Richard Attenborough will be identified with different characters for each generation of filmgoers over the last half-century or more, forever in our memories threatening people in Brighton, striding through the lush greenery of Isla Nublar or playing Father Christmas himself. But his career is filled with great work on both sides of the camera, so to celebrate the man affectionately known as “Dickie”, we take a look at some of his greatest moments on-screen and off...
In 1940, Attenborough won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, where he met his future wife Sheila Sim (pictured) and which furthered his stage career: he appeared in a production of Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness! in 1942 while still a student. Attenborough had been performing on stage since his youth, bitten by the acting bug early and supported by his father who encouraged him to study the craft. Less than a year into his infant stage career he was awarded the Bancroft Medal for fine acting. Following his time at RADA, he enlisted in the RAF and became part of its newly founded Film Unit.
Attenborough began acting on screen in 1942 in David Lean’s In Which We Serve, and then paid his dues through the next few years with smaller roles and one or two uncredited parts. His career began to gain momentum when, in 1946, he signed a contract with producers John and Ray Boulting which led to him reprising the stage role of “Pinkie” Brown, delivering a scarred, terrifying performance as the small-time gangster with big ideas. It’s just one of his great character pieces, which he took, as he told the Guardian in 2008, because “I'm 4" 2', and not exactly a matinee idol.”
Following a period littered with disappointing films, Attenborough returned to the stage, appearing in shows such as To Dorothy, A Son, Double Image and, most famously, becoming part of the original cast for long-running West End production The Mousetrap. In 1956, the Boultings helped him out of the cinematic doldrums with social satires that included Private’s Progress and its sequel, I’m All Right Jack, in which he starred alongside Terry-Thomas, Ian Carmichael, Peter Sellers and Margaret Rutherford.
Trying to take charge of his career and drawing on his natural charisma to put projects together, Attenborough formed a production company in the late 1950s with friend Bryan Forbes. The results included The Angry Silence in 1960 (*pictured, with ***Pier Angeli), The League Of Gentlemen the same year and Whistle Down The Wind in 1961. He also appeared in all three to help boost the films’ chances, even if it meant taking an uncredited role. Those and other movies, including Séance On A Wet Afternoon and Guns At Batasi, helped further his success on both sides of the camera.
Along with the films he produced, his supporting turn as a stalwart commander in 1963’s The Great Escape raised Attenborough's profile in the United States, leading to a run of great character work in The Flight Of The Phoenix (pictured) and The Sand Pebbles, among others. In 1967, he appeared and sang in Doctor Dolittle, which led to a Golden Globe for supporting actor. "In the end I wanted to put my name on the bottom of the page,” he said. “That's all I care about."
With the producing side of the business mastered, Attenborough's ambitions extended further behind the camera, and he began to put the pieces together to direct his first film. In true Attenborough style, he brought along a few friends to help coerce the money from studios and financiers, with Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, John Mills and Michael Redgrave putting the case to Paramount for Oh! What A Lovely War (pictured), adapted from the musical about members of the same family who head off into combat in World War I. It won five BAFTAs and took home the Golden Globe for Best English Language Foreign Film. He followed the film with A Bridge Too Far, but possibly his greatest achievement was still to come.
The story of Indian pacifist leader Mohandas K. Gandhi was a driving interest for Attenborough. He tried for 20 years to make the movie and got his chance only after David Lean abandoned a similar project. Attenborough put up his house as collateral, sold his cars, turned down lucrative positions and took various acting jobs to help finance his dream, even agreeing to direct 1978 horror thriller Magic so he could curry favour with producer Joseph E. Levine. Despite rejections from several studios, he scored financing help from Goldcrest Films and India’s National Film Development Corp. and cast Ben Kingsley in the lead role. The rest is cinematic history, with the film going on to win eight Oscars, including two for Attenborough’s work as director and producer. To read Attenborough’s full account of the struggle, seek out In Search Of Gandhi, which he published in 1982.
Gandhi was not the only crusader whose life Attenborough chronicled. He also shot this 1987 drama based on the story of journalist Donald Woods, who was forced from South Africa after investigating the suspicious death in custody of activist Steve Biko, with Kevin Kline as Woods and Denzel Washington as Biko. "When I initially read the script and sat down with Dickie, he was saying that he didn't want to preach to the converted,” Washington told The Philadelphia Inquirer. “Obviously, there aren't many converted. This film, if they see it, will force people to at least come to grips with it on an emotional level." The film was nominated for three Oscars.
After a failure to get a dream project about American political radical Thomas Paine off the ground, Attenborough and producing partner Diana Hawkins returned to the UK to lick their wounds and consider their next move. Attenborough wrote a list of subjects he was interested in tackling and Hawkins realised that Chaplin’s life and career fulfilled all the criteria. “She read his autobiography and one of the authorised biographies and wrote a 20-page outline,” he recalled around the time of the film’s release. “It was one of the most wonderful presents I’ve ever received. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought of it before.” The resulting 1992 film wasn’t a huge success, but it scored a young Robert Downey Jr. an Oscar nomination.
As he began to focus more on directing and producing – bringing us films including Puckoon, In Love And War, Grey Owl and Shadowlands – Attenborough cut back on his acting commitments. But Steven Spielberg was able to convince him to take on the role of Walt-Disney-alike theme-park backer John Hammond for Jurassic Park, a man who has graduated from flea circuses to a facility housing cloned dinosaurs. Attenborough is perfect in the role: impish, enthusiastic and channelling more than a little of himself. Of course, Hammond’s dream becomes more of a nightmare, but the actor keeps him relatable. “Dickie Attenborough was passionate about everything in his life: family, friends, country and career,” Spielberg said following word of his death. “He made a gift to the world with his emotional epic Gandhi and he was the perfect ringmaster to bring the dinosaurs back to life as John Hammond in Jurassic Park. He was a dear friend and I am standing in an endless line of those who completely adored him.”