Richard Attenborough, British Director and Actor, Dies at 90

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25 Aug 2014

Richard Attenborough

Richard Attenborough, a prominent British theatre and stage artist who was equally well known for his achievements as a director ("Gandhi") and an actor ("Brighton Rock," "Jurassic Park"), died Aug. 24. He was 90, and had been in poor health.

Mr. Attenborough's unusually long-lived, six-decade career reached a crescendo in 1983 when "Gandhi," a sprawling biopic about the Indian leader, won eight Oscars, including ones for Best Picture and Best Director. (It had been nominated for 11.) The film, which made a star of Ben Kingsley (also an Oscar winner), who played Mohandas Gandhi, had been in the works for two decades. A dream project of Mr. Attenborough's, he began work on it in 1962. Progress on the project was delayed and detoured by all sorts of mishaps, from the death of key Indian politicians to civil unrest in India. At one point David Lean was slated to direct the film, and Attenborough star in the title role.

Ultimately, Mr. Attenborough pieced together the financing through a variety of outlets. Shooting lasted eight months, and more than 300,000 extras were used. The film was widely praised by critics at the time and went on to earn more than $50 million in the U.S.

His post-"Gandhi" career was a hit and miss affair. In hindsight, he was widely regarded as the wrong man to have been put in charge of the screen version of the musical "A Chorus Line." The 1985 film was a disastrous failure. The 1987 Apartheid drama "Cry Freedom," about the life of Steve Biko, was more warmly received. "Chaplin" (1992), a biography of Charlie Chaplin, was regarded as stiff and lifeless, though Robert Downey Jr.'s performance was widely praised. But "Shadlowlands" (1993), starring Anthony Hopkins as author C.S. Lewis, was embraced as a subtle character drama.

Richard Attenborough was born Aug. 39, 1923, in Cambridge, England. His father was an academic administrator at the university. His younger brother, David, grew up to be a noted English broadcaster and naturalist.



Before and following World War II, in which he served with the Royal Air Force, he studied acting at RADA, and began to act at Leicester's Little Theater. His first film role was a small uncredited role in the Noel Coward-David Lean patriotic film "In Which We Serve." He became a star in 1947 playing psychopathic seaside gangster Pinky Brown in a film adaptation of Graham Greene's "Brighton Rock." Five years earlier, he had played the same part on stage at the Garrick Theatre.

He was the original police detective in The Mousetrap, the long-running West End Agatha Christie mystery that opened at the Ambassadors Theatre in 1952. (Both he and his wife, who was also in the cast, took a 10 percent profit participation in the production. He later sold it to help finance "Gandhi.") He later recalled the experience as "a couple of years. Dreadful! Chinese torture to be in that long."

A popular film actor in British circles, he appeared in many movies during the '50s and '60s. In 1963, he scored a Hollywood hit as a member of the cast of "The Great Escape." Further American films included "The Flight of the Phoenix," "The Sand Pebbles" and "Doctor Doolittle." He won Golden Globe Awards for his performances in the latter two films. Other film credits included "The Angry Silence," "The Dock Brief," "Whistle Down the Wind," "10 Rilington Place" (as 1950s mass murderer John Reginald Christie), "Guns at Batasi," "The Chess Players" and "The Human Factor."

He made his debut as a film director in 1969 with the screen version of the satirical British anti-war musical Oh! What a Lovely War. He followed it with "Young Winston" (1972), a biopic about the early life of Winston Churchill, and "A Bridge Too Far" (1977), a star-studded World War II drama and notable box-office disaster.

In 1993, he ended a 14-year-old hiatus from screen acting by taking on a role in Steven Spielberg's fantasy thriller "Jurassic Park." He played Professor John Hammond, the short-sighted creator of a dinosaur theme park where raptors roam free. The film was a smash, and became Mr. Attenborough's best-known acting turn.

Over the decades, Richard Attenborough became known as the British film world's ultimate insider, a man who knew everyone (his films were often jam-packed with British theatre royalty) and was known by everyone affectionately as "Dickie." Never exactly regarded as one of Britain's best directors (critic Pauline Kael called his style "conventional"), he was nevertheless one of the more well-connected and well-known. In 1967, he was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE). He was made a Knight Bachelor in 1976 and a life peer at Baron Attenborough in 1993.

In 2008, he suffered a stroke and was in a wheelchair thereafter. He moved into a nursing home in London in early 2013.

He is survived by his wife, actress Sheila Sim; and his son Michael, a theatre director. His daughter Jane and granddaughter died in the tsunami that hit Thailand the day after Christmas in 2004.