Cine Expo’s 1995 Life Achievement Award is only the most recent honor bestowed in the remarkable career of Lord Richard Attenborough. Though he’s an Oscar-laureled director, a producer and actor (the first actor to be granted a peerage for his film career, in fact), chairman of multiple showbiz bodies and tireless champion of British cinema, Attenborough’s wide-ranging success is all the more remarkable because it was largely unexpected.
As an actor, Attenborough – “Dickie” to his friends – never had star quality. He was a skilled, reliable player, more versatile than he usually gets credit for, but hardly a dominant screen presence – and even less a bankable name on the posters.
The films he’s directed have, at their best, been accomplished rather than inspired, and most of them have lost money. Yet, he has attained the status of one of the stoutest pillars of the British film industry.
Attenborough himself is disarmingly frank about his limitations. He calls himself “a slightly mundane director,” and turned down an invitation to succeed Laurence Olivier at the helm of the National Theater. “I simply didn’t have the intellectual credentials for it,” he claims.
Self-deprecation aside, however, Attenborough’s achievements are a tribute to the power of determination, driving energy and, most unfashionably, sheer humanitarian benevolence. Attenborough can be criticized – indeed, he often is – but it’s hard to find anyone who truly dislikes him.
“His public image is of a passionate, impetuous, concerned, kindly, generous man – an idealist dedicated to human principles and utterly free of cynicism,” observes film critic David Robinson, a consultant on the biopic “Chaplin.” “The biggest surprise is that the real man is not much different,” Robinson says.
Attenborough inherited his principles from his parents, staunchly, liberal middle-class academics who took in Basque and Jewish refugees from fascism during World War II.
After the 1942 “In Which We Serve,” David Lean’s classic hymn to British naval stiff-upper-lippery, in which Attenborough played a young sailor having to overcome his own cowardice, the best of his early acting roles was as Pinkie, the teen-age gang leader in John Boulting’s version of Graham Greene’s “Brighton Rock.” Attenborough, who created the part on stage, played it with chillingly, cold-eyed amorality. For all his kindliness, he has always had a line on sleazy or sadistic characters, bringing a quietly macabre humor to roles like that of Christie, the seedy, little wife-murderer of “10 Rillington Place.”
But for years, his youthful, fresh-faced looks had him type-cast. In 1959, tired of playing “the quivering psychotic on the lower deck, or the little spiv,” he side-stepped into production. Teaming up with Bryan Forbes, another actor stymied by limited roles, he formed Allied Film Makers and produced “The Angry Silence,” a bid to deal seriously with industrial relations. Three more films as a producer followed, none negligible, with at least one “Seance on a Wet Afternoon,” allowing Attenborough to expand his acting range.
If after this, the quality of some of Attenborough’s roles plummeted, it was, in part, because he was obsessed with a new dream – to make a biopic of Gandhi. For 20 years, derided and dismissed, he pursued the project, while taking almost any parts that were offered in the meantime and teaching himself to direct. “Oh! What a Lovely War” (adapted from Joan Littlewood’s satirical stage show), “Young Winston” and “A Bridge Too Far” may have lacked Attenborough’s personal stamp, but they allowed him to learn his craft, and proved he could handle actors.
When it was all over, Attenborough made his dream come true. Charming, stubborn and obsessive, Attenborough coaxed and cajoled “Gandhi” into existence in 1982. It recouped its cost nine times over, made Attenborough a millionaire and won him a pair of Oscars, for Best Picture and Best Director. Typically, he used the money and prestige, not to build a film empire, but to exert himself more effectively on behalf of his fellow filmmakers.
Indeed, for a time, Attenborough used to collect chairmanships like postage stamps, both in and out of the industry: chairman of BAFTA, of the BFI, of Channel 4, of RADA, of the European Script Fund and a score of others – all the while pursuing his next cherished project, the anti-apartheid epic “Cry Freedom.” Such wholesale kindness inevitably attracted ridicule, and with his actor’s mannerisms and famously overworked tear ducts, Attenborough has always been an easy target for caricature.
In 1992, Attenborough announced he was stepping down from most of his public commitments. But since then, there’s been little sign of Attenborough slowing down. Though “Chaplin” flopped, “Shadowlands” was a hit, collecting the best critical notices he’s received in more than a decade.
Lured by Steven Spielberg, Attenborough returned to acting after a 14-year break, first in 1993’s “Jurassic Park” and then as Kris Kringle in the 1994 remake “Miracle on 34th Street.” His fee from the forthcoming “Jurassic Park II” will go toward another long-term dream, a biopic of Thomas Paine.
Meanwhile, Attenborough forges ahead to bang the drum for the arts in general, and British cinema in particular. At 72, Attenborough says he still has “a lot that I want to do, yet.”
It’s a fair bet he’ll do it.