In a career spanning six decades, Alec Guinness (actually, Sir Alec Guinness, as he was knighted in 1959) made more than 60 appearances in film and on television. Like many British actors of his and subsequent generations, Guinness trained for the stage, developing a lifelong friendship with John Gielgud. Guinness's extensive theater background helped him prepare for a career in film defined not by a single role or star persona (he was everything but a movie star) but by versatility, by range and depth few actors of his generation (or since) have possessed. Guinness could seemingly handle any role, from memorable supporting turns in various dramas, intimate or epic, to light comedies that allowed Guinness to display masterful comic timing.
Collaborating with Oscar-winning director David Lean in Guinness showed remarkable range and depth. A small, if still substantial part, in Lean's 1946 adaptation of Charles Dickens' oft-filmed classic, 'Great Expectations,' led to a larger part in Lean's follow-up two years later, 'Oliver Twist,' another Dickens' adaptation. Guinness' performance as Fagin, the unscrupulous, unseemly criminal who adopts the title character into his den of teen and preteen pickpockets, wasn't without controversy. Guinness, with Lean's obvious approval, played Fagin too close to the then still prevalent Jewish stereotype, including an extra-long proboscis. Guinness' performance led to a delay in 'Oliver Twist's' stateside release. When it was, additional editing worked out some of the rougher edges in Guinness' performance.