To many in the entertainment industry, Richard Attenborough will always be synonymous with “Gandhi,” which is understandable. The filmmaker, who died Sunday at 90, directed only a dozen films, and none of them matched his 1982 bio-epic.
But Attenborough was also an actor of great range, from his lower-class hoodlum in the 1947 “Brighton Rock” (from Graham Greene’s novel) to the POW in “The Great Escape” (third-billed under Steve McQueen and James Garner) to a high-kicking circus owner in the 1967 “Dr. Doolittle,” adding energy and pep to a film that needed both.
Attenborough’s best-known work as an actor was in the 1993 “Jurassic Park,” but his career had been going for 50 years at that point. Some of his best performances came in the mid-1960s. He starred with Kim Stanley in “Seance on a Wet Afternoon” as two scam artists whose scheme goes very wrong, and it was followed in the next two years by “Flight of the Phoenix” and “The Sand Pebbles,” in which he did nuanced work in interesting films.
Modern audiences may be mystified by the Oscar sweep for “Gandhi,” which nabbed eight, out of 11 nominations, including wins for Attenborough as producer and director. The film was competing with four other films for best picture, including two that have endured in fans’ affection and admiration: “E.T. the ExtraTerrestrial” (which was heartfelt and original) and “Tootsie” (hilarious and original).
In contrast, “Gandhi” was old-fashioned, a biopic spanning 50 years in the life of the world leader and seemed noble, rather than enjoyable. When it opened, some critics bemoaned the star cameos by people like Candice Bergen and Martin Sheen, but the truth is, they were there to help ensure financing for the picture. And everyone, including the film’s detractors, admired the message of non-violence and the amazing performance by then-unknown Ben Kingsley.
Even in 1982, the film was in the category of “They don’t make ‘em like that anymore.” The funeral scene used 25,000 “front-line” extras, with throngs of Indians showing up to appear in the funeral procession; in his memoir “Entirely Up to You Darling” (written with Diana Hawkins), Attenborough estimated there were 400,000 who ended up in the scene. In a post-“Star Wars” era of VFX, the scope and non-computerized approaches were unusual, and this film was one of the last of its breed.
The film had a great backstory. Attenborough had worked for 20 years to raise financing, including putting his personal money on the line. Even though the film is ultra-serious, Attenborough was frequently theatrical and comic. At a Delhi press conference, a journalist said it would be disrespectful to have an actor portray Gandhi, so she suggested he be represented onscreen by a moving beam of light. Attenborough replied, “Madam, I am not making a film about bloody Tinkerbell!”
There was also industry affection for Attenborough, who was a tireless booster of artists — and particularly British filmmakers. As Variety‘s obituary notes, he was at various times chairman of the British Film Institute, Channel 4, Goldcrest Films, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and Capital Radio and a director of the Young Vic and the British Film Institute. In the late ’70s, he helped preserve and restore London’s Duke of York Theater.
On Sunday, a BAFTA statement hailed him as “a monumental figure in BAFTA’s history.” He was involved in the Society of Film & TV Arts since 1959, before it was renamed as the British Academy of Film & Television Arts. The statement chronicled his contributions to the organization over the decades, a clue to the time and energy he devoted to the industry.
Attenborough was chair of the British Film Institute for 13 years. Its CEO, Amanda Nevill, said Monday: “He loved the art and culture of film and was a tremendous advocate for every part of it.”
Adrian Wootton, chief exec of Film London and the British Film Commission, described Attenborough as “a visionary leader who influenced every aspect of our industry.”
He directed 12 films and acted in more than 70. But it’s quite possible that Attenborough’s work for these institutions, and many others, may prove to be his most valuable and lasting legacy.