Receiving his early education at City of London School, Michael Apted went on to study Law at Cambridge University. By the age of 22, however, he was gainfully employed as a director at the BBC, laboring away on the popular soap opera Coronation Street. While working on the documentary series The World in Action, he collaborated with Paul Almond on the 1963 telefilm 7 Up, in which 14 seven-year-olds, drawn from every social level in London, were interviewed concerning their lives, innermost thoughts, and aspirations. Apted followed up with his subjects on his own every seven years, charting their progress and grilling them concerning their hopes for the future, resulting in the subsequent Seven Plus Seven, 21 Up, 28 Up (which incorporated footage from the earlier installments), 35 Up, and 42 Up.
While he never completely abandoned the documentary form (certainly not with several TV awards to his credit), Apted has also kept busy with dramatic features, beginning with the bizarre cross-dressing World War II yarn The Triple Echo (1973). His 1974 Stardust, a quasi-documentary of a Beatles-like rock group, gained Apted a following on the midnight-movie circuit. Of a more mainstream nature were his subsequent biopics Coal Miner's Daughter (1980), the story of country singer Loretta Lynn; Gorillas in the Mist (1988), charting the life and violent death of conservationist Dian Fossey; and Thunderheart (1992), the saga of Native American activist Leonard Peltier (a subject also covered in Apted's 1992 documentary Incident at Oglala). His 1994 feature Nell, a distaff variation of François Truffaut's The Wild Child (1970), found acclaimed actress Jodie Foster in the challenging role of a childlike forest dweller forced into society following the death of her protective mother. And while Apted's later work edged closer to the mainstream with such thrillers as Extreme Measures (1996) and the James Bond vehicle The World Is Not Enough (1999), the avid documentarian remained faithful to his roots with 42 Up and Me & Isaac Newton (both also 1999). Carefully balancing his efforts, the tireless director received winning reviews for the wartime thriller Enigma in 2001 shortly before stepping behind the camera for the Jennifer Lopez revenge flick Enough (2002). Apted also served as executive producer of The River Rat (1984) and Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992), and, along with several other directors, played a cameo role in Spies Like Us (1985).