Richard Attenborough, actor, director, dies at 90
By BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE
The New York Times | August 29,2014
AP file photo
British actor and director Richard Attenborough arrives at the Galaxy British Book Awards in London in 2008. Acclaimed actor and Oscar-winning director Richard Attenborough, whose film career on both sides of the camera spanned 60 years, died on Sunday. He was 90.
Richard Attenborough, who after a distinguished stage and film acting career in Britain reinvented himself to become the internationally admired director of the monumental “Gandhi” and other films, died Sunday. He was 90.
His death was confirmed by his son, Michael, according to the BBC.
Until the early 1960s, Attenborough was a familiar actor in Britain but little known in the United States. In London he was the original detective in Agatha Christie’s play “The Mousetrap.” On the British screen, he made an early mark as the sociopath Pinkie Brown in an adaptation of Graham Greene’s “Brighton Rock” (1947).
But it was not until he appeared with his friend Steve McQueen and a sterling ensemble cast in the 1963 war film “The Great Escape,” his first Hollywood feature, that he found a trans-Atlantic audience. His role, as a British officer masterminding an escape plan from a German prisoner-of-war camp, was integral to one of the most revered and enjoyable of all World War II films.
That performance established him in Hollywood and paved the way for a series of highly visible roles. He was the alcoholic navigator alongside James Stewart’s pilot in “The Flight of the Phoenix” (1965), a survival story about a plane crash in the desert. He won back-to-back Golden Globe Awards for best supporting actor: first in “The Sand Pebbles” (1966), also starring McQueen, set during China’s civil war in the 1920s, and then in the whimsical “Doctor Dolittle” (1967), playing Albert Blossom, a circus owner, alongside Rex Harrison as the veterinarian who talks to animals. In “The Chess Players” (1977), by the renowned Indian director Satyajit Ray, he was a British general in 19th-century India.
Years later Attenborough became known to a new generation of filmgoers as the wealthy head of a genetic engineering company whose cloned dinosaurs run amok in Steven Spielberg’s box office hit “Jurassic Park.”
But for most of Attenborough’s later career, his acting was sporadic while he devoted much of his time to directing.
“Gandhi” (1982), an epic but intimate biographical film, was his greatest triumph.
With the little-known Ben Kingsley in the title role, the film traces Mohandas K. Gandhi’s life as an Indian lawyer who forsakes his job and possessions and takes up a walking staff to lead his oppressed country’s fight for independence from Britain through a campaign of passive resistance, ending in his assassination.
Among the film’s critics were historians, who said it contributed to mythmaking, portraying Gandhi as a humble man who brought down an empire without acknowledging that the British, exhausted by World War II, were eager to unload their Indian possessions. Nevertheless, “Gandhi” was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and won eight, including best picture, best director, best cinematography, best original screenplay and best actor (Kingsley).
The film had 430 speaking parts and used more than 300,000 extras for Gandhi’s funeral. No one expected it to recoup its $22 million cost, but it wound up earning 20 times that amount.
By then, Attenborough had embraced the role of director, or “actor-manager,” as he called himself. (He said he understood actors and could help them give confident, truthful performances.) His first foray into directing was “Oh! What a Lovely War” (1969), an offbeat satirical musical about World War I with an all-star cast including Laurence Olivier, Maggie Smith, John Gielgud and Vanessa Redgrave.
In 1972, there was “Young Winston,” starring Simon Ward, about Churchill’s early years. In 1977 there was “A Bridge Too Far,” a cautionary World War II epic about a disastrous Allied defeat, which also fielded a starry cast: Olivier, Robert Redford, Sean Connery, Gene Hackman, Michael Caine and others.
After “Gandhi” came a 1985 adaptation of “A Chorus Line,” Michael Bennett’s musical about Broadway hoofers. It was a misfire — a faithful but uneasy translation to film. Attenborough had more success with “Cry Freedom!” (1987), a stirring look at the friendship between the antiapartheid fighter Steve Biko (Denzel Washington) and a journalist (Kevin Kline) in South Africa in the 1970s.
Five years later, after a hiatus from directing, Attenborough returned with what was largely considered to be his biggest flop: “Chaplin,” a long, sprawling biography of the silent film star Charlie Chaplin. Despite an admired and Oscar-nominated performance by Robert Downey Jr. in the title role and a potent mix of drama and slapstick humor, “Chaplin” did poorly at the box office. Like many of Attenborough’s movies, the story of Chaplin, the lowly-born clown who defied the odds by achieving world renown, celebrated courage and endeavor. It was also an article of faith for him that his films told clear stories and said something significant to wide audiences.
“All my work questions the establishment, authority, intolerance and prejudice,” he said.
Yet his life was entwined with the establishment. He was made a Commander of the British Empire in 1967. He was knighted in 1976, made a baron in 1993 and given a seat in the House of Lords. He was variously chairman of the British Film Institute, Channel Four Television, Capital Radio and the British Academy of Film and Television Arts and president of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts.
Richard Samuel Attenborough was born in Cambridge on Aug. 29, 1923, the eldest son of Frederick Attenborough, an Anglo-Saxon scholar who became the principal of University College, Leicester, and his wife, Mary, a writer who crusaded for women’s rights and took in Basque and German refugees. The Attenboroughs adopted two Jewish sisters who had arrived in Britain from Berlin in September 1939, too late for them to be sent safely to relatives in New York.
Unlike his brothers — David, who became a noted biologist and television broadcaster, and John, who went into the auto business — Richard Attenborough was an academic failure who was happiest when performing in plays. He determined on an acting career, he said, after seeing Chaplin in “The Gold Rush” in 1935 on a trip to London with his father.
“I saw people laughing and crying into their handkerchiefs,” he once said, “and on the train back to Leicester, I said to myself, ‘I want to do that, too.’”
Leaving school at 16, he won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and eventually married a fellow student, Sheila Sim, who became a well-known actress herself before abandoning the theater to look after their three children and become a magistrate.
Besides his wife and son, Michael, survivors include a daughter, Charlotte Attenborough. Another daughter, Jane Holland, died in the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 along with her daughter, Lucy.