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Obituary: Richard Attenborough

Richard Attenborough

Obituary by Jack Foley

FILM legend Richard Attenborough has died at the age of 90.

Widely revered as one of Britain’s leading actors, as well as a highly successful director, Lord Attenborough’s career spanned six decades and won him two Oscars for the film Ghandi (which he directed).

On screen, he will best be remembered for roles in the original Brighton Rock, as well as World War Two prisoner of war thriller The Great Escape (alongside Steve McQueen) and Steven Spielberg’s dinosaur blockbuster Jurassic Park.

Lord Attenborough had been in a nursing home with his wife for a number of years and was mostly confined to a wheelchair after falling down stairs six years ago.

His death was announced by his son on Sunday (August 24, 2014), who said that his father had passed away at lunchtime. A full statement is expected from his family on Monday.

The tributes were led by British Prime Minister David Cameron, who Tweeted: “His acting in Brighton Rock was brilliant, his directing of Gandhi was stunning – Richard Attenborough was one of the greats of cinema.”

Born Richard Samuel Attenborough on August 29, 1923, he was one of three brothers along with David, the no-less revered television naturalist, and John. Their father was principal of University College, Leicester, who instilled his sons with the values they would carry through their lives: namely the ability to do good by their fellow man.

Indeed, Richard’s parents put this into practice by adopting two Jewish refugee girls from Germany when World War II broke out.

Richard himself was politically active throughout his mature life but he also developed an early passion for the arts and pursued a career as an actor, making his film debut while still a drama student in 1942 by playing a cameo in Noel Coward’s In Which We Serve s a cowardly young stoker on a naval destroyer.

From then on, he never looked back – only stepping away from the industry for three years’ service in the RAF.

In 1947, he gave one of his most chilling performances as the teenage hoodlum and murderer Pinky in Brighton Rock, which continues to be cited as one of the movies’ great villains to this day.

Diversifying his time between film and the stage, he also became part of the original cast of Agatha Christie’s long-running stage play The Mousetrap, which continues to run in London’s West End.

Another classic role came as Bartlett in 1963 prison escape drama The Great Escape, in which he joined a starry ensemble that included Charles Bronson, James Garner, Donald Pleasance and McQueen, while one year later he won a best actor BAFTA for his portrayal of the downtrodden husband of a deranged spiritualist in Seance on a Wet Afternoon.

Part of Attenborough’s talent lay in his everyman appeal. But while generally endearing on-screen, he could also become a chilling villain, as evidenced again in the 1971 film, 10 Rillington Place, in which he played the mass murderer John Christie, an outwardly normal man hiding psychopathic tendencies.

In 1976, he was knighted for his services to entertainment but, by his own admission, had become frustrated with acting and wanted to have more artistic control over the material. Hence, he began producing films before making his first steps behind the camera as a director.

“Becoming a director enabled me to do things I couldn’t do as an actor,” he once said in an interview.

A passion project was Ghandi, which took 20 years to finance, and which starred Sir Ben Kingsley in the title role. Finally released in 1982, the film won eight Oscars, including best actor and best director, and thereby justifying the faith the director had placed in it (during which he mortgaged his house, sold possessions and took roles in films he described as ‘terrible crap’).

Prior to that, however, he did direct some other minor well-regarded gems, such as Joan Littlewood’s anti-war satire Oh! What a Lovely War, Young Winston, which chronicled Churchill’s early years, and the star-studded Second World War epic A Bridge Too Far.

Post-Ghandi, there was further critical acclaim for his adaptation of the musical A Chorus Line and the political drama Cry Freedom, which chronicled the story of the murdered South African black activist Steve Biko and Donald Woods, the white journalist who took up his cause.

Another favourite was Shadowlands, starring Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger, which told the story of children’s writer C S Lewis and his late love affair with American poet Joy Gresham.

While his later years saw him mostly operating behind the camera, Attenborough did occasionally step back into acting, most notably in Jurassic Park, where he portrayed the owner of the park in question.

He also starred as Santa Claus in Miracle on 34th Street and had a cameo role in 1998’s Elizabeth.

Away from cinema, he was an active member of various organisations – some film-related, others charitable and a few for personal pleasure.

Hence, he enjoyed affiliations at various points in his life with organisations such as The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, the British Film Institute, Capital Radio, Channel 4, the Tate Gallery, the Muscular Dystrophy Group and Chelsea Football Club (as a director, trustee, fellow, chairman or president).

He also enjoyed a long and happy marriage to the actress Sheila Sim, with whom he tied the knot in 1945 and shared three children, including the theatre director Michael Attenborough.

Tragedy struck the family in 2004, however, when the tsunami in Asia killed his 14-year-old granddaughter Lucy Holland, as well as his daughter and her mother-in-law, both called Jane.

Though grief-stricken he put a lot of energy into supporting the Khao Lak Appeal in aid of a Thai village struck by the tsunami, helping to raise more than £1 million.

He was appointed a CBE in 1967, knighted nine years later (in 1976) and was finally made a life peer in 1993.