City Connect celebrates the 88th birthday of The Rt Hon Lord Attenborough, CBE – better known as actor, producer and director Richard Attenborough. He became a life peer in 1993 and his title is Baron of Richmond upon Thames in the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames. He is an acclaimed actor, director and producer and has won countless awards over the years including BAFTAs, Oscars and Hollywood Golden Globes.
Lord Attenborough is probably best known as the director and producer of the film Gandhi which depicted the life and assassination of India’s great political and ideological leader Mahatma Gandhi. The film won 8 Oscars, 5 BAFTA Awards, 5 Hollywood Golden Globes and the Directors’ Guild of America Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement.
Lord Attenborough was born in Cambridge, England on 29 August 1923. He is the elder brother of naturalist and wildlife filmmaker Sir David Attenborough. His father was a don at Emmanuel College, Cambridge. During the Second World War Attenborough served in the Royal Air Force.
Lord Attenborough’s film career began in 1942 as a deserting sailor in In Which We Serve, a role which would help to type-cast him for many years as spivs or cowards in films like London Belongs to Me (1948), Morning Departure (1950), and his breakthrough role as a psychopathic young gangster in the film of Graham Greene’s novel Brighton Rock (1947). Lord Attenborough worked prolifically in British films for the next thirty years, and in the 1950s appeared in several successful comedies for John and Roy Boulting, including Private’s Progress (1956) and I’m All Right Jack (1959). Early in his stage career, Lord Attenborough starred in the London West End production of Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap, which went on to become the world’s longest-running stage production. Both he and his wife were among the original cast members of the production, which opened in 1952 and as of 2010 is still running.
In the 1960s, he expanded his range of character roles in films such as Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964) and Guns at Batasi (1964), for which he won the BAFTA Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of the Regimental Sergeant Major (RSM). In 1963 he appeared in the ensemble cast of The Great Escape as Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett (“Big X”), the head of the escape committee. It was his first appearance in a major Hollywood film blockbuster and his most successful film up to that time.
In 1967 and 1968, he won back-to-back Golden Globe Awards in the category of Best Supporting Actor, the first time for The Sand Pebbles starring Steve McQueen and the second time for Doctor Dolittle starring Rex Harrison. He won another Golden Globe, for Best Director, for Gandhi in 1983. Six years prior to Gandhi he played the ruthless General Outram, in Indian director Satyajit Ray’s period piece The Chess Players. He has never been nominated for an Academy Award in an acting category.
He took no acting roles following his appearance in Otto Preminger’s version of The Human Factor in 1979 until his appearance as the eccentric developer John Hammond in Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park in 1993 and the popular film’s 1997 sequel, The Lost World: Jurassic Park. The following year, he starred in the remake of Miracle on 34th Street as Kris Kringle. Since then he has made occasional appearances in supporting roles, including as Sir William Cecil in the 1998 historical drama Elizabeth.
In the late 1950s, Lord Attenborough formed a production company, Beaver Films, with Bryan Forbes and began to build a profile as a producer on projects including The League of Gentlemen (1959), The Angry Silence (1960) and Whistle Down the Wind (1961), also appearing in the first two of these as an actor.
His feature film directorial debut was the all-star screen version of the hit musical Oh! What a Lovely War (1969), and his acting appearances became more sporadic—the most notable being his portrayal of serial killer John Christie in 10 Rillington Place (1971). He later directed two epic period films: Young Winston (1972), based on the early life of Winston Churchill, and A Bridge Too Far (1977), an all-star account of Operation Market Garden in World War II. He won the 1982 Academy Award for Best Director for his historical epic, Gandhi, a project he had been attempting to get made for many years. As the film’s producer, he also won the Academy Award for Best Picture. His most recent films as director and producer include Chaplin (1992) starring Robert Downey, Jr. as Charlie Chaplin and Shadowlands (1993), based on the relationship between C. S. Lewis and Joy Gresham. The star of the latter was Anthony Hopkins, who also appeared in three other films for Lord Attenborough: Young Winston, A Bridge Too Far and the thriller Magic (1978).
Lord Attenborough also directed the screen version of the musical A Chorus Line (1985); and the apartheid drama Cry Freedom based on the life and death in police custody of prominent anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko and the experiences of Donald Woods. He was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Director for both films.
Lord Attenborough is the patron of the UWC movement (United World Colleges) whereby he continually contributes greatly to the colleges that are part of the organisation. He has frequented the United World College of Southern Africa (UWCSA) Waterford Kamhlaba. With his wife, he founded the Richard and Sheila Attenborough Visual Arts Centre. He also founded the Jane Holland Creative Centre for Learning at Waterford Kamhlaba in Swaziland in memory of his daughter who died in the tsunami on 26 December 2004. He passionately believes in education, primarily education that does not judge upon colour, race, creed or religion. His attachment to Waterford is his passion for non-racial education, which were the grounds on which Waterford Kamhlaba was founded. Waterford was one of his inspirations for directing the Cry Freedom motion picture based on the life of Steve Biko.
A lifelong supporter of Chelsea Football Club, Lord Attenborough served as a director of the club from 1969–1982 and between 1993 and 2008 held the honorary position of Life Vice President. On the 30 November 2008 he was honoured with the title of Life President at the club’s stadium, Stamford Bridge.
In December 2008 Lord Attenborough suffered a fall at his home and was briefly in a coma. His health deteriorated after the fall and in May 2011, David Attenborough revealed in the Telegraph newspaper that his brother was now in a wheelchair but is still capable of holding a conversation and talking about old times. David Attenborough also said that his brother has been “watching his beloved Chelsea in the Premiership”. Lord Attenborough’s spokesman has confirmed that the actor/director probably won’t be making any more films.
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