Obituary: Richard Attenborough / Directed 'Gandhi,' cloned dinosaurs in 'Jurassic Park'

Aug. 29, 1923 - Aug. 24, 2014

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Richard Attenborough, a baby-faced actor whose growing annoyance at playing “psychopaths and little squirts” led him to become a filmmaker who won Academy Awards as director and producer of “Gandhi,” died Sunday in London. He was 90.

His family announced the death but did not give a cause.

Mr. Attenborough, who was knighted for his film work years before he completed “Gandhi” in 1982, also was known for his role as the scientist-entrepreneur who clones dinosaur DNA in Steven Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park” in 1993.

He had long been considered one of the most versatile and compelling of British character actors, but it was “Gandhi,” a project he had spent 20 years pursuing, for which he is chiefly remembered and that remains one of the greatest acts of a filmmaker’s creative perseverance.

Mr. Attenborough said that, among other obstacles, he had to overcome producers’ skepticism that no one would pay to see an epic-length drama about Mohandas K. Gandhi, the assassinated nonviolence advocate from India, also known as Mahatma Gandhi, who led his country to independence from English rule.

A 1963 Hollywood film, “Nine Hours to Rama,” starring Horst Buchholz as Gandhi’s killer, flopped.

Mr. Attenborough told Newsweek: “They were all terrified of the subject matter, they thought it was totally uncommercial, they wanted a major movie name to play the lead, and I was absolutely determined not to have a star in the part. At one point, Paramount [Pictures] actually said they’d give me the money if Richard Burton could play Gandhi.”

Mr. Attenborough insisted on giving the title role to Ben Kingsley, an acclaimed Anglo-Indian stage actor with the Royal Shakespeare Company. The performance won Mr. Kingsley the Oscar for best actor and launched his film career.

“Gandhi” won eight Oscars and proved a success at the box office, but the majority of reviewers were less kind, describing the film as heavy-handed and self-important with a picture-postcard view of India’s teeming misery.

Richard Samuel Attenborough was born Aug. 29, 1923, in Cambridge, England. He was the oldest of three sons born to Frederick Levi Attenborough. His father wrote a definitive text on Anglo-Saxon law and became head of University College in Leicester.

As a young man, “Dickie” Attenborough became smitten with acting after watching Charlie Chaplin onscreen in “The Gold Rush.”

By 12, he was producing a variety show at his church. His continuing involvement in amateur dramatics led to a scholarship to attend the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London.

Entertainer Noel Coward went to the school to oversee auditions for “In Which We Serve” and cast Mr. Attenborough, then 19, in a small but memorable role of a sailor who loses his nerve in battle.

Mr. Attenborough’s breakthrough performance was in “Brighton Rock,” based on a Graham Greene novel, in which he played a teenage gangster in a seaside resort town who preys on an innocent girl. The film resulted in a run of other sinister parts, including the smuggler in “The Ship That Died of Shame” (1955) and the British serial killer John Reginald Christie in “10 Rillington Place” (1971).

In 1952, he originated the role of Detective Sergeant Trotter in Agatha Christie’s stage thriller “The Mousetrap,” which became the longest-running play in theater history. His 10 percent stake in the show, which continues to play in London, helped cover a great deal of financing for “Gandhi.”

His co-star in the Agatha Christie murder mystery was Sheila Sim, whom he married in 1945. She is among his survivors, which also include two children and two brothers, one of which is David Attenborough, a prominent naturalist and TV host. His daughter and a granddaughter were killed in the 2004 South Asian tsunami.

“Brighton Rock” was a rare starring part for Mr. Attenborough, whose baby face, thinning blond hair and diminutive build disqualified him from traditional leading man roles, leading him to move behind the camera.

He formed a production partnership with actor-writer Bryan Forbes to make “The Angry Silence” in 1960, a film that again put Mr. Attenborough at the center of the screen.

The Forbes-Attenborough team made a succession of well-received dramas in the early 1960s, most notably “Seance on a Wet Afternoon,” which became an unexpected hit in the United States.

Mr. Attenborough also portrayed the mastermind of an escape plot from a German prisoner-of-war camp in “The Great Escape” with Steve McQueen, and Mr. McQueen’s shipboard pal in “The Sand Pebbles,” a 1966 film set on an American gunboat in China during the 1920s.

He played the alcoholic plane navigator in “The Flight of the Phoenix” (1965) opposite James Stewart; a haughty Scotland Yard official in “Brannigan” (1975) opposite John Wayne; and the greedy circus owner in the musical “Doctor Dolittle” (1967), in which he sang “I’ve Never Seen Anything Like It.”

More recently, a year after “Jurassic Park,” Mr. Attenborough played the department store Santa who claims to be the real Kris Kringle in a remake of “Miracle on 34th Street.”

A former chairman of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, he never failed to attract a lineup of first-rate actors in movies he directed and produced. Examples include Laurence Olivier (“Oh! What a Lovely War,” 1969), Anthony Hopkins (“Shadowlands,” 1993), Denzel Washington and Kevin Kline (“Cry Freedom,” 1987), Robert Downey Jr. (“Chaplin,” 1992) and Dirk Bogarde (“A Bridge Too Far,” 1977).

Mr. Attenborough, who was knighted in 1976, was active in the Tate Gallery and the Chelsea Football Club soccer team.

“Gandhi” brought him the Martin Luther King Jr. Nonviolent Peace Prize.

“I want cinema to contribute to argument, to antagonism, to anger, whatever, but always related to human affairs and human decency,” he said.

Denzel Washington - england - london - Asia - India - South Asia - Europe - Western Europe - Steven Spielberg - Martin Luther King Jr. - United Kingdom - Ben Kingsley - Robert Downey Jr. - Adam Bernstein - John Wayne - Kevin Kline - Peter Sellers - Laurence Olivier - Richard Attenborough - Mahatma Gandhi - Richard Burton - Charlie Chaplin - Noel Coward - Graham Greene - Agatha Christie - David Attenborough - Roald Dahl - Judith Crist - Steve McQueen - Jimmy Stewart - Anthony Hopkins


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