Vintage postcard, no. 950. Photo: British Lion.
British postcard in the Celebrity Autograph Series, no. 377.
Psychopathic Young Gangster
Richard Samuel Attenborough, Baron Attenborough was born in Cambridge, England in 1923. ‘Dickie’ was the eldest of three sons of Mary Attenborough née Clegg a founding member of the Marriage Guidance Council and Frederick Levi Attenborough, a scholar and academic administrator who was a don at Emmanuel College, Cambridge.
Richard’s brothers were nature documentarian David Attenborough and John Attenborough, who was an executive at Alfa Romeo before his death in 2012.
Attenborough was educated at Wyggeston Grammar School for Boys in Leicester and studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA). At the age of 12, his acting career had started when he appeared in shows at Leicester's Little Theatre.
Attenborough's film career began with an uncredited role as a deserting sailor in the war film In Which We Serve (Noël Coward, David Lean, 1942).
During the Second World War Attenborough served in the Royal Air Force. After initial pilot training he was seconded to the newly-formed RAF Film Unit at Pinewood Studios, under the command of Flight Lieutenant John Boulting where he appeared with Edward G. Robinson in the propaganda film Journey Together (John Boulting, 1943-1945).
He then volunteered to fly with the Film Unit and after further training, where he sustained permanent ear-damage, qualified as a sergeant, flying on several missions over Europe filming from the rear gunner's position to record the outcome of Bomber Command sorties.
After the war, he made his breakthrough as a psychopathic young gangster in the film of Graham Greene's novel Brighton Rock (John Boulting, 1947), a part that he had previously played to great acclaim at the Garrick Theatre in 1942. Brighton Rock received critical acclaim and was the most popular British film of 1947.
After that, he was type-cast for many years as working-class misfits or cowards in films like The Guinea Pig (Roy Boulting, 1948) in which the 26-year-old Attenborough was wholly credible as a 13-year-old schoolboy, London Belongs to Me (Sidney Gilliat, 1948) with Alastair Sim, and the naval drama Morning Departure (Roy Ward Baker, 1950) starring John Mills.
In 1949 exhibitors voted Attenborough the 6th most popular British actor at the box office.
British autograph card, 1949.
In 1952, Richard Attenborough starred in the original West End production of Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap, which went on to become the world's longest-running stage production. He took a 10% profit-participation in the production, which proved to be a wise business decision.
During the 1950s, Attenborough worked prolifically in British films and appeared in successful comedies, such as Private's Progress (Roy Boulting, 1956) opposite Ian Carmichael, and I'm All Right Jack (Roy Boulting, 1959), also with Dennis Price.
In the late 1950s, Attenborough formed a production company, Beaver Films, with Bryan Forbes. He began to build a profile as a producer on projects including the crime drama The League of Gentlemen (Basil Dearden, 1959), the drama The Angry Silence (Guy Green, 1960) with Pier Angeli, and Whistle Down the Wind (Bryan Forbes, 1961) starring Hayley Mills. In the first two he also performed as an actor.
In 1963 he appeared in the ensemble cast of The Great Escape (John Sturges, 1963) as RAF Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett (‘Big X’), the head of the escape committee and based on the real life exploits of Roger Bushell. It was his first appearance in a major Hollywood blockbuster and his most successful film up to that time.
During the 1960s, he expanded his range of character roles in films such as Séance on a Wet Afternoon (Bryan Forbes, 1964) and Guns at Batasi (John Guillermin, 1964), for which he won the BAFTA Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of the Regimental Sergeant Major (RSM).
In 1965 he played Lew Moran opposite James Stewart in The Flight of the Phoenix (Robert Aldrich, 1965) and in 1967 and 1968, he won back-to-back Golden Globe Awards in the category of Best Supporting Actor, the first time for The Sand Pebbles (Robert Wise, 1967), co-starring Steve McQueen, and the second time for his comedic turn as a circus owner in Doctor Dolittle (Richard Fleischer, 1968), starring Rex Harrison.
His feature film directorial debut was the all-star screen version of the hit musical Oh! What a Lovely War (Richard Attenborough, 1969). Sergio Angelini in Directors in British and Irish Cinema: “a project inherited from John Mills, who had developed the screenplay with Len Deighton from Joan Littlewood's stage production. This satiric fantasia on the First World War is largely set on Brighton Pier, but Attenborough and cinematographer Gerry Turpin successfully open out the play with a number of bravura sequences, the best remembered being the final shot which pulls back to reveal an entire hillside covered in white crosses.”
He later directed two epic period films: Young Winston (Richard Attenborough, 1972), which starred his favourite leading man, Anthony Hopkins, as Winston Churchill, and A Bridge Too Far (Richard Attenborough, 1977), an all-star account of Operation Market Garden in World War II.
His acting appearances became sporadic as he concentrated more on directing and producing. His portrayal of the serial killer John Christie in 10 Rillington Place (Richard Fleischer, 1971) garnered excellent reviews and he also played to great acclaim in Indian director Satyajit Ray's period piece The Chess Players (1977).
Following his appearance in The Human Factor (Otto Preminger, 1979), he stopped with film acting for more than a decade.
British autograph card, 1949.
British postcard in the Picturegoer Series, London, no. W 475. Photo: Charter Films.
In Search of Gandhi
In 1982, Richard Attenborough finally realized a project he had been attempting to get made for 18 years: Gandhi, featuring Ben Kingsley. It proved to be an enormous commercial and critical success. Gandhi won eight Academy Awards, and Attenborough himself was awarded with the Oscar for Best Director and as the film's producer, the Oscar for Best Picture. For his historical epic, he also won the Golden Globe as Best Director in 1983. He published his book In Search of Gandhi, another product of his fascination with the Indian leader.
Attenborough then directed the screen version of the musical A Chorus Line (Richard Attenborough, 1985) and the anti-apartheid drama Cry Freedom (Richard Attenborough, 1987), based on the life and death of the prominent anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko and the experiences of Donald Woods. He was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Director for both films.
His more recent films as director and producer include the underrated Chaplin (Richard Attenborough, 1992) starring Robert Downey, Jr. as Charlie Chaplin and Shadowlands (Richard Attenborough, 1993), based on the relationship between C.S. Lewis (Anthony Hopkins) and Joy Gresham (Debra Winger).
He made his come-back as an actor as the eccentric owner of a dinosaur theme park in Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993) and the sequel, The Lost World: Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1997).
He also starred in the remake of Miracle on 34th Street (Les Mayfield, 1994). Since then he has made occasional appearances in supporting roles, including as Sir William Cecil in the historical drama Elizabeth (Shekhar Kapur,1998) with Cate Blanchett, Jacob in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (David Mallet, 1999) and as The Narrator in the film adaptation of Spike Milligan's comedy book Puckoon (Terence Ryan 2002).
He made his only appearance in a Shakespeare film when he played the British ambassador who announces that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead at the end of Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet (1996).
British postcard by Show Parade Picture Service, London, in the series 'The People', no. P1065. Photo: J. Arthur Rank Organisation Ltd.
Entirely Up to You, Darling
Richard Attenborough had been married to English actress Sheila Sim since 1945. With his wife, they founded the Richard and Sheila Attenborough Visual Arts Centre.
He also founded the Jane Holland Creative Centre for Learning at Waterford Kamhlaba in Swaziland in memory of his elder daughter. Jane Holland, her mother-in-law, and her 15-year-old daughter Lucy were killed in 2004 when a tsunami caused by the Indian Ocean earthquake struck Khao Lak, Thailand where they were holidaying.
Attenborough had two other children, Michael and Charlotte, an actress. Michael is a theatre director and the Artistic director of the Almeida Theatre in London.
In 1967, Richard Attenborough was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE). He was knighted in 1976 and in 1993 he was made a life peer as Baron Attenborough, of Richmond upon Thames. At 84, he made his last film as director and producer, Closing the Ring (Richard Attenborough, 2007).
According to Jason Buchanan at AllMovie, “Sixty-five years after making his screen debut as a young stoker in co-directors Noël Coward and David Lean's World War II drama In Which We Serve, Richard Attenborough perfects the balance between epic story and intimate tale with this drama starring Shirley MacLaine and Neve Campbell as a mother and daughter who find a relic from the past sparking an incendiary series of events.”
Attenborough served as vice president (1973–1995) and president (2002–2010) of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts and as president of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (2003– ). For 33 years he was President of the Muscular Dystrophy campaign, and he is also the patron of the United World Colleges movement. He passionately believes in education, primarily education that does not judge upon colour, race, creed or religion.
In 2008 Attenborough published, in association with his long standing associate Diana Hawkins, an informal autobiography Entirely Up to You, Darling.
Later that year he entered hospital with heart problems and was fitted with a pacemaker. In December 2008 he suffered a fall at his home after a stroke, and went into a coma, but came out of it within a few days. Shortly before her 90th birthday, in June 2012 Sheila Sim entered the actors' home Denville Hall, for which she and Attenborough had helped raise funds.
In March 2013, in light of his deteriorating health, Attenborough moved into Denville Hall to be with his wife. Richard Attenborough passed away on 24 August 2014 at the age of 90.
Scene from Brighton Rock (1947). Source: Legendy2k (YouTube).
Trailer for Gandhi (1982). Source: 05HK09 (YouTube).
Sources: Sergio Angelini (Directors in British and Irish Cinema), Jason Buchanan (AllMovie), Encyclopaedia Britannica, AllMovie, Wikipedia and IMDb.