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By Carmel Dagan
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 1992 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 Hemingway 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.
Photo credit: Everett Collection