An unmatched legacy

An unmatched legacy

A distinguished actor whose career spanned more than 60 years, Richard Attenborough found his greatest success behind the camera with the monumental biographical film ‘Gandhi.’ Benedict Nightingale writes.

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, has left behind a legacy. 

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 trans-Atlantic audience. His role, as a British officer masterminding an escape plan from a German prisoner-of-war camp, was integral to one of the most revered and enjoyable of all World War II films.

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), and then in the whimsical Doctor Dolittle (1967). In The Chess Players (1977) by renowned 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 mythmaking, 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).

The film had 430 speaking parts and used more than 300,000 extras for Gandhi’s funeral. No one expected it to recoup its $22 million cost, but it wound up earning 20 times that amount. By then Attenborough had embraced the role of director, or “actor-manager,” as he called himself. His first foray into directing was Oh! What a Lovely War (1969), an offbeat satirical musical about World War I with an all-star cast including Laurence Olivier, Maggie Smith, John Gielgud and Vanessa Redgrave. Man of many styles

In 1972, there was Young Winston, starring Simon Ward, about Churchill’s early years. In 1977, there was A Bridge Too Far, a cautionary World War II epic about a disastrous Allied defeat, which also fielded a starry cast: Olivier, Robert Redford, Sean Connery, Gene Hackman, Michael Caine and others.

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).

Five years later, after a hiatus from directing, Attenborough returned with what was largely considered to be his biggest flop: Chaplin, a long biography of Charlie Chaplin. Despite an admired and Oscar-nominated performance by Robert Downey Jr in the title role and a potent mix of drama and slapstick humour, Chaplin did poorly at the box-office. 

“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.

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 making of a genius

Unlike his brothers, Richard Attenborough was an academic failure who was happiest when performing in plays. He was determined on an acting career, he said, after seeing Chaplin in The Gold Rush in 1935 on a trip to London with his father. “I saw people laughing and crying into their handkerchiefs,” he once said, “and on the train back to Leicester, I said to myself, ‘I want to do that, too.’”

Leaving school at 16, he won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and eventually married a fellow student, Sheila Sim, who became a well-known actress herself before abandoning the theatre to look after their three children and become a magistrate.Besides his wife and son, Michael, survivors include a daughter, Charlotte Attenborough. Another daughter, Jane Holland, died in the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 along with her daughter, Lucy.

Even before he joined the Royal Air Force as a military cameraman in 1943, Attenborough was performing. He made his professional stage debut while still in school, in 1941, in Ah, Wilderness! Noël Coward cast him as a terrified boy sailor in the 1942 film In Which We Serve, and he made his West End debut as the bitter young hero in a revival of Clifford Odets’s Awake and Sing! More substantial success came with his role as the teenage Pinkie in Brighton Rock, in 1947, followed a year later by a much-praised performance as a working-class adolescent in an elite school in The Guinea Pig, renamed The Outsider in the United States. By the end of the 1940s, Attenborough had a fan club of 15,000.

For the next decade and a half, Attenborough acted primarily in British-made films. Then came The Great Escape. Although McQueen was the film’s undeniable star, as a jaunty, rebellious American, Attenborough turned in a calm but commanding performance as a squadron leader. Two years later, he won a British Academy of Film and Television Arts award for his performance in Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964).

He continued to act sporadically in the 1970s, and then largely disappeared from the screen until he ended a long hiatus in 1993 with his supporting role in Jurassic Park. There were subsequent film roles — among them Kris Kringle in a 1994 remake of Miracle on 34th Street, the English ambassador in Kenneth Branagh’s four-hour version of Hamlet (1996) and the chief adviser of Elizabeth I (Cate Blanchett) in Elizabeth (1998) — but by then Attenborough was devoting most of his time to directing.

One film he took particular pride in was Shadowlands (1993). But he also knew failures, like In Love and War (1996) and Grey Owl (1999), starring Pierce Brosnan as a Canadian trapper. 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.”

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