting comrades, who in turn transmitted it to their comrades. In short, I am responsible for an entire community of people who are convinced that Alec Guinness, who is presently alive and well and living in a London suburb, actually bit it back in the late '80s. Obi-Wan Kenobi's dialogue with Luke in that memorable scene from Star Wars, as a result, had its unlikely effect on me: "Oh, he's not dead; not yet." Well, apparently he isn't.
But the next bit of news was significantly less welcome. Apparently, Sir Alec is not an entirely contented participant in the Star Wars, which was originally just a nutty sci-fi picture he agreed to work on because of his admiration for George Lucas, eclipsed the rest of his long and distinguished career. Indeed, in his 1985 autobiography Blessings in Disguise, written some eight years after the first part of the Trilogy, Guinness mentions Star Wars only once (that once is a snide comment about how much money it earned him). The conclusion seemed unavoidable: Obi-Wan was whining. My friend added with a devious chuckle, "I liked him better when he was dead."
In fairness, I can see where Guinness is coming from. He has had a truly remarkable film career, and was already a much admired star when Star Wars was not even a gleam in Lucas's eye. His portrayal of Colonel Nicholson in The Bridge on the River Kwai, for which he was awarded a Best Actor Oscar, stands as one of the truly great performances in cinema, and his work in films as diverse as Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago and Cromwell (a personal favorite) is outstanding. But in my mind's eye he will always be dueling Darth Vader as the Millennium Falcon, unhindered by the tractor beam, prepares to soar into space. And I'm glad to know he's still around.
Eric M. Nelson's column appears on alternate Fridays.