Modern audiences know Alec Guinness best from a role he assumed toward the sunset of his career, when he played Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original Star Wars movie that came out in 1977. The veteran actor, born on April 2, 1914, was the man who first explained to movie goers the ways of The Force—an awesome burden that he carried off with avuncular ease.

While Guinness seemed to exude wisdom and warmth so naturally in the role of Obi-Wan, he always made his actor’s work look easy, no matter what sort of character he was playing. His broader career was defined by his ability to disappear into a role. He was described as “acting’s preeminent master of disguise” by Turner Classic Movies, and fellow British actor Peter Ustinov once called Guinness “the outstanding poet of anonymity.”

LIFE ran its first feature on Guinness to celebrate his reputation-making performance—or should we say, performances—in the dark comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets, where he played nine members of the same family. The story is about an avaricious man who, ninth in line for a dukedom, kills those ahead of him in the line of succession one-by-one. LIFE praised Guinness for playing “aristocrats of all ages, many professions, both sexes—and also was the model for the effigy of a deceased ancestor.”

Guinness continued to demonstrate rare versatility throughout his career, starring in classic comedies such as The Lavender Hill Mob (1952) as well as dramatic epics such as The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). LIFE captured memorable images of Guinness when photographer Peter Stackpole visited him on the set of Our Man in Havana (1957), an adaptation of a Graham Greene novel. LIFE photographers were also there when Guinness performed on stage at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario, Canada, and gave another stage performance in Under the Sycamore Tree.

An unusual number of LIFE’s pictures feature Guinness backstage, putting on makeup. That emphasis tells much about reputation as the ultimate chameleon. He was an actor who could make himself at home in any costume, including those famous Jedi robes.

Alec Guinness, wearing a toupee, on a movie lot, 1951.

Alfred Eisenstaedt/LIFE pictures/Shutterstock

Alec Guinness earned early notice for his portrayal of Fagin in Oliver Twist, 1948.

Nat Farbman/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

Alec Guinness as an army general, one of the nine roles he played in Kind Hearts and Coronets, 1949.

Mark Kauffman/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

Alec Guinness as Lady Agatha,, one of the nine roles he played in the movie Kind Hearts and Coronets, 1949.

.Mark Kauffman/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

Alec Guinness in one of his nine roles in Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949).

Mark Kauffman/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

Alec Guinness in one of his nine roles in the 1949 film Kind Hearts and Coronets.

Mark Kauffman/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

Alec Guinness taking off his makeup during a production of Under the Sycamores, 1952.

Cornell Capa/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

Alec Guinness put on makeup in his dressing room for the play Under the Sycamore Tree, 1952.

Cornell Capa/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Alec Guinness put on makeup in his dressing room for the play Under the Sycamore Tree, 1952.

Cornell Capa/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

Actor Alec Guinness put on makeup in his dressing room for the play Under the Sycamore Tree, 1952.

Cornell Capa/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

Alec Guinness relaxed in his dressing room during break from his appearance in Under the Sycamore Tree, 1952.

Cornell Capa/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Alec Guinness in an art gallery, 1952.

Cornell Capa/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Alec Guinness sat alone by a lake in a park, 1952.

Cornell Capa/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Alec Guinness put on theatrical makeup at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario, Canada, 1953.

Peter Stackpole/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

Alec Guinness put on theatrical makeup at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario, Canada, 1953.

Peter Stackpole/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

Alec Guinness during rehearsals at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario, Canada, 1953.

Peter Stackpole/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

Actor Alec Guinness played Richard III at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario, Canada, 1953.

Pater Stackpole/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

(Seated L-R) Unidentified, Alec Guinness, Maureen O’Hara, Ernie Kovacs and unidentified; (Standing L-R) Noel Coward and Graham Greene on set of ‘Our Man in Havana,’ 1959.

Peter Stackpole/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

Alec Guinness and actress Maureen O’Hara on the set of Our Man in Havana, 1959.

Peter Stackpole/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

Actor/playwright Noel Coward (right) chatted with author Ernest Hemingway (left) and actor Alec Guinness on the set location at the author’s favorite hangout, Sloppy Joe’s Bar, during a break in filming the movie Our Man in Havana, 1959.

Peter Stackpole/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

Alec Guinness (center left) arrived for funeral service for actor Gary Cooper, 1961.

Grey Villet/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

More Like This

arts & entertainment

A Pioneering NHL Photographer Chooses Her Favorite LIFE Hockey Photos

PARIS arts & entertainment

LIFE Magazine Show Opens At Monroe Gallery Of Photography

arts & entertainment

Mamma Mia! The Everlasting Appeal of ABBA

arts & entertainment

Yabba Dabbo Doo!: Inside Hanna-Barbera and “TV’s First Cartoon for Grownups”

arts & entertainment

West Coast Wonderful: The Photography of Fred Lyon

arts & entertainment

The Early Years of Late Night: Johnny Carson in New York