Richard Attenborough, Oscar-Winning Director of ‘Gandhi,’ Dies at 90

Richard Attenborough Dead
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Richard Attenborough, who was honored for his helming and production of the 1982 Oscar best picture “Gandhi” but was best known to American audiences for his role in Steven Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park” and its first sequel as park creator John Hammond, died on Sunday, his son tells BBC News. He was 90.

The stocky British filmmaker was awarded a life peerage by Queen Elizabeth II in 1993 for his stage work and for his efforts behind and in front of the camera to promote British cinema.

While Attenborough had been a prominent character actor in his native country since the early 1940s, he also achieved much as a producer, motion picture executive and cultural impresario. At various times he was 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.

A career in film directing began in 1969 with an adaptation of Joan Littlewood’s biting musical satire “Oh! What a Lovely War.” Few of his directing efforts achieved the stature of “Gandhi,” which he had championed for more than 20 years. But there were noteworthy attempts to deal with historical and biographical subjects including “Cry Freedom,” about South African apartheid; “Chaplin,” a biography of the immortal screen comic; and “Shadowlands,” based on William Nicholson’s play focusing on British writer C.S. Lewis.

“I have no interest in being remembered as a great creative filmmaker,” he once said. “I want to be remembered as a storyteller.”

Despite more than 50 years as a stage and screen actor — including supporting roles in adventure pics “The Flight of the Phoenix” (1965) and “The Sand Pebbles” (1966) and “Doctor Dolittle” (1967) — it was only in 1993 that Attenborough achieved widespread international recognition for his starring role in “Jurassic Park,” the largest-grossing film ever at the time. (Later acting credits included Kenneth Branagh’s “Hamlet” and the Cate Blanchett starrer “Elizabeth.”)

In the late 1950s, in an effort to enhance the quality of his movie assignments, Attenborough united with writer-director Bryan Forbes to create Beaver Films. Their first effort, 1960’s “The Angry Silence,” was a sharply defined working-class drama, part of the new generation of realistic British films. In addition, Beaver produced “The League of Gentlemen,” “Whistle Down the Wind,” “The L-Shaped Room” and “Seance on a Wet Afternoon” between 1961 and 1964. The last film, in which Attenborough co-starred with Kim Stanley, brought him the British Academy Award along with his work in “Guns at Batasi.” The positive reception for “Seance” in the U.S. coupled with his supporting role in hit WWII actioner “The Great Escape” in 1963 led to a career as a Hollywood character actor starting with “The Flight of the Phoenix” (1965) and “The Sand Pebbles” (1966).

In 1967 he appeared in the big-budget musical “Doctor Dolittle,” which brought him a Golden Globe for supporting actor.

With the help of British actors including Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, John Mills and Michael Redgrave, Attenborough was able to persuade Paramount Pictures to bank his debut directing effort, an adaptation of Joan Littlewood’s WWI fantasia “Oh What a Lovely War.” Though not a financial success in the U.S., the film was honored with a Golden Globe and six British Academy Awards.

Attenborough continued to act in films through the early ’70s in such efforts as “David Copperfield,” “A Severed Head,” “Loot” and the chilling “10 Rillington Place,” in which he played a mass murderer. By 1972 he had the money to shoot biographical adventure “Young Winston,” based on the early life of Winston Churchill. The pic was well received, but his next film, 1977’s “A Bridge Too Far,” sported an international name cast but was a $25 million flop.

To produce and direct his next film, a biography of the life of Indian pacifist leader Mohandas K. Gandhi, Attenborough beat the bushes for 20 years and redoubled his efforts only after Lean abandoned a similar project. He turned down an offer to be associate director of Britain’s National Theater, mortgaged his house, sold his cars, pawned his paintings, took on a number of subpar roles in films such as “Brannigan,” “Rosebud” and “Ten Little Indians” and made a poor directing choice in “Magic” for producer Joseph E. Levine, basically done as a favor to interest Levine in financing “Gandhi.”

With the help of Goldcrest Films and Indian’s National Film Development Corp., Attenborough had financing in hand by the end of the 1970s. He passed on several prominent actors such as Alec Guinness and Dustin Hoffman to cast a highly regarded Royal Shakespeare Company actor, Ben Kingsley, who was part Indian.

The film copped eight Oscars, including two for Attenborough as best director and for producing the best picture. Attenborough detailed his struggle to make the film in a book, “In Search of Gandhi,” published in 1982.

In 1985, he was named chairman of Goldcrest just after he completed work on a failed film adaptation of the Broadway musical “A Chorus Line.” His next film, also a personal project, was “Cry Freedom,” the story of British journalist Donald Woods (played by Kevin Kline) and South African activist-martyr Steven Biko (a role for which Denzel Washington received a supporting actor Oscar nomination).

His 1992 biopic “Chaplin” was less successful, though Robert Downey Jr. drew a deserved Oscar nomination for best actor. The following year Attenborough directed Anthony Hopkins and Oscar nominated Debra Winger in “Shadowlands,” which proved both a commercial and critical success.

That was the same year Attenborough’s face finally become familiar across America (and the world) in “Jurassic Park,” Spielberg’s monumental blockbuster based on Michael Crichton’s novel. It was his first acting assignment in 13 years and led to further work in front of the camera: He played Kris Kringle in John Hughes’ remake of “The Miracle on 34th Street” for the Fox Network, and over the next several years appeared in roles in Kenneth Branagh’s “Hamlet,” the Cate Blanchett starrer “Elizabeth” and telepic “The Railway Children” (2000). In 2006 he appeared in “Welcome to World War One,” a documentary about the making of “Oh! What a Lovely War.”

Attenborough was still directing, too. In 1996 he helmed “In Love and War,” starring Chris O’Donnell and Sandra Bullock in the story of the young Ernest Hemingay and a nurse he loved after he was injured in WWI. His 1999 film “Grey Owl” starred Pierce Brosnan as a Canadian fur trapper who became a conservationist. Attenborough attempted a film that, like “Gandhi,” carried a sociopolitical message, but Variety called the direction “old fashioned.”
After an absence of eight years, Attenborough directed the sentimental tale “Closing the Ring” (2007), starring Christopher Plummer and Shirley MacLaine.

In May 2012 Attenborough teamed with Martin Scorsese and Anthony Haas to develop the film “Silver Ghost,” a drama based on the true story of the founding of Rolls Royce. Attenborough was to direct, but he was in rapidly declining health after suffering a stroke in 2008 that left him in a wheelchair.

The oldest son of an Anglo-Saxon scholar and university administrator, Attenborough was the eldest of three sons. (Brother David is a naturalist behind many acclaimed BBC documentary series). His mother, the former Mary Clegg, was the daughter of art historian Samuel Clegg.

Born in Cambridge, he was already involved in amateur theatrics by his teens. In 1940 Attenborough won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, making his professional debut while still a student in a production of Eugene O’Neill’s “Ah Wilderness!” In 1942 he made his screen debut in Noel Coward’s “In Which We Serve,” directed by David Lean.

RADA honored him with the Bancroft Medal for fine acting in 1942 and, upon leaving school, he made his West End debut in Clifford Odets’ “Awake and Sing.” Significant roles in productions of “Twelfth Night” and “Brighton Rock” followed before Attenborough enlisted in the Royal Air Force, becoming part of its film unit. He also flew film reconnaissance missions over Germany during the war.

In 1946 he signed a contract with producers John and Ray Boulting. He reprised his stage role in the film version of “Brighton Rock,” followed by “The Guinea Pig” in 1948 and “The Gift Horse” in 1952.

His film career sputtered in the 1950s: Projects like “Eight O’Clock Walk” and “The Baby and the Battleship” were abysmal. So he returned to the stage in “To Dorothy, a Son,” “Double Image” and Agatha Christie’s “The Mousetrap” (appearing in the original cast as Detective Sergeant Trotter), which became England’s longest-running show.

Beginning in 1956, the film side picked up when he appeared for the Boultings in a series of social satires including “Private’s Progress” and “I’m All Right, Jack.”

His autobiography “Entirely Up to You, Darling” was published in 2008.

Attenborough was married in early 1945 to actress Sheila Sim, with whom he had three children, Jane, Charlotte and Michael, all of whom worked in the performing arts.

Upon hearing about his death, Steven Spielberg issued the following statement about Attenborough: “Dickie Attenborough was passionate about everything in his life – family, friends, country and career. He made a gift to the world with his emotional epic “Ghandi” and he was the perfect ringmaster to bring the dinosaurs back to life as John Hammond in ‘Jurassic Park.’ He was a dear friend and I am standing in an endless line of those who completely adored him.”

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  1. Samantha says:

    May he R.I.P xxx

    • Thanks a great tribute to one of the finest film makers of our time . A very private person Lord Richard Attenborough here speaking on the importance of education, his brother David and the film Gandhi at the University of Leicester on being made a Distinguished Honorary Fellow at the University.

  2. Ali Rich says:

    A great and a good man who worked tirelessly to right social wrongs. You forgot to mention that Attenborough had two adopted sisters: Jewish refugee girls his parents adopted from Germany at the outbreak of WWII and whose lives they saved.

  3. Nabil Shaban says:

    I could say “Darling Dickie” was a friend. He took great interest in disabled artists, and founded the Richard Attenborough Centre for Arts and Disability at Leicester University. I remember my astonishment when in the 1990s, I came home to find his voice on my telephone answer-machine, addressing me as “Darling” and asking me if I would be “awfully kind” and do him a favour. Naturally, I immediately phoned him back. What he wanted was to invite me to be one of the patrons for his proposed disability arts centre. Then, when the centre was due to be opened by his friend, Princess Diana, in 1997, just a few months before she and her fiancee, Dodi Fayad, were murdered by the British secret service, he asked me to attend the opening. I told him I was reluctant as an anti-Monarchist to meet with Diana, but he said just think of her as a normal decent human being, who needs love like anyone else. I said, “Alright, but I don’t want to be in any lineup of sycophants, bowing and scraping and curtseying.” He laughed and promised me that I didn’t need to. So, I went, and after the formal bits were done with, Dickie standing next to Diana, beckoned me over to meet her, and then embarrassed me, by introducing me as one of Britain’s great actors. I looked at her face, and saw a small look of scepticism, which I don’t blame her.
    Dickie was at one time interested in my movie of “The First To Go”, and thought about being, at least, executive producer. Unfortunately, by the time, he could have done much to see that the project happened, he was already in decline. On top of which, he suffered a most horrible tragedy when his daughter and granddaughter were victims granddaughter in the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. I don’t think poor Dickie was ever the same again after that loss. I saw him for the last time in 2007, when I was a guest at some function at his arts centre. He looked very ill and needed support to help with walking. However, he was a genuinely affectionate and emotional man, who always seemed overjoyed to see me, and insisted on coming over to greet me, like a long lost friend.
    Dickie and I first met in 1981, when he attended an early performance of Graeae actors. Afterwards, he came up to me, and said that there should be more opportunities for disabled people in the performing arts. I agreed, and asked what did he intend to do about it. Not long after, he established a forum to investigate the best means of achieving greater inclusion of disabled people in the arts. A year later, the forum published a report. To be honest, I don’t think it ultimately achieved as much as was hoped. Dickie and I didn’t always see eye to eye, and one time in 1983, when he was chairing a conference on disability arts, and I was on the guest speakers panel, and sitting in front of me in the front row was a Tory minister of the arts, and another Tory, minister of the disabled, I launched into an attack on Thatcher’s government, accusing them of being hypocrites, attending this conference while slicing funding of the arts, the NHS, the Welfare State, and thus creating conditions making it even harder for disabled people to actively participate in the mainstream arts arena. Well, chairman Dickie was not happy, and tried to shut me up, though in a very nice way, telling me off for being very naughty, using this platform for an inappropriate political attack on the government. Later, I wrote to him, complaining that it was ironic that the man who had just made “Gandhi”, and was bringing global attention to and praising Gandhi’s method of opposition through civil disobedience, should have been reprimanding me for publicly speaking the truth about the destructive policies of Thatcherism. Despite this little argument, Dickie remained a friend, and supporter, and I’m proud to say, was more than happy to accede to my request to write an introduction for my art and poetry book, “Dreams My Father Sold Me”, and what a lovely generous introduction he wrote, too.
    It is terrible that Britain should lose one of it’s finest noble film directors, especially as there is no one like him to make such brilliant movies to replace him. This fantastic actor made most of Britain’s best movies…movies that made a difference…movies that tried to make the world a better place…think of “Oh What a Lovely War”…a profound and clever film musical that influenced me to become anti-war, “Gandhi”, of course, “Cry Freedom”, which probably had a profound effect of dismantling South Africa’s apartheid state. I think it is a shame that this great movie director and actor (who can forget his memorable chilling and believable performance of Christie in “10 Rillington Place”) should warrant a headline news of his death where his to be remembered as the star of such a trivial Hollywood movie as “Jurassic Park”. Richard Attenborough was much much greater than this dinosaur nonsense.

  4. John Rotan says:

    Sixth paragraph – “Jurassic Park” was released in 1993, not 1992.

  5. He was so good in Jurassic Park. I never realized he was such an accomplished actor or director before that.

    This just blows me away.

  6. Allyson Rowen Taylor says:

    Well Spielberg can now speak out in defense of Israel. WHY WAS HIS NAME NOT ON THE LIST?

  7. VinnieC says:

    Magic was not a poor directing choice, it could very well be his most undervalued film. We have lost another great storyteller, but the world beyond this has just gained another great treasure.

  8. Dk77042 says:

    Great director and was great in JP and miracle on 34th

  9. fanya says:

    Soon Al, soon.

  10. Alex says:

    A brilliant man, God rest him.

  11. Ken from Toronto says:

    A wonderful career and by all accounts a gentleman. He co-starred in 2 great war films – IN WHICH WE SERVE and THE GREAT ESCAPE. Mr. Attenborough’s perf in 10 RILLINGTON PLACE is a stunner. Very good in SEANCE ON A WET AFTERNOON. His finest directing may have been for the moving SHADOWLANDS starring Debra Winger. CHAPLIN was wobbly, but he got a wonderful perf out of Robert Downy Jr. A CHORUS LINE was a bomb, but his GANDHI, YOUNG WINSTON and A BRIDGE TOO FAR were all entertaining and thoughtful epics. Sir Richard was a class act. My condolences to his family and to the British film industry.

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