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Colin Welland dies at 81; Oscar-winning writer of 'Chariots of Fire'

Colin Welland dies at 81; Oscar-winning writer of 'Chariots of Fire'
British actor and writer Colin Welland, left, in 1982 accepts the Oscar for best screenplay for his work on "Chariots of Fire" from novelist Jerzy Kosinski. Welland famously quipped in his acceptance speech: "The British are coming!" (Associated Press)

At the 1982 Academy Awards, British screenwriter Colin Welland, who penned the hit film "Chariots of Fire," finished his short acceptance speech with the rallying cry, "The British are coming!"

And so they were. "Chariots of Fire", about two British Olympic Games heroes, won four Oscars, including best picture. And the following year, "Gandhi," whose co-producers, director and stars were British, took best picture honors.

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But "Chariots of Fire" turned out to be the pinnacle of Welland's writing career. He had just three writing credits on films after that, and several of his proposed projects died in development.

Welland, who was also an actor, was known for writing about real-life heroes. In a 1989 Sydney Morning Herald interview, he said the nature of heroism had changed in modern times, putting less emphasis on individuals. "It's all a bit complicated now," he said. "There's about 3,000 people putting men on the moon. You can't just do it any more; it's all scientific."

Welland, 81, died Monday, according to a family statement released by his London literary agent. He had suffered from Alzheimer's disease for several years.

Before "Chariots of Fire," he had only one feature film screenplay credit — for co-writing with Walter Bernstein the 1979 film "Yanks" starring Richard Gere, Vanessa Redgrave and Lisa Eichhorn. It was about the impact of American GIs on Britain during World War II, and was partly based on Welland's childhood experiences.

Los Angeles Times critic Charles Champlin praised the writing in "Yanks," saying the film is "subtle and surprising, its emotions strong yet far removed from the tonight-we-love-tomorrow-we-die simplicities of the genre."

"Chariots of Fire" producer David Puttnam asked Welland to look into the stories of two runners in the 1924 Olympics: Scottish missionary Eric Liddell, who refused to run in races on Sundays, and Jewish Cambridge student Harold Abrahams, who battled anti-Semitism.

Welland spent months researching their stories, even taking out newspaper ads seeking people who had participated in the Games held in Paris. He spoke to several athletes, but one of the most meaningful finds was a stack of letters written by an Olympian to his family. They expressed an unabashed love of sports for sports alone.

"I was absolutely amazed at the naivete of them," Welland said in a 1981 New York Times interview. "A 21-year-old man, writing in terms that in today's world would be naive to the point of being ridiculous."

It gave him the emotional tone for the screenplay.

"Colin's writing has a great lack of embarrassment," Puttnam told the L.A. Times in 1981. "English screenwriting is cool, it's blue if you like. Colin's writing isn't purple, but it has a lot of red and yellow."

He was born Colin Williams on July 4, 1934, in Leigh, near the city of Manchester. Because he showed early talent in drawing and painting, his father wanted him to become an art teacher. "I wanted to go on the stage, you see, but my dad had his feet firmly on the ground," Welland said on the BBC radio show "Desert Island Discs" in 1973. "He said, be an art teacher first ... and if you don't like that, then go on to the stage. So, that's what I did."

He joined a theater company in Manchester and in the late 1960s appeared on British TV shows. His big break as a film actor was playing the role of a teacher in the 1969 dramatic film "Kes" for which he won a British Academy Film Award. He went on to play a reverend in Sam Peckinpah's violent "Straw Dogs" (1971).

Welland wrote stage plays and for several TV series in the late 1960s and 1970s. In his Oscar speech, he thanked "British television, where I learned my craft."

Following "Chariots of Fire," he received writing credits on feature films "Twice in a Lifetime" (1985), "A Dry White Season" (1989) and "War of the Buttons" (1994). He had acting roles into the late 1990s.

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According to British news reports, he is survived by his wife, Patricia, four children and six grandchildren.

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