Film-maker Richard Attenborough dies aged 90

Oscar-winner directed ‘Gandhi’, ‘Cry Freedom’ and ‘Oh! What a Lovely War’

British actor and film director Richard Attenborough died on Sunday, August 24th, aged 90. He was a director as well as an actor, remembered for his role as a theme park owner in 'Jurassic Park' which he also directed. Video: Universal Pictures

Mon, Aug 25, 2014, 09:02

Richard Attenborough, the film director who chronicled the end of British colonial rule in India with his Oscar-winning epic Gandhi and performed in more than 50 films, has died aged 90

Attenborough, who was knighted in 1976, acted in 45 movies before he turned to directing. His 1982 cinematic tale about Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi won eight Academy Awards, including ones for directing and best picture. They were the only Oscars he would win in his six-decade career.

The brother of David Attenborough, the naturalist and documentary maker, made his directorial debut in 1969 with a film based on the musical Oh! What a Lovely War. He followed up with Young Winston (1972), a biography of Winston Churchill’s early years, and with second World War drama A Bridge Too Far (1977).

Scene from '10 Rillington Place'

None of those movies stirred the passions that accompanied his 20-year battle to make a film about Gandhi, the charismatic Indian leader who espoused nonviolent resistance and was murdered in 1948 soon after gaining his country’s independence.

In 1962, Attenborough met an Indian official in London who urged him to make a film about Gandhi. Though he knew Gandhi had been assassinated, Attenborough was “utterly ignorant as to where he was born, where he had lived or the kind of life he had led,” the filmmaker wrote in In Search of Gandhi (1982).

Nonetheless, he was hooked. Over the next two decades, he made many trips to India, winning the approval of prime ministers Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi for the project. He gained financing promises from UK and Hollywood studios, independent producers and even an Indian maharajah on the strength of the script.

Nudged aside

All his efforts came to nothing. In the late 1970s, he was nudged aside when director David Lean said he wanted to make the movie. At the last moment, Lean and his would-be scriptwriter backed out and Attenborough was approached again. This time, the stars were favourably aligned: financial backers came through and he managed to cut the five-hour shooting script to 191 minutes.

After years of struggle, shooting began on November 26th, 1980, in India and ended 121 days later. Attenborough was born on August 29th, 1923, in Cambridge, the eldest of three sons. To the distress of his father, a university professor, he bypassed college to attend the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, graduating in 1942. He showed talent as a drama student, winning the part of a deserting seaman in Noel Coward’s film In Which We Serve in 1942. He was cast as a hoodlum in Brighton Rock, a Graham Greene play, reprising the role in the film version in 1947.

While studying drama, he met actress Sheila Sim, whom he married in 1945. They starred together in the original cast of Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap, a murder mystery that opened in 1952 and is still playing in London.

Deft touch

As an actor, Attenborough showed a deft touch in Private’s Progress (1956), in which he played a scam artist, and in the satire I’m All Right, Jack (1959), which starred Peter Sellers. He also appeared in The Great Escape (1963), The Sand Pebbles (1966), Doctor Doolittle (1967) and in two of Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park movies. Though he received some of his best reviews as serial killer John Christie in 10 Rillington Place (1971), his acting career tailed off with his growing involvement in producing and directing.

By then, he had produced Whistle Down the Wind (1961) and Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964). After Gandhi, he went on to direct “Cry Freedom” (1987) – the story of the murdered South African civil-rights activist Steve Biko – and Chaplin (1992), starring Robert Downey Jr.

He served as chairman of the British Film Institute from 1981 to 1992. He is survived by his wife and son Michael, a theatee director, and daughter Charlotte, an actress. Daughter Jane Holland died in a 2004 tsunami while travelling in Thailand.

Attenborough had been in a nursing home with his wife for a number of years. – (Bloomberg)