Richard Attenborough, the veteran British actor who appeared in films such as The Great Escape and Jurassic Park, as well as directing classic films such as Gandhi, which earned him two Academy Awards, has died in London. He was 90.
Lord Attenborough, brother of the naturalist Sir David, spent his last few years at an aged care facility, along with his wife, Sheila Sim, who has dementia. He’d suffered a stroke several years earlier and had been confined to a wheelchair.
British Prime Minister David Cameron paid tribute to the star on Twitter, saying “His acting in Brighton Rock was brilliant, his directing of Gandhi was stunning – Richard Attenborough was one of the greats of cinema”.
A strong social conscience was a hallmark of Richard Attenborough’s life and career.
He was a tireless fundraiser, chairing several charities including one for muscular dystrophy. He signed up for the RAF and trained as a pilot before being seconded to the film unit. That training no doubt helped when he starred as the navigator in the 1965 drama Flight of the Phoenix. He was also passionate about education, founding the Richard and Sheila Attenborough Visual Arts Centre and supporting the United World Colleges Movement in Africa.
When this daughter, Jane Holland and granddaughter, Lucy, were killed in the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, they paid tribute with a college named in Jane’s honour in Swaziland.
It also led him to make the social justice films Cry Freedom, about the murdered South African anti-apartheid campaigner Steve Biko, and the 1982 epic Gandhi, which received an astonishing eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director for Attenborough. The film used up to 20,000 extras in some scenes.
Richard Attenborough was born in Cambridge, England in 1924, one of three brothers. He began acting at age 18, garnering critical attention in 1947 as the gangster Pinkie Brown in the film adaptation of Graham Green’s Brighton Rock.
He appeared in around 80 films in a six-decade career, peaking in 1959 when he starred in five films. His characters often appeared timid and cowardly, but as both Pinkie Brown, and later the serial killer John Christie in 1971’s 10 Rillington Place, Attenborough – who joked his was the original “luvvy” and prone to cry easily – demonstrated he could also deliver considerable menace. His later years saw him return to loveable roles, beginning with the eccentric John Hammond in Jurassic Park in 1993, and its sequel, The Lost World, then as Kris Kringle in the remake of Miracle on 34th Street. His final acting role was in 2002 as the narrator of Puckoon, based on Spike Milligan’s comic novel.
Lord Attenborough also appeared on stage, starring in the original production of Agatha Christie’s play The Mousetrap and as a film producer, he has 13 films to his credit.
His award-winning career as a director is long and distinguished, beginning in 1969 with Oh What A Lovely War! among a dozen films. He seemed to specialise in bio-pics, with Sir Winston Churchill’s life playing a key role, firstly in his second feature, Young Winston, and his final film, in 2007, Closing the Ring. In between he directed Robert Downey Jr in the lead role of Chaplin, which was a commercial flop, and in 1993, Anthony Hopkins as the Narnia chronicles author CS Lewis in Shadowlands.
Richard Attenborough was knighted in 1973 and made a Lord in 1993. He is survived by his wife and two of his three children, theatre director Michael and actor Charlotte.
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