Veteran actor Richard Attenborough (90) has died
Published 24/08/2014 | 22:21
The veteran British actor and film director Richard Attenborough has died at the age of 90.
He died at lunchtime on Sunday, his son told BBC News.
Lord Attenborough was one of Britain's leading actors during the middle of the century, before becoming a highly successful director.
His best known films as an actor included Brighton Rock, The Great Escape and Jurassic Park. His director's CV included A Bridge Too Far, Gandhi, for which he won an Academy Award, and Cry Freedom.
He had a grand vision and a deep desire to educate, decrying injustice and extolling heroes such as Gandhi and Steve Biko, a South African victim of Apartheid.
It was Gandhi, arguably one of the least obvious successes in the history of the cinema, that marked the highlight of his remarkable career, clinching eight Oscars, including best film and best director.
His breadth of canvas and eye for detail were at their most impressive here, with Attenborough displaying a knack to control some 400,000 extras at the re-creation of Gandhi's funeral.
As an actor he was respected enough for top directors Satyajit Ray and Steven Spielberg to lure him out of self-imposed retirement to appear, respectively, in The Chess Players and the blockbuster Jurassic Park.
His highly emotional and effusive character was one of the most lampooned in the art world, where he was known as the "original luvvy" who was easily moved to tears.
But, above all, his deep passion and unflagging energy as actor, director, producer, fund-raiser and chairman of numerous charities were genuine, and his good-nature was renowned in a notoriously tough world of clashing giant egos which he inhabited.
His public image belied a steel-like determination that took him from a powerful character actor in films such as Brighton Rock and 10 Rillington Place to director of conventional pieces such as Young Winston and A Bridge Too Far and ultimately Gandhi and Cry Freedom.
But tragedy was to strike. On St Stephen's Day 2004, his elder daughter Jane Holland, as well as her daughter, Lucy, and her mother-in-law, also named Jane, were killed in the south-Asian tsunami.
Richard Samuel Attenborough was born in Cambridge on August 29, 1923. His deep love of art and music began as a child where his teacher-parents were cultured and benevolent Fabians.
He was brought up in Leicester where he was educated at Wyggeston, a local grammar school.
His father, who was principal of the local university college, instilled in his children the belief that not one minute of the day should be wasted. It was a philosophy that Attenborough carried into his professional life astonishing colleagues with his tireless 20-hours-a-day energy.
A dedicated socialist, he was introduced to rebellious politics by his mother, who joined protest marches in the 1930s against Spain's General Franco and took in Basque refugees from the Spanish Civil War. His parents also helped to co-ordinate the evacuation of Jewish children from Europe.
He won a scholarship to Rada aged 17 and his acting career took off when he was spotted by Noel Coward who cast him in a small but decisive role in In Which We Serve. The solo scene in which he played a young stoker attempting to fight back the onset of abject terror was a remarkable tour de force.
He then took the West End by storm with his portrayal of the petty gangster Pinkie in the stage adaptation of Graham Greene's Brighton Rock.
The play was forced to close when he was called up into the RAF where he trained as an airgunner-cameraman for the Air Force film unit.
He married the actress Sheila Sim when he was 21. His son Michael was born in 1949, followed by two daughters Jane and Charlotte.
On stage, the couple were in the original cast of Agatha Christie's thriller The Mousetrap, appearing in the first 700 performances. Attenborough was now a household name with a huge fan club.
But he became increasingly disillusioned at the parts he was offered and went into partnership with Bryan Forbes to make films which they "believed would express certain aspirations and certain horrors".
Forbes directed and Attenborough produced and starred in gritty, realistic films such as The Angry Silence about trade unionism and The L-Shaped Room set in bleak bedsitter London.
The role he found the most personally disturbing was that of murderer John Christie in 10 Rillington Place.
When he moved into production he had no thought of being a director except that he wanted to make one film - on the life of Gandhi.
Yet it was 20 years before he found the necessary funding. Meanwhile, he established himself with a series of mainstream pieces such as Oh! What a Lovely War, Young Winston on the early years of Winston Churchill and A Bridge Too Far about the ill-fated attack on Arnhem.
But Gandhi remained the big dream and when filming began Attenborough thought nothing of lugging camera equipment up hills in a bid to inspire his crew. His faith was rewarded with the eight Oscars and a profit of well over £100 million.
His epics were, however, not universally applauded. Cry Freedom, about the relationship between murdered black activist Steve Biko and white journalist Donald Woods was attacked for failing to address fully the issues of Apartheid.
And Chaplin also failed to win critical approval.
Attenborough admitted he was no avant-garde film-maker. "I tell stories with a beginning, a middle and an end," he said.
Away from films he held a vast number of positions, most notably as chairman of Channel 4, from 1987 to 1993.
He personally stood firmly behind the company's decision not to name a source used in a documentary on Northern Ireland and appeared at the High Court even though at one point it looked as though his principles would land him in jail for contempt of court. He received a life peerage in 1993. He was the brother of Sir David Attenborough, the TV wild life presenter.