MOVIE URBAN LEGEND: Alec Guinness came up with the idea for Obi-Wan Kenobi to die in “Star Wars.”
An interesting but often misunderstood element of “Star Wars” lore is Alec Guinness' distaste for the franchise. The Oscar winner, who was the most famous member of the cast, clearly thought the film would be a financial success. However, he never imagined it would become so successful that later in life he’d be better known for playing Obi-Wan Kenobi than for his dozens of other film and stage roles. He was certainly critical of the film (especially the dialogue), but he also praised it. When he first saw “Star Wars,” he wrote in his diary:
It’s a pretty staggering film as spectacle, and technically brilliant. Exciting, very noisy and warm-hearted. The battle scenes at the end go on for five minutes too long, I feel, and some of the dialogue is excruciating and much of it is lost in noise, but it remains a vivid experience. The only really disappointing performance was Tony Daniels as the robot — fidgety and over-elaborately spoken. Not that any of the cast can stand up to the mechanical things around them.
In addition, Guinness was thoroughly grateful to George Lucas for the financial windfall. After all, he did return for both sequels, so it wasn’t as if he abhorred the films. His true ire seemed to be directed at people who couldn't seem to see him as anything other than Obi-Wan Kenobi. In 1997, he wrote in his diary, "Was unpleasant to a woman journalist on Telegraph, who wanted to know how much I earned on ‘Star Wars.’ Oh, I’m sick of that film and all the hype."
That said, it’s true Guinness had a difficult time during the filming of “Star Wars.” He wrote to his friend Anne Kaufman:
Can’t say I’m enjoying the film. New rubbish dialogue reaches me every other day on wadges of pink paper — and none of it makes my character clear or even bearable. I just think, thankfully, of the lovely bread, which will help me to keep going until next April . . . I must off to studio and work with a dwarf (very sweet — and he has to wash in a bidet) and your fellow countrymen Mark Hamill and Tennyson (that can’t be right) Ford. Ellison (? — no!) — well, a rangy, languid young man who is probably intelligent and amusing. But oh, God, God, they make me feel 90 — and treat me as if I was 106 — Oh, Harrison Ford, ever heard of him?
That's led to the legend that Guinness was so sick of filming “Star Wars” that he came up with the idea that Lucas should kill off Obi-Wan Kenobi. Guinness himself claimed it to be true in 1999, noting that he convinced the filmmaker it would make Obi-Wan a stronger character, adding "What I didn't tell Lucas was that I just couldn't go on speaking those bloody awful, banal lines. I'd had enough of the mumbo jumbo."
Actors asking to be killed off is a popular area for legends, as we've detailed in previous Movie Legends Revealed, whether Leonard Nimoy asked for Spock to be killed in “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” and whether Harrison Ford pushed for Han Solo's death in “Return of the Jedi.” So what’s the truth here? Did Guinness come up with the idea to kill off Obi-Wan Kenobi?
Simply put, no.
The script for the film that would become the first “Star Wars” movie underwent numerous drafts, and Obi-Wan Kenobi passed through a lot of iterations. For a time, General Kenobi was a bigger player in the film, and he made it out alive. However, in the fourth draft, with a revised date of January 15, 1976, there’s the following sequence:
They start for the Millennium Falcon.
Ben sees the troops charging toward him and realizes that he is trapped. Vader takes advantage of Ben’s momentary distraction and brings his mighty lightsaber down on the old man. Ben manages to deflect the blow and swiftly turns around.
The old Jedi Knight looks over his shoulder at Luke, lifts his sword from Vader’s then watches his opponent with a serene look on his face.
Vader brings his sword down, cutting old Ben in half. Ben’s cloak falls to the floor in two parts, but Ben is not in it. Vader is puzzled at Ben’s disappearance and pokes at the empty cloak. As the guards are distracted, the adventurers and the robots reach the starship.
Luke sees Ben cut in two and starts for him. Aghast, he yells out.
The stormtroopers turn toward Luke and begin firing at him. The robots are already moving up the ramp into the Millennium Falcon, while Luke, transfixed by anger and awe, returns their fire. Solo joins in the laserfire. Vader looks up and advances toward them, as one of his troopers is struck down.
HAN(to Luke)Come on!
LEIACome on! Luke, its too late!
HANBlast the door! Kid!
Luke fires his laser pistol at the door control panel, and it explodes. The door begins to slide shut. Three troopers charge forward firing laser bolts, as the door slides to a close behind them… shutting Vader and the other troops out of the docking bay. A stormtrooper lies dead at the feet of his onrushing compatriots. Luke starts for the advancing troops, as Solo and Leia move up the ramp into the pirateship. He fires, hitting a stormtrooper, who crumples to the floor.
BEN’S VOICERun, Luke! Run!
When Lucas wrote that draft, Guinness hadn’t accepted the role of Obi-Wan Kenobi, although he was close to doing so (they doubled the initial offer, giving him a fee of $150,000 plus two percentage points from the producer's profit).
However, it’s worth noting that just two weeks earlier, Lucas had written a draft in which Obi-Wan survives. Therefore, as filming began, Lucas was unsure whether he was going to go through with the death of Obi-Wan. Guinness wrote in his diary, "Irritated by Lucas saying he hadn’t made up his mind whether to kill off my part or not. A bit late for such decisions. And Harrison Ford referring to me as Mother Superior didn’t help."
On the commentary track for the first “Star Wars,” George Lucas recalled that Guinness was angry when the director confirmed Obi-Wan was going to die in the film. So Lucas says he was mad about dying, while Guinness contends he came up with the idea to kill off Obi-Wan. I think these opposing takes can be reconciled pretty easily. As Guinness notes in his diary, he was irritated at Lucas, but over the uncertainty of whether Obi-Wan was going to die. Similarly, it’s possible Guinness told Lucas that he should kill Obi-Wan. So Guinness would be recalling correctly that he asked to be killed off, but Lucas would also be correct in recalling that Guinness was angry at him about the character’s death.
But the actual IDEA to kill off Obi-Wan clearly came from Lucas himself, as it predates filming (not to mention Guinness' official casting), so therefore the legend is...
By the way, just for kicks, you should really check out this 1986 Alec Guinness interview on “Late Night With David Letterman.” It captures the dual nature of Guinness' view of the film. He notes that getting the role was one of the luckiest breaks in his career but then you can see the visceral disgust when Letterman asks him to say "May the Force be with you."
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is email@example.com.
Be sure to check out my Entertainment Urban Legends Revealed for more urban legends about the worlds of TV, Movies and Music!