Richard Attenborough (1923-) b. Cambridge, England.
After winning a scholarship to London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art at the age of 17, Attenborough entered films with a screen debut as the cowardly young sailor in Noel Coward and David Lean‘s In Which We Serve (1942). The role of Pinkie Brown in the Boulting Brothers adaptation of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock (1947) catapulted Attenborough into the mainstream — but also reinforced the typecasting of him as either weak or loud-mouthed working-class youths.
He gradually began to escape the stereotype to become a well-respected character actor, but by the 1950s he was still chiefly portraying spiv’s and sailors in such fine films as Morning Departure (1950), The Ship That Died of Shame (1955), Private’s Progress (1956), Dunkirk (1958), The League of Gentlemen (1959) and I’m All Right Jack (1959). In 1959, he teamed up with director Bryan Forbes to form Beaver Films, a partnership that would dissolve in 1964 after producing The Angry Silence (1960) and Whistle Down the Wind (1961).
By the 1960s Attenborough had matured and escaped the acting mould that had years earlier constrained him. Now he 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 appeared in Hollywood blockbusters The Great Escape (1963) and Flight of the Phoenix, The (1965). He began a belated directorial career it the age of 46 with a film version of Joan Littlewood’s stage success, Oh! What a Lovely War(1969) , proving to be a workmanlike and capable director. Through careful pacing and camera placement he proved capable of achieving inspiring moments; the sea of crosses at the end of the film remains Attenborough’s crowning achievement in one scene. He continued to act, no doubt building funds for the next movie epic, but found fewer opportunities. One of his best performances during the 70s was that of real-life serial killer John Christie in 10 Rillington Place (1971). The next two directing efforts on his schedule were both war films of sorts – Young Winston (1972) dealt in proficient but faintly uninspired fashion with the adventurous early career of the future British prime minister Winston Churchill, and A Bridge Too Far (1977) was a multi-star action spectacular about the disastrous Allied attempt to parachute into Arnhem during World War II. Attenborough broke away from sweeping cinema for Magic (1978); a flawed psychological thriller with similarities to Michael Redgrave’s role in Dead of Night (1945). In that film, the ventriloquist is taken over by his dummy, and it’s a majestic performance from Anthony Hopkins, Attenborough’s favourite leading man, that is Magic’s saving grace.
In 1982, he achieved his long-cherished ambition of completing a biopic of the life of the great Mahatma Gandhi, Gandhi (1982), earning him the Best Director Oscar. After the dismal A Chorus Line (1985) came Cry Freedom (1987), a depiction of the horrors of apartheid and struggles of activist Stephen Biko. Chaplin (1992), an epic biopic of the great comedian; only earned acclaim for Robert Downey Jr.’s splendid performance in the title role. A welcome improvement came with the Oscar-nominated Shadowlands (1993), starring Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger as author C.S. Lewis and Joy Gresham. He regressed though with In Love and War (1996), a messy study of Ernest Hemingway’s war experiences. Grey Owl (1999), the story of Archie Grey Owl, an Englishman posing as a Red Indian, proved to be slow-paced and uninvolving.
Meanwhile, Attenborough returned to the screen during the 1990s, acting in character roles, the bearded billionaire in Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993), as Santa Claus in Miracle on 34th Street (1994), the English Ambassador in Kenneth Branagh‘s Hamlet (1996) and as the monarch’s advisor Sir William Cecil in Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth (1998). He was Appointed a CBE in 1967, knighted in 1976 and created a life peer in 1993. Attenborough was hospitalised in 2008 following a fall, and rumoured to have retired from the cinema the following year during a lengthy recovery.