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Remembering Richard Attenborough, Giant and Champion of British Stage and Screen

THR's Scott Feinberg reflects on the matinee idol-turned-filmmaker who became one of the finest actors' directors of his time, guiding four thesps to the Oscars

Richard Attenborough Coretta Scott King Nonviolent Peace Award - H 2014
AP Images
Richard Attenborough with Coretta Scott King

People on both sides of the Atlantic — including many in the biz — are mourning the death this weekend of Richard Attenborough, one of the most talented and likable actors and directors of the British stage and screen, and a fierce champion of the arts in Britain, less than a week shy of his 91st birthday.

Attenborough, who was widely known as "Dickie," enjoyed a career that spanned nearly three-quarters of a century. Although he is best remembered for directing, producing and willing to reality the epic biopic Gandhi (1982), which garnered him Oscars for best director (he's one of only 63 men or women ever awarded that prize) and for best picture (his film beat E.T. and Tootsie, among others), his career in the movies actually began 40 years before that.

After winning a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art at the age of 16, Attenborough graduated and made his big-screen debut at the age of 19 in the British propaganda film In Which We Serve (1942) and seemed to be on his way. A year later, though, with World War II underway, he began serving in the British Royal Air Force, for which he served as a cameraman documenting bombing targets before and after missions.

After the war ended, Attenborough won a plum part in a film that he had played on the London stage before his time in the service: as the sociopathic Pinkie Brown in John Boulting's Brighton Rock (1947), a film-noir adaptation of the dark Graham Greene novel of the same title. The film — which was remade in 2010 by Rowan Joffe, with Sam Riley in the Attenborough part — turned the youngster into something of a matinee idol and box-office attraction.

After years of working in British films of varying quality, Attenborough came to the attention of Americans as part of the large and star-studded ensembles of three guy's-guy action movies: John Sturges' The Great Escape (1963), in which he played the British POW mastermind of the titular plot opposite his pal Steve McQueen; Robert Aldrich's The Flight of the Phoenix (1965), in which he was Jimmy Stewart's alcoholic navigator; and Robert Wise's The Sand Pebbles (1966), which reunited him with McQueen.

He also did fine work as the male lead in the dark crime-thriller Seance on a Wet Afternoon (1964), which was directed by Bryan Forbes under the banner of his and Forbes' production company, Beaver Films. And he played a key supporting role — a circus master — in Richard Fleischer's best picture Oscar nominee Doctor Dolittle (1967).

Around that time, he transitioned, more or less, into a full-time director. His directorial debut was the musical Oh! What a Lovely War (1969), followed not long after by the star-studded World War II pic A Bridge Too Far (1977). But it was for Gandhi, a film that he had fought to make since reading a bio about the Indian leader in 1962, that he received his first real recognition as a top-notch filmmaker.

Gandhi was an epic of the sort that had been fashionable during the ’50s and ’60s but then had been displaced by smaller, grittier works in the ensuing decades. Nevertheless, Attenborough felt it was a story that needed to be told and for which audiences would show up — and he put his money where his mouth was, mortgaging his home, selling his car and auctioning many of his most valuable possessions in order to help it reach its $22 million budget.

Many predicted that the pic, in which a then-unknown actor named Ben Kingsley was cast as Gandhi, was bound to be a bomb. Instead, it grossed $52.8 million (remaining in the box-office top 10 for 17 weeks), thanks in no small part to the members of the Academy, who yearned for films of this sort, championing it in a big way (more than 50 percent of its gross came after the announcement of Oscar nominations). It landed 11 Oscar noms, a tally bettered by only 26 other films before or since, and ended up winning eight — including best picture and best director for Attenborough and best actor for Kingsley — which is more than all but seven other films before or since.

If some at the time thought that the success of that film — with its massive crowd scenes and huge sets (all real, no CGI), bettered only by its performances — was a fluke, then Attenborough quickly put those doubts to rest by proving himself one of the top actors' directors around.

Over the next decade, he guided three more thesps to Oscar noms. Two had never previously received Academy recognition — Denzel Washington, who garnered a best supporting actor nom for his portrayal of apartheid-era icon Steve Biko in Cry Freedom (1987), and Robert Downey Jr., who got a best actor nomination for his work as Charlie Chaplin, the man whose work in The Gold Rush had made Attenborough want to become an actor, in Chaplin (1992). One had: Debra Winger, who landed her second best actress nom for Shadowlands (1993), a film of which he was particularly proud.

If younger moviegoers probably know Attenborough at all, it is probably for one of three performances that he gave in the 1990s: as a genetic tinkerer who clones dinosaurs in Steven Spielberg's smash hit Jurassic Park (1993); as Kris Kringle, the same role for which Edmund Gwenn won an Oscar, in a remake of Miracle on 34th Street (1994); and as the principal advisor to Cate Blanchett's titular queen in Elizabeth (1998). Little do they realize that the kindly old man with the gap-toothed smile and the snow-white beard was a fixture of the screen before they or their parents or even many of their grandparents were around.

But, know it or not, the fact of the matter is that through Attenborough's work in films, as well as his tireless, selfless and essential work on behalf of England's artistic community — as, among other things, a chairman of the BFI, BAFTA and Channel Four, president of RADA, trustee of the Tate Gallery and Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF — he has made an indelible mark.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg