Richard Samuel Attenborough was born in Cambridge on 29 August 1923,
one of three brothers including the BBC naturalist and presenter David
began dabbling in theatricals at the age of 12. Then 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!’ With his vulnerable baby face, Attenborough
entered film while still a RADA student as the faint-hearted seaman
in "In Which We Serve" (1942).
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).
by the British film industry, Attenborough teamed with actor-writer
Bryan Forbes to form Beaver Films in 1959, which produced a slew of
small, ambitious and often socially-conscious films often directed
by Forbes. Their sympathy for "the little people" came through
best in the delicately offbeat "Whistle Down the Wind" (1961),
produced by Attenborough and directed by Forbes, in which three children
mistake a fugitive murderer for Jesus Christ. The duo enjoyed another
triumph with the story of an unwed, expectant mother and the motley
crew she meets in a shabby London boardinghouse, "The L-Shaped
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. Since his boisterous, if uneven, directing debut, "Oh!
What a Lovely War" (1969), a satirical anti-war musical revue,
Attenborough has frequently made films involving social and political
issues, often as large-scale epics with star-studded casts. He subsequently
helmed the historical Young Winston (1972) adapted by Carl Foreman
from Winston Churchill's book about his early years. The film met
with very mixed reviews.
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).
then made a film in partnership with independent producer Joseph E.
Levine and screenwriter William Goldman. The film was adapted from
Cornelius Ryan's book A Bridge Too Far, The resulting film (1977)
is an excellent attempt of the dramatisation of the disastrous attempt
by the Allies to take possession of a series of bridges behind enemy
lines in Holland. A stellar cast and tremendous attention to historical
detail made the film one of his best in my eyes.
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 honoured 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 have
been laudably ambitious, though none have reached the same pinnacle
of success. Some of the best of his latter-day directorial efforts
have been Cry Freedom, a 1987 depiction of apartheid; 1992's Chaplin,
an epic biopic of the great comedian. "Shadowlands" (1993)
was a biopic of writers C S Lewis and Joy Gresham, featuring poignant
work from Hopkins and Debra Winger and proved Attenborough a director
capable of some subtleties. It told the story of the Christian writer,
his faith and the relationship with his wife – beautifully short
and tastefully directed it is one of my favourite Attenborough pieces.
returned to the screen during the '90s, acting in 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).
brother of naturalist David Attenborough, he has been long married
to actress-turned-magistrate Sheila Sim, with whom he appeared onstage
and in several films in the 40s and 50s.
He was chairman of the British Film Institute between 1981 and 1992
and continues to play a crucial role in British film culture. Attenborough
was knighted in 1976 and became a Lord in 1993. Attenborough has chaired
dozens of professional organizations and worked tirelessly on behalf
of Britain's Muscular Dystrophy Campaign.