People

Published: Tuesday August 26, 2014 MYT 8:25:00 PM
Updated: Thursday August 28, 2014 MYT 7:34:33 PM

Giant of British cinema: Richard Attenborough (1923–2014)

Oscar-winning actor and film director Richard Attenborough, who passed away on Aug 24, leaves behind an illustrious legacy spanning seven decades.

Highly regarded as one of Britain’s most successful actors and filmmakers, Richard Samuel Attenborough, 90, was born on Aug 29, 1923 in Cambridge, England. Knighted in 1976 and made a baron in June 1993, he was the elder brother of naturalist and broadcaster David Attenborough.

His father Frederick was principal of University College, Leicester, and his mother marched behind a banner denouncing Spanish dictator General Franco and helped care for Spanish Civil War refugees. From his parents, Attenborough inherited social-minded political leanings that informed his award-winning films such as Gandhi and Cry Freedom.

Attenborough, who longed to act from the age of four, won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in 1941. That same year he made his stage debut in London’s West End and in 1942 played his first film part in Noel Coward’s In Which We Serve. The aspiring actor then joined the Royal Air Force, qualifying as a pilot, and in 1944 volunteered for a unit filming over Germany.

"Dickie", as Richard Attenborough was affectionately called by his family and close friends, traced a career in acting and directing that covered more than 70 years. – Reuters

After three years of military service, he resumed his acting career and made a name for himself in a string of character roles as underdogs and misfits, notably in Brighton Rock, Seance on a Wet Afternoon and 10 Rillington Place. In 1967 and 1968, he won back-to-back Golden Globe Awards for Best Supporting Actor – the first for The Sand Pebbles, and the second for Doctor Doolittle.

But it would be his role as a film director – beginning in 1969 when he made his first film, Oh What a Lovely War, a side-swipe at militarism that won 16 international awards – that would cement his reputation as one of Britain’s best-known cinema personalities.

His greatest achievement came in 1982, when Gandhi – his fifth film as a director – won him a string of international awards. The US$22mil epic scooped eight Oscars, including Best Director for himself and Best Actor for Ben Kingsley. The sweep remains a record for the most Oscar wins by a British film. Apparently, Attenborough had spent 18 years developing and rallying support for the making of the film.

In 1987, he produced Cry Freedom, a film about Steve Biko, the South African black civil rights activist who died in police custody. Attenborough received further acclaim for Chaplin, his eighth filmas a director, a biopic of comic actor Charlie Chaplin, starring Robert Downey, Jr. He said that Chaplin’s film The Gold Rush was “the one “which made me want to act professionally”. Later, Attenborough won worldwide acting fame for roles such as the overconfident theme park owner in Jurassic Park.

With an estimated wealth of US$20mil, Attenborough was a shrewd businessman with interests in commercial radio and television in Britain, in addition to being a tireless worker for numerous charities. Part of his share of the profits from Gandhi went to organisations like the Save the Children Fund and Gandhi’s own ashrams, or alms houses, in India.

Attenborough's long life and career put gave him the opportunity to hobnob with some of the most enduring people from the last century. Above, with the late Nelson Mandela, in 2007. Below, with the late Princess Diana in 1997. – Reuters

Other positions Attenborough helmed during his career was chairman of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, chairman of Channel 4 Television, as well as chairman of the British Film Institute and president of the British Screen Advisory Council. He had also been a visiting professor of drama at Oxford and a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF.

In 1945, Attenborough married the English actress Sheila Sim, and they had three children: Michael, Jane and Charlotte. Tragedy struck his family when, in 2004, the couple’s daughter, 49-year-old Jane Holland, as well as her mother-in-law, also named Jane, and Attenborough’s 15-year-old granddaughter Lucy, were killed when the Indian Ocean tsunami struck Khao Lak, Thailand, where they were holidaying.

In 2008, Attenborough suffered a stroke and was confined to a wheelchair, essentially marking an end to his career in the film industry – he directed his last film Closing The Ring in 2007. Since June 2012, the filmmaker had been living with his wife – who was diagnosed with senile dementia – in Denville Hall, a care home for those in the theatrical profession. He died four days shy of his 91st birthday. – Reuters

Tags / Keywords: Lifestyle, People, People, Richard Attenborough, British, Britain, actor, director, filmmaker, humanitarian, obituary, memorial, death, Gandhi, Cry Freedom, Chaplin, David Attenborough

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