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The life and friends of Sir Alec Guinness

Blessings in Disguise, by Sir Alec Guinness. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 238 pp. $17.95. Sir Alec Guinness writes that, when he was six, he was taken to the London Coliseum where he fell in love with comedienne Nellie Wallace. At the end of her act he ``fell off [his] plush seat and felt faintly sick.'' Starstruck and theater-struck that afternoon, he has been at it ever since.

He tells his life story wonderfully well in ``Blessings in Disguise.'' His friends are the blessings, and he says his only boast is that he has never lost a friend. With this book he makes new ones.

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His personal stage is crowded with the famous of British drama and theater. They move in and out of the spotlight, take bows, bump into Sir Alec's scenery, and jostle him into some funny stories.

Among the Romeos and Juliets to entrance us are Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud, Edith Evans, Tyrone Guthrie, Bernard Shaw, Vivien Leigh, Sybil Thorndike, and No"el Coward.

Somehow, as a starving beginner in the theater, he got Martita Hunt, later of ``Madwoman of Chaillot'' fame, to give him acting lessons. She mistakenly thought he was one of the Guinnesses, so she agreed. Immediately she declared that he had no talent, but rallied round him long enough to remain a lifelong friend.

While Sir Alec is a serious artist and a serious man, his account of his religious life is amusing as well as moving, as he describes his schoolboy inattention at church, his flirting with tarot cards, his relationship with the Anglican Church, and finally his conversion to Roman Catholicism.

The chapter titled ``Damage to the Allied Cause'' is where his keenness and intelligence show especially well. It's about his World War II service with the Royal Navy -- tying up a ship to a waterfront park bench in the fog -- that kind of thing. But his serious service to his country outweighs the laughs.

This book is very much more than a name-dropping memoir. It is an objective, bright, and charming account by an artist who has matured through the performances that have delighted audiences for so long.

Most of us know him for the movie roles. ``Great Expectations'' in 1945. ``Lavender Hill Mob'' of 1951. His 1957 Oscar winner, ``Bridge Over the River Kwai,'' and a whole new generation met him as Obi-Won Kenobi of ``Star Wars'' fame.

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One of his outstanding stage successes (and he was first, and still feels foremost, a stage actor) was the 1950 production of T. S. Eliot's ``The Cocktail Party.'' The eminent London critic Harold Hobson of The Sunday Times wrote then that ``Mr. Guinness is going to be one of our greatest actors.''

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