Richard Attenborough

Active - 1942 - 2007  |   Born - Aug 29, 1923 in Cambridge, England  |   Died - Aug 24, 2014   |   Genres - Drama, Comedy

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Biography by Hal Erickson

One of England's most respected actors and directors, Sir Richard Attenborough made numerous contributions to world cinema both in front of and behind the camera. The son of a Cambridge school administrator, Attenborough began dabbling in theatricals at the age of 12. While attending London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in 1941, he turned professional, making his first stage appearance in a production of Eugene O'Neill's Ah, Wilderness! He made his screen debut as the Young Sailor in Noel Coward and David Lean's In Which We Serve (1943), before achieving his first significant West End success as the punkish, cowardly, petty criminal Pinkie Brown in Brighton Rock.

After three years of service with the Royal Air Force, Attenborough rose to film stardom in the 1947 film version of Brighton Rock -- a role that caused him to be typecast as a working-class misfit over the next few years. One of the best of his characterizations in this vein can be found in The Guinea Pig (1948), in which the 26-year-old Attenborough was wholly credible as a 13-year-old schoolboy. As the '50s progressed, he was permitted a wider range of characters in such films as The Magic Box (1951), The Ship That Died of Shame (1955), and Private's Progress (1956). In 1959, he teamed up with director Bryan Forbes to form Beaver Films. Before the partnership dissolved in 1964, Attenborough had played such sharply etched personalities as Tom Curtis in The Angry Silence (1960) and Bill Savage in Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964); he also served as producer for the Forbes-directed Whistle Down the Wind (1962) and The L-Shaped Room (1962).

During the '60s, Attenborough exhibited a fondness for military roles: POW mastermind Bartlett in The Great Escape (1963); hotheaded ship's engineer Frenchy Burgoyne in The Sand Pebbles (1966); and Sgt. Major Lauderdale in Guns at Batasi (1964), the performance that won him a British Academy Award. He also played an extended cameo in Doctor Dolittle (1967), and sang "I've Never Seen Anything Like It in My Life," a paean to the amazing Pushmi-Pullyu. This boisterous musical performance may well have been a warm-up for Attenborough's film directorial debut, the satirical anti-war revue Oh, What a Lovely War (1969). He subsequently helmed the historical epics Young Winston (1972) and A Bridge Too Far (1977), then scaled down his technique for the psychological thriller Magic (1978), which starred his favorite leading man, Anthony Hopkins. With more and more of his time consumed by his directing activities, Attenborough found fewer opportunities to act. One of his best performances in the '70s was as the eerily "normal" real-life serial killer Christie in 10 Rillington Place (1971).

In 1982, Attenborough brought a 20-year dream to fruition when he directed the spectacular biopic Gandhi. The film won a raft of Oscars, including a Best Director statuette for Attenborough; he was also honored with Golden Globe and Director's Guild awards, and, that same year, published his book In Search of Gandhi, another product of his fascination with the Indian leader. All of Attenborough's post-Gandhi projects were laudably ambitious, though none reached the same pinnacle of success. Some of the best of his latter-day directorial efforts were Cry Freedom, a 1987 depiction of the horrors of apartheid; 1992's Chaplin, an epic biopic of the great comedian; and Shadowlands (1993), starring Anthony Hopkins as spiritually motivated author C.S. Lewis.

Attenborough returned to the screen during the '90s, acting in avuncular character roles, the most popular of which was the affable but woefully misguided billionaire entrepreneur John Hammond in Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park (1993), a role he reprised for the film's 1997 sequel. Other notable performances included the jovial Kriss Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street (1994) and Sir William Cecil in Elizabeth (1998). The brother of naturalist David Attenborough and husband of actress Sheila Sim, he was knighted in 1976 and became a life peer in 1993. Attenborough has chaired dozens of professional organizations and worked tirelessly on behalf of Britain's Muscular Dystrophy Campaign.

In 1998 the venerable screen legend has a small part in the Oscar-nominated Elizabeth, and in 1999 he directed Grey Owl. Then, in 2007, at the age of 84 he directed the seeping World War II epic romance Closing the Ring with a stellar cast that included Shirley MacLaine, Christopher Plummer, Brenda Fricker, and Pete Postlethwaite. In 2008, he suffered several health setbacks and retired from filmmaking. He died in 2014, just before his 91st birthday.

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  • Two Jewish-German refugees, sisters Helga and Irene Bejach, were informally adopted by Attenborough's parents in the 1930s.  The sisters lived with the Attenboroughs for seven years.
  • Joined the Royal Air Force during World War II.
  • Knighted in 1976 and made a life peer in 1993.
  • Daughter Jane and granddaughter Lucy were killed in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. 
  • Entirely Up to You, Darling, his autobiography, written with Diana Hawkins, was released in the United Kingdom in 2008. 
  • Served as president of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.