Monday, August 25, 2014

The Late Great Richard Attenborough, Baron Attenborough

Legendary actor, director, and producer Richard Attenborough, Baron Attenborough, CBE died yesterday at the age of 90.

Richard Attenborough was born on 29 August 1923 in Cambridge. His father was scholar Frederick Attenborough, who was a fellow at Emmanuel College, Cambridge and later principal of University College, Leicester from 1932 to 1951, as well as the editor and translator of The Laws of the Earliest English Kings Æthelberht I to Æthelstan and author of Cities in Sonnets. His mother was Mary Attenborough (née Clegg), one of the founders of  the Marriage Guidance Council. Lord Attenborough had two younger brothers, naturalist and broadcaster Sir David Attenborough and motor trade executive John Attenborough (who preceded Lord Attenborough in death on 9 November 1912).  In 1939 the Attenboroughs took in  Helga and Irene Bejach (aged 9 and 11 respectively), German-Jewish refugees. The girls lived with the Attenboroughs and were adopted by the family when it was learned that their parents had been killed in the war.

Lord Attenborough was educated at Wyggeston and Queen Elizabeth I College in Leicester. From an early age his parents cultivated in him a love of music and art. It was in 1935 when he saw Charlie Chaplin's film The Gold Rush that he decided to pursue acting as a career. Richard Attenborough left school at age 16 when he won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. There he met his future wife, Sheila Sim. Sheila Sim had her own acting career prior to retiring to raise their family. Lord Attenborough made his stage debut in Ah, Wilderness! in 1941. He made his film debut the following year, appearing as a sailor who deserted in Noël Coward's In Which We Serve. He appeared in the films It Started at Midnight (1943) and The Hundred Pound Window (1944).

In 1943 Lord Attenborough joined the Royal Air Force.  During World War II he served in the RAF Film Unit as a cameraman. He shot footage from the rear gunner's position of aeroplanes during the RAF Bomber Command's various missions. It was while serving in the RAF that Lord Attenborough sustained permanent ear damage. Following the war Lord Attenborough returned to acting on both stage and in film.

It was in 1947 that Richard Attenborough appeared in his breakthrough role in Brighton Rock playing Pinkie Brown, a role he had earlier played at the Garrick Theatre on the West End in 1942. During the mid to late Forties Lord Attenborough also appeared in such films as Think It Over (1945), Journey Together (1945), A Matter of Life and Death (1946), School for Secrets (1946), The Man Within (1947), Dancing with Crime (1947), Dulcimer Street (1948) , Boys in Brown (1949), and Morning Departure (1960). He made his television debut in 1950 in an episode of BBC Sunday-Night Theatre.

Richard Attenborough was extremely prolific in the Fifties, acting both in films and on stage. Previously best known for his dramatic roles, Lord Attenborough demonstrated that he had a talent for comedy as well, playing Private Cox in the comedy Private's Progress (1956).  He appeared in more comedies, including The Baby and the Battleship (1956), Brothers in Law (1957), and I'm All Right Jack (1957). Among his notable dramatic roles were those of the title character, Peter Watson, in The Man Upstairs (1958) and Lt. Lexy in The League of Gentlemen (1960). Throughout the decade Lord Attenborough appeared in such films as The Magic Box (1951), Father's Doing Fine (1952), Eight O'Clock Walk (1954), The Ship That Died of Shame (1955), The Scamp (1957), Dunkirk (1958), Danger Within (1959), and Upgreen - And at 'Em (1960).

In the late Fifties Richard Attenborough and fellow actor Bryan Forbes founded the production company Allied Film Makers (AFM) with director Basil Dearden and actor Jack Hawkins. AFM produced the League of Gentlemen before Richard Attenborough and Bryan Forbes went on to form their own production company, Beaver Films, in 1959.  Beaver Films' first movie was The Angry Silence (1960) in which Lord Attenborough played the lead. Bryan Forbes wrote the film's screenplay. In 1952 Richard Attenborough and his wife Sheila Sim were part of the original cast of the stage play The Mousetrap. It would go on to become the longest running stage production ever. During the Fifties he also appeared  in Double Image at the Savoy on the West End and  The Rape of the Belt at the Grand Theatre in Leeds

The Sixties would see Richard Attenborough prospering in his career as an actor and a producer, as well as his directorial debut. In 1963 he appeared in what might be his best known role, that of Sqn. Ldr. Roger Bartlett, "Big X" in The Great Escape. Lord Attenborough received the BAFTA Award for Best Actor for another war film, Guns at Batasi (1964). He appeared opposite Shirley MacLaine in the comedy film The Bliss of Mrs. Blossom (1968). Among his most notable roles was in a film that he and Bryan Forbes produced and that also marked Mr. Forbes's directorial debut. In Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964) Richard Attenborough played Billy, the asthmatic husband of medium Myra Savage (played by Kim Stanley). In the Sixties Mr. Forbes also appeared in such films as Only Two Can Play (1962), All Night Long (1962), The Third Secret (1964), The Sand Pebbles (1966), Doctor Dolittle (1967), The Magic Christian (1969), and Loot (1970).

In the Sixties in addition to Séance on a Wet Afternoon , Richard Attenborough and Bryan Forbes also produced Whistle Down the Wind (1961), starring Hayley Mills, and The L-Shaped Room (1962), which was directed by Bryan Forbes. Richard Attenborugh made his directorial debut in 1969 with the musical Oh! What a Lovely War, starring Sir Dirk Bogarde and Phyllis Calvert.

In the Seventies Richard Attenborough's acting career slowed as he began concentrating more on direction and production. In 1971 he played a role very different from any he had before, playing real life serial killer John Christie in 10 Rillington Place. He also played Judge Arthur Cannon  in the 1974 version of Ten Little Indians. During the Seventies he appeared in such films as Brannigan (1975), Rosebud (1975), Conduct Unbecoming (1975), The Chess Players (1977), and The Human Factor (1979). He directed three films in the Seventies. Young Winston (1972) starred Simon Ward as a young Winston Churchill. A Bridge Too Far  was an epic war film of the sort Richard Attenborough had often appeared, starring Sir Dirk Bogarde, James Caan, and Michael Caine. Magic (1978) was a psychological thriller starring Sir Anthony Hopkins and Ann-Margret.

In the Eighties Richard Attenborough focused on his career as a director He directed the historical epic Gandhi (1982), starring Sir Ben Kingsley in the title role, an adaptation of the Broadway musical A Chorus Line (1985), and the anti-apartheid film Cry Freedom (1987). Gandhi won several Oscars, including Best Picture and a Best Director award for Lord Attenborough, several BAFTA Awards.

In the Nineties Richard Attenborough returned to acting. Most notably, he appeared in Jurassic Park (1993) as John Hammond, owner of the theme park of the title. He also appeared as Sir William Cecil in Elizabeth (1998). In addition to these films, Lord Attenborough appeared in the films Miracle on 34th Street (1994), E=mc2 (1996), Hamlet (1996), and The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997). On television he appeared in a 2000 adaptation of The Railway Children and a 1999 adaptation of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. He provided a voice for the animated series Tom and Vicky.

Lord Attenborough continued to direct in the Nineties. His 1992 film Chaplin centred on Charlie Chaplin (played by Robert Downey Jr.) and was nominated for three Academy Awards. Shadowlands (1993) portrayed the romance between C. S. Lewis (Anthony Hopkins) and American poet Joy Gresham (Debra Winger). In Love and War (1996) was an adaptation of the book Hemingway in Love and War by Henry S. Villard and James Nagel while The Grey Owl (1999) was a biopic about Archibald Belaney (Pierce Brosnan), a British man who reinvented himself as a Native trapper in Canada.

In the Naughts Richard Attenborough appeared in the television film Jack and the Beanstalk: The Real Story and the movie Puckoon (2002). His last acting work was a voice in Tres en el camino. His last directorial work was the film Closing the Ring (2007).

Richard Attenborough, Baron Attenborough was also active in many charities and organisations. He was president of the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign for 33 years In 2012 the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign established the Richard Attenborough Fellowship Fund in his honour. Over the years he supported a vast number of groups and causes, including the British Film Institute, Capitol Radio, Channel 4, the Chelsea Football Club, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, the Tate Gallery,  UNICEF, and United World Colleges. In 1998 he was elected Chancellor of the University of Sussex and held the position until he stepped down in 2008.

There can be no doubt that Richard Attenborough was one of the greatest British actors of the 20th Century. He had an incredible range and could play nearly any role given him. This is perhaps best demonstrated by looking at two of his best known roles. He may be most famous as Sqn. Ldr. Roger Bartlett, "Big X", the leader of the escape in The Greate Escape. Watching The Great Escape one would never know that in many of his earlier war films Lord Attenborough had played deserters and cowards. Bartlett was calm, cool, collected, intelligent and brave, and possessed a conscience as to what the escape would mean. His portrayal of Bartlett is a sharp contrast to Billy in Séance on a Wet Afternoon. It is not simply that Billy is asthmatic and not particularly healthy. He is almost entirely ineffective, remaining a bundle of nerves throughout most of the movie. Even when a film was not particularly good (a prime example being the wholly unnecessary remake of Miracle on 34th Street), Richard Attenborough always delivered a great performance. Over the years he played many military men, but also a juvenile delinquent (Boys in Brown), a taxi driver (Eight O'Clock Walk), a serial killer (10 Rillington Place), and a scientist turned theme park owner (Jurassic Park).

It was not enough that Lord Attenborough was one of the great British actors of the 20th Century, he was also one of the best British directors of the 20th Century as well. As a director he had an amazing eye for detail, a talent that benefited him whether he was directing small, personal scenes as those in Shadowlands or massive scenes with many extras as those in Gandhi. He was also adept at making extremely moving films. In the late 20th Century when Hollywood seemed increasingly interested only in shallow, plot driven blockbusters, Lord Attenborough made films that hearkened back to such British directors as Carol Reed and David Lean. His films were always driven by their characters rather than plots, and I have to suspect most audiences found it difficult not to have an emotional investment in them.

It was not enough that Richard Attenborough was an extremely talented actor and director, he also appears to have been a true gentleman. He was one of those few people in the film industry about whom one never hears a bad word.  Indeed, as a director he was known not only for treating his stars with respect, but even the extras on his films. While one might hear stories of none too nice behaviour from other actors and directors, one only hears stories of Lord Attenborough's kindness and thoughtfulness towards others. Richard Attenborough was well known for addressing everyone as "Darling". He always said it was because he easily forgot names, but one has to suspect that perhaps it was because he truly cared about other people. Quite simply, to Lord Attenborough, a true gentleman and a truly kind man, we were all "darling. "

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