Born August 29, 1923 in Cambridge, England, Richard (Samuel) Attenborough was the son of May (née Clegg), a founding member of the Marriage Guidance Council and Frederick Levi Attenborough, don at Emmanuel College and author of a standard text on Anglo-Saxon law. The family later moved to Leicester where his father was appointed principal of the University. The future actor and director received his education at Wyggeston School for Boys and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA).
Attenborough made his film debut in an uncredited role in 1942’s In Which We Serve. Alternating between stage, screen, and radio, he married actress Sheila Sim in 1945 with whom he would have three children. Outstanding among his early screen performances were those in 1946’s A Matter of Life and Death, 1948’s Brighton Rock, and 1951’s The Magic Box. In 1952, he and Sim appeared on stage together in the original cast of Agatha Christie’s long-running play, The Mousetrap.
The actor’s reputation continued to grow with roles in such films as 1958’s Dunkirk, 1959’s I’m Alright Jack, 1960’s The Angry Silence and The League of Gentlemen, 1962’s Only Two Can Play, and 1963’s box-office sensation, The Great Escape.
Attenborough won the BAFTA for Best British actor for his performances in two 1964 films, Guns at Batasi and Séance on a Wet Afternoon. He then won back-to-back Golden Globes for his supporting roles in 1966’s The Sand Pebbles and 1967’s Doctor Dolittle. He received his first BAFTA nomination as Best Director for his directorial debut with 1969’s Oh! What a Lovely War.
Continuing as an actor in such films as 1971’s 10 Rillington Place, 1975’s Conduct Unbecoming, and 1979’s The Human Factor, Attenborough also directed three major films during the decade , 1972’s Young Winston, 1977’s A Bridge Too Far (his second BAFTA nod for direction) and 1978’s Magic. He was made a Knight of the British Empire in 1976.
Attenborough’s 1980s contributions to film were as the director of 1982’s Gandhi (for which he received Golden Globe, Oscar and BAFTA awards), 1985’s A Chorus Line, and 1987’s Cry Freedom. He revived his acting career in the 1990s with his performances in 1993’s Jurassic Park, 1994’s Miracle on 34th Street, 1996’s Hamlet, and 1998’s Elizabeth. He also directed four film during the decade, 1992’s Chaplin, 1993’s Shadowlands, 1996’s In Love and War, and 1999’s Grey Owl. He was made a baron in 1993 and served in Britain’s House of Lords until his death in 2014.
On December 26, 2004, Attenborough’s eldest daughter, her 81-year-old mother-in-law, and her 15-year-old daughter, were killed when a tsunami caused by an earthquake struck Khao Lak, Thailand, where they were spending the holidays.
In ill health in his last years, Richard Lord Attenborough died on August 24, 2014, five days before what would have been his 91st birthday.
THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963), directed by John Sturges
Attenborough shared star billing with Steve McQueen and James Garner in this rousing adventure film about a real-life planned escape from a German P.O.W. camp during World War II. All the prisoners were escapees from other prison camps who were gathered in what was supposed to be an escape-proof prison. What the Germans failed to realize was that they were dealing with escape experts who were even more determined to escape than the Germans were to hold them. Ultimately, though, this was a tragedy in which only 76 out of 250 escaped and 60 of them were recaptured, 50 of them murdered. Only a handful made it all the way out.
THE SAND PEBBLES (1960), directed by Robert Wise
McQueen and Attenborough were reunited for this adventure film set in 1926 China in which a gunboat is sent to rescue Americans at a mission. Attenborough won a Golden Globe for his portrayal of McQueen’s shipmate Frenchy, but he failed to secure one of the film’s 8 Oscar nominations which included those for Best Picture, Director, Actor (McQueen) and Supporting Actor (Mako). This was Robert Wise’s first film since his Oscar-winning megahit, The Sound of Music and the latest is a string of hits for Attenborough that also included Guns at Batasi and Séance on a Wet Afternoon.
OH! WHAT A LOVELY WAR (1969), directed by Richard Attenborough
The London and Broadway stage review, Oh, What a Lovely War! retained the show’s World War I song parodies in its transition to the big screen, but not the same punctuation in its title. The film follows the working-class Smith family, particularly its three sons as they navigate the trenches. Maggie Smith, the year’s Best Actress Oscar winner for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, is the standout among the major names in the cast, saucily belting out the recruitment song, “I’ll Make a Man of You”. The stellar cast also includes John Mills, Laurence Olivier, Vanessa Redgrave, and Susannah York.
GANDHI (1982), directed by Richard Attenborough
Attenborough’s passion project, Gandhi, took twenty years to bring to the screen. There was much concern how Gandhi, a virtual deity to many Indians, would be portrayed on screen. One female journalist suggested that Gandhi should only be shown as a brilliant white light moving across the screen, to which an exasperated Attenborough replied, “Madam, I am not making a film about bloody Tinkerbell!” The finished project won 8 out of the 11 Oscars it was nominated for, including Best Picture, Director (both with Attenborough’s name on them) and Best Actor, Ben Kingsley in his career high performance.
SHADOWLANDS (1993), directed by Richard Attenborough
Proving his versatility yet again, Attenborough was in front of the camera in 1993 in Steven Spielberg’s megahit, Jurassic Park, and behind the camera for 1993’s Shadowlands, starring Anthony Hopkins as writer C.S. Lewis. The film chronicles the romance between the world-renowned Christian theologian, writer, and professor who is awakened from his passionless existence by spirited American poet Joy Gresham, played by Debra Winger in an Oscar-nominated performance. Joe Mazzello, who played Attenborough’s grandson in Jurassic Park, plays Winger’s son.
RICHARD ATTENBOROUGH AND OSCAR
- Gandhi (1971) – Oscar – Best Picture
- Gandhi (1976) – Oscar – Best Director