Richard Attenborough's Great Works

The late actor-director exuded charisma onscreen in films like Brighton Rock and Jurassic Park, yet he may have wielded the most lasting influence behind the camera.
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Lefteris Pitarakis/AP

Richard Attenborough, the British actor, director, and entertainment executive, died Sunday in London. He was 90 years old. A contributor in more than 86 films, Attenborough was among Britain’s most iconic entertainers, knighted in 1976 and made a life peer in 1993.

The older brother to naturalist and documentary personality David Attenborough, Richard Attenborough began his performing career as a scholarship student at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, followed by his first screen part as a gutless sailor in the 1942 wartime propaganda film In Which We Serve.

From his earliest days in the industry, the magnetic screen presence of Attenborough’s unforgettable characters often drew more attention than his formidable powers behind the camera. His acting career took off when he played the Cockney-accented, thuggish antihero Pinkie Brown in a stage production of Brighton Rock, based on Graham Greene novel of the same name. While his iconic portrayal of the gangster won him the same role in the 1947 Boulting brothers film adaptation, Attenborough would put his promising screen career on hold during the war. He joined the film unit of the Royal Air Force as an airgunner-cameraman, a brief and intense gig that ignited his love affair with the technical side of movie production—just before the success of the Brighton Rock film made him a British star.

The popularity of Pinkie would, for a time, lead Attenborough to be typecast in gangster roles. But he was always pushing his abilities and his characters to new places. In his leading role as a juvenile delinquent in 1949’s Boys in Brown, for example, he portrayed a naïveté that suggested he could play softer, more sensitive roles than he'd been given. 

His efforts did not go unnoticed, and Attenborough continued to act against type in 1950s comedies like Private’s Progress, The Baby and the Battleship, and I’m All Right Jack. A consummate entertainment professional, Attenborough leveraged his increasing name recognition and popular-film connections to begin work as a producer in the 1960s. That decade he co-founded Beaver Films with friend Bryan Forbes, which would produce The Angry Silence—in which he also starred—and Whistle Down the Wind.

An irresistibly likable supporting part in 1963’s audience-pleasing Steve McQueen war film The Great Escape pulled Attenborough back into acting for a time. Playing the British officer who concocted the marvelous titular escape introduced Attenborough to a generation of avid American moviegoers, and cemented his status as a go-to supporting actor of thespian leanings in Hollywood.

He followed up his newfound visibility alongside James Stewart in The Flight of the Phoenix, and accompanied Steve McQueen once more in The Sand Pebbles, a part that won him Best Supporting Actor at the 1967 Golden Globes. The accolades kept coming: He would win the Globe again in 1968 beside Rex Harrison in Dr. Doolittle.

But Attenborough took the awards in stride, using the American decorations to build the necessary contacts for his directing debut. After his partnership with Forbes fell through, he pulled together his resources to helm 1968’s Oh What a Lovely War, which auspiciously placed British acting royalty including Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, and Maggie Smith in a gaudy musical that reinterpreted World War I as a music-hall act. It is perhaps best remembered for its satirical verve, and its British army “leapfrog” sequence.

In the ‘70s Attenborough drew his attention to more serious projects that focused on overlooked and difficult moments in British history. He tried his hands at the weighty biopic in Young Winston, a polished historical account of Winston Churchill’s rise to fame, and audaciously interpreted the 1944 Arnhem Raid—a defeat for the Allies—in A Bridge Too Far. He took increasingly creative approaches to get audiences to show up, often contriving mass appeal with pure star wattage. A Bridge Too Far's cast included such eminent names as Michael Caine, Sean Connery, and Laurence Olivier—luring viewers to sit through three hours of historical narrative.

1983’s Gandhi, his directing passion project and largely considered his greatest creation, would demand all his career knowledge and mettle. With a script that emphasized Gandhi’s humble origins and viewed India’s liberation in a decidedly British-unglorifying lens, paired with a cast led by a then-unknown Ben Kingsley, Attenborough took 20 years to scrape together the $22 million production budget. He mortgaged his house and struggled to pay for gas. The gamble paid off, grossing $52.7 million in North America and winning eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Director.

Attenborough, who prided himself on being an “actor-manager,” followed the momentous film with smaller, performer-driven efforts. He gave Denzel Washington his breakthrough role as apartheid activist Steve Biko in Cry Freedom, and Robert Downey Jr. his in Chaplin. By the early 2000s, Attenborough was cherry-picking the best of both British and American talent for character-driven prestige projects including Anthony Hopkins in the C.S. Lewis biopic Shadowlands and a young Sandra Bullock for the Ernest Hemingway love story In Love and War. His acting career fell by the wayside.

Though for the rest of his life Attenborough primarily wielded influence behind the scenes in his home country—he would serve as the chairman of Britain’s Channel 4 and Capital Radio, and the president of BAFTA and the British National Film and Television School—he is perhaps best known audiences worldwide today as the mad scientist and dinosaur enthusiast who welcomed Sam Neill and Laura Dern to Jurassic Park in 1993. Steven Spielberg had to pry him away from a self-induced 15-year acting retirement to play the semi-sinister, semi-beloved role of John Hammond, yet the part in many ways encapsulated Attenborough’s particular genius. It was a deceptively complicated part, requiring him to balance a hint of madness with a joviality recalling Santa Claus (whom he would play, by the way, a year later in the 1994 reboot of Miracle on 34th Street).

This multifaceted charisma onscreen would draw him back, time and again, to visible roles over the course of his career. Yet he continually remained fascinated by what could be accomplished behind the scenes. He was always an architect envisioning bigger things.

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Katie Kilkenny writes for and produces The Atlantic's Entertainment Channel.

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