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 cost, but it wound up earning 20 times that amount.
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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 anti-Apartheid 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. 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 endeavour. “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. If his heroes were those who challenged institutions from without, he sought to effect change from within. He was credited with inspiring Diana, Princess of Wales, whom he coached in public speaking at Prince Charles’s urging, to start her campaign against land mines. In his maiden speech in the House of Lords, he criticised the government for neglecting the arts. Christopher Hart, writing in The Sunday Times in London, called him “an ennobled Champagne socialist of the old school, a mass of good causes and inconsistencies.”
Richard Samuel Attenborough was born in Cambridge on August 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.
He returned to directing in 2007 with Closing the Ring, a romantic drama starring Shirley MacLaine. But the prospective film that had come to preoccupy him almost as much as Gandhi, a biography of Tom Paine, remained unmade at his death. In 2008, in collaboration with his longstanding associate Diana Hawkins, he published an autobiography, Entirely Up to You, Darling. The book chronicles a full and eventful life. But it ends with the death of his daughter and granddaughter in the 2004 tsunami, and his regretting the time he never spent with them. “Work,” he wrote, “always took precedence.”