Lord Richard Attenborough, the respected British actor and Academy Award-winning director of “Gandhi,” the multiple-Oscar-winning best picture of 1982, has died. He was 90.
Attenborough died Sunday, his son Michael told the BBC in London. No cause was given, but he had been in poor health after a fall in 2008.
Once described by Variety as “one of the stoutest pillars of the British film industry,” Attenborough was an alumnus of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and a World War II veteran who became a familiar screen face in postwar British films.
One of his most notable early roles was Pinkie Brown, a psychopathic young gang leader, in the 1947 crime-thriller “Brighton Rock” — a starring role that Attenborough originated on the London stage four years earlier.
Over more than six decades he appeared in more than 70 films, including “Guns at Batasi,” “The Great Escape,” “Seance on a Wet Afternoon,” “The Flight of the Phoenix,” “The Sand Pebbles,” “Doctor Dolittle,” “10 Rillington Place,” “Brannigan,” “Jurassic Park,” “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” and the 1994 remake of “Miracle on 34th Street,” in which he played Kris Kringle.
Affectionately known as Dickie, Attenborough made his directorial debut in 1969 with “Oh! What a Lovely War,” a musical satire of World War I.
Known as a “socially engaged” filmmaker who often focused on major historical figures, he went on to direct 11 other films. Among them were “Young Winston,” “A Bridge Too Far,” “Magic,” “A Chorus Line,” “Cry Freedom,” “Chaplin” and “Shadowlands.”
“Gandhi,” Attenborough’s 1982 film about the life of Mohandas Gandhi, the nonviolent spiritual and political leader of India’s fight for independence from British rule, won eight Academy Awards, including a best actor Oscar for Ben Kingsley.
With “Gandhi,” Attenborough not only won the Oscar for best director but, as the film’s producer, he also took home the best picture Oscar.
“Gandhi,” The Times of London reported in 1993, earned “more Oscars and a bigger international market than any British film before.”
The epic movie was the culmination of Attenborough’s 20-year effort to bring Gandhi’s life story to the big screen, an obsession that began when he read a biography of him in 1962.
“Every career decision I’ve made since then has been tempered by my love affair with this one project,” Attenborough told the New York Times in 1981. “I’ve given up 40 acting roles and a dozen directing assignments to pursue it.”
During Attenborough’s pursuit, four screenwriters worked on scripts for the proposed movie, which numerous film companies rejected for being totally uncommercial.
To keep his Gandhi project alive, Attenborough is said to have mortgaged his house, sold his cars, hocked his paintings and taken roles in what he deemed “crap movies.”
At one point, as Newsweek reported in 1982, Attenborough turned down an offer from Laurence Olivier to become associate director of the National Theatre in London because, as Attenborough explained, “it would have meant giving up ‘Gandhi’ forever.”
Attenborough — he was knighted in 1976 and became Lord Attenborough in 1993 — was known to cheerfully downplay his achievements as a director.
He once told the London Times that his filmmaking “style is preconceived … a bit mundane. I sometimes wish I had been a bit more unconventional.”
In a 2003 interview with Variety, he said: “I’m not a pyrotechnical director; I’m not good with all those innovative things. What I am interested in is how actors can touch the heads and hearts of an audience.
“If you have a piece of subject matter like ‘Cry Freedom’ [his 1987 film about black South African activist Stephen Biko], where I desperately, desperately want to express my horror and opposition to apartheid, the only way to do it is to direct.
“There are things I want to say: They are very important to me, and, not being a writer, I do it through movies.”
Born in Cambridge, England, on Aug. 29, 1923, Attenborough was the eldest of three brothers whose father was principal of University College in Leicester.
Attenborough and his brothers, John and David — David became a noted broadcaster and naturalist — grew up in a home in which both parents were politically and socially active.
“I lived in an atmosphere where Mama brought 60 Basque refugee children to England during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s,” Attenborough said in a 1999 interview with the British newspaper The Journal. “My father and mother were responsible for bringing many Jewish people out of Germany, some on to the staff of the university.”
Indeed, he recalled, he and his brothers “suddenly acquired two sisters. My parents adopted these two Jewish girls who were meant to be reunited with their parents who were in a concentration camp, and who, of course, never were [reunited].”
Attenborough first became interested in acting at age 11 when his father took him to London to see Charlie Chaplin’s silent film classic “The Gold Rush.”
“I was devastated by the skills of an actor who could make you laugh and cry at the same time,” Attenborough told the San Francisco Chronicle in 1993, after the release of his movie “Chaplin,” starring Robert Downey Jr.
After first appearing in grammar-school productions and then performing regularly with the local amateur dramatic society, Attenborough won a competitive scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in London in 1940.
While at RADA, where his acting earned him the prestigious annual Bancroft Medal, he made his film debut playing a terrified sailor in Noel Coward and David Lean’s “In Which We Serve,” a 1942 World War II drama about a British destroyer.
Soon after leaving the academy in 1942, he made his West End debut in Clifford Odets’ “Awake and Sing.” He played significant roles in a handful of West End productions before enlisting in the Royal Air Force in 1943.
After a stint in the RAF’s film production unit — during which he played a leading role in “Journey Together,” a tale of RAF cadets — he spent the rest of the war flying film reconnaissance missions over Germany.
In January 1945, Attenborough married actress Sheila Sim, with whom he had three children, Jane, Charlotte and Michael.
Both Attenborough and his wife were original cast members of “The Mousetrap,” the Agatha Christie murder mystery that opened in London in 1952. Attenborough played Det. Sgt. Trotter for two years. Known as the world’s longest-running stage production, “The Mousetrap” is still being performed.
Unhappy with the quality of many of the films he was appearing in during the ’50s, Attenborough teamed with his close friend, actor-screenwriter Bryan Forbes, to found the independent production company Beaver Films in 1959.
The first film they produced was “The Angry Silence,” a 1960 drama about factory unrest for which Attenborough played the critically acclaimed central role.
He and Forbes also joined director Guy Green, actor Jack Hawkins and producers Basil Dearden and Michael Relph to launch Allied Film Makers.
Among the films for which Attenborough served as producer over the next few years were the Forbes-directed “Whistle Down the Wind,” “The L-Shaped Room” and “Seance on a Wet Afternoon.”
Once described by a British newspaper as being “the major statesman of British cinema,” Attenborough served as chairman of the board of governors of the British Film Institute, president of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, president of the British Screen Advisory Council and president of the British National Film and Television School.
Among other things, he also was chairman and president of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, chairman of Channel Four Television, chancellor of the University of Sussex, a trustee of the Tate Gallery and a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador.
“His public image is of a passionate, impetuous, concerned, kindly, generous man — an idealist dedicated to human principles and utterly free of cynicism,” film critic David Robinson, who served as a consultant on “Chaplin,” told Variety in 1995. “The biggest surprise is that the real man is not much different.”
Attenborough’s daughter, Jane Holland, and his granddaughter, Lucy, were killed in the 2004 tsunami caused by an earthquake in the Indian Ocean.
Besides his son Michael, Attenborough is survived by his wife, daughter Charlotte and his brother David.
McLellan is a former Times staff writer.