By Benedict Nightingale
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 on Sunday. He was 90. Until the early 1960s, Attenborough was a familiar actor in Britain but little known in the US. 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 transatlantic audience.
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 myth-making, 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).
Attenborough brought the film to fruition after a 20-year battle to raise money and interest often reluctant Hollywood producers, one of whom famously predicted that there would be no audience for “a little brown man in a sheet carrying a beanstalk.” (Attenborough ended up producing it himself.) Attenborough mortgaged his house in a London suburb, sold works of art and, as he put it, spent “so much money I couldn’t pay the gas bill.” No one expected it to recoup its $22 million continued…
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