Monday 21 October 2019

How bulked-up Brando almost cast to play title role of Gandhi

Ben Kingsley as Ghandi.
Ben Kingsley as Ghandi.

Robert Mendick in London

Marlon Brando, fresh from his role as the obese and odious Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, was considered for the title role of Mahatma Gandhi in Richard Attenborough's Oscar-winning epic film, according to newly discovered archives.

Never has casting (almost) got it so wrong.

Marlon Brando as Colonel Kurtz.
Marlon Brando as Colonel Kurtz.

Attenborough had devoted years to making the film of Gandhi's life.

The project had been 20 years in the pipeline and would go on to win eight Oscars, including best picture and best director for Attenborough and best actor for Ben Kingsley, the brilliant young actor who was eventually plucked from near obscurity for the starring role.

But documents from Attenborough's archive reveal just how close the 1982 movie came to blowing it.

Seemingly nearly every great - and white - actor from Alec Guinness to Marlon Brando, from Albert Finney to Al Pacino - was suggested before Attenborough opted, almost by chance, for the largely unknown Kingsley.

Born Krishna Pandit Bhanji - and now knighted as Sir Ben Kingsley - he was part Gujarati by descent.

The archive, held at Sussex University and finally catalogued four years after Attenborough's death, contains 70 boxes alone devoted to Attenborough's correspondence on Gandhi. Much of it focuses on his great dilemma - who should play Gandhi.

The archives reveal that Attenborough and John Briley, the screenwriter (who also won an Oscar), agonised over the title role.

The first preferred actor was Alec Guinness. The search had begun in 1963 and Attenborough wrote to Guinness, pleading with him to play the title role. "My dear Dickie," wrote Guinness's agent in March that year, "I have had a long letter from Alec this morning, and as I feared he gives a negative answer."

Guinness in his own letter to Attenborough was even more blunt. "I'm too big, grey, fat and blue-eyed and would sound like Peter Sellers," he explained.

The hunt went on. Some of the casting options in the Gandhi files make for comical reading.

Albert Finney turned down the part, in rather gruff terms. Brando, fresh from playing the monstrously large Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, and weighing more than 15st, was proposed in the role of the slight leader, who weighed less than 8st.

Dustin Hoffman was also approached as well as Al Pacino. Peter Falk - best known for playing the scruffy TV detective Columbo - came up in conversation, and so did, in the words of Attenborough, "Peter Sellers (bless him)".

By 1980, and the film close to shooting, the battle over who should get the part, continued to rage. Briley wrote to Attenborough in that year: "I think you have to fight for John Hurt... And cast the rest of the Indians as light as you can." Hurt was given a screen test but even the actor was appalled when he saw the "rushes". "Well it's impossible, isn't it? My whole physique looks utterly ridiculous," wrote Hurt.

Attenborough by then had deep misgivings at the prospect of a white actor playing Gandhi, the father of the Indian nation.

Attenborough's saviour was at hand. He saw Kingsley in Bertolt Brecht's Baal at the Donmar Warehouse and then called him for a screen test at Shepperton Studios on July 25, 1980.

He watched the audition back with Kingsley. According to Michael Attenborough, his son, the director turned to Kingsley and sighed: "Well, I suppose you'd better play it then."

Kingsley replied: "I shall be the film's most humble servant."

The rest is cinema history.

© Telegraph

Sunday Independent

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