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Richard Attenborough Biography


Home > Actors > A > Attenborough, Richard > Biography


Birth Name: Richard Attenborough
Born: 08/29/1923
Birth Place: Cambridge, England, GB


Born Aug. 29, 1923 in Cambridge, England, Attenborough was raised in an academic home headed by his father, Frederick, a scholar and don at Emmanuel College who authored a textbook on Anglo-Saxon law, and his mother, Mary, a writer and founding member of the Marriage Guidance Council, a charity that provided relationship support throughout the United Kingdom. Glimmers of the actor-to-be surfaced at 12 years old when Attenborough rented a public hall in Leicester and performed various acts that included sketches, harmonica solos and comic songs. He segued to Leicester's Little Theatre, where he performed on stage in small roles, thanks to his mother, who at the time was the theatre's president. After attending the Wyggeston Grammar School for Boys, Attenborough studied drama at the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, where he met Sheila Sim, an actress and later magistrate with whom he remained married for over 60 years. While at RADA, he earned the Leverhulme Scholarship and won the Bancroft Silver Medal in 1942. Also while still in school, Attenborough made his professional stage debut in "Ah, Wilderness!" (1941), which he followed with his first West End performance in "Awake and Sing" (1942) and his first feature, "In Which We Serve" (1942).

After making a splash on stage as the manipulative young hoodlum, Pinky Brown, in a major production of "Brighton Rock" (1943), Attenborough did his duty and joined the Royal Air Force, serving as an air gunner cameraman during World War II. After the war, he reprised the sociopathic gangster for the film version, "Brighton Rock" (1947), which earned the young actor his first serious acclaim and widespread notoriety. For the next few decades, Attenborough acted primarily in British-made films, though he did on occasion appear in several high-profile American productions. He starred in the soaring tale of betrayal and redemption, "The Man Within" (1947), then played a tobacconist's son who becomes a poster child for affirmative action after winning a spot at a posh school in "The Guinea Pig" (1948). Following a co-starring turn in the seafaring World War II adventure, "Morning Departure" (1950), Attenborough appeared in a series of smaller roles until he starred as a taxi driver falsely accused of murdering a little girl in "Eight O'Clock Walk" (1954), a British-made courtroom drama based on real life events.

While Attenborough played a diversity of characters throughout the fertile 1950s and 1960s, he was mainly recognized for his numerous roles in military-themed features. In "The Ship That Died of Shame" (1955), he was a former crew member on a British gunboat who uses the ship to run his smuggling operation. After a comedic turn as a crude soldier in "A Private's Progress" (1956), he was an upstart lawyer in "The Brothers in Law" (1957), which he followed with a psychological profile of a scientist who mentally breaks down after accidentally killing the brother of his fiancée in "The Man Upstairs" (1958). Attenborough took a backseat to Peter Sellers in the biting workplace satire, "I'm All Right Jack" (1959), then joined an ensemble cast for "The League of Gentlemen" (1960), a crime thriller about a group of highly-trained military men who turn to robbing banks after an officer gets dishonorably discharged from the service. The actor turned to producing with "The Angry Silence" (1960), a social drama about a union worker (Attenborough) selected by the bosses to lead a strike, who later finds resentment against him and growing alienation from his family.

By the time the 1960s rolled around, Attenborough appeared more comfortable in supporting roles and ensemble casts. After starring again alongside scene-stealer Peter Sellers in both "Only Two Can Play" (1962) and "The Dock Brief" (1962), he was an integral part in his first Hollywood feature, "The Great Escape" (1963), one of the most revered and enjoyable World War II films ever made. Attenborough played a British officer, Roger "Big X" Bartlett, who masterminds a complicated plan to escape from a German POW camp built specifically to prevent a group of notorious Allied prisoners famous for engineering several unsuccessful breakouts. Though the film's star was undoubtedly action hero Steve McQueen, who played a rebellious American forever the scourge of his captors, Attenborough stood out among a giant cast that included James Garner, Charles Bronson and James Coburn. He achieved another critical height with "Séance On a Wet Afternoon" (1964), playing the weak-willed husband of a crooked medium (Kim Stanley) who participates in a scheme to kidnap a wealthy young girl, hold her for ransom and use his wife's powers to locate the abducted girl. Attenborough earned awards recognition beyond the critical acclaim and won a British Film Academy Award for Best Actor.

Attenborough continued to earn wide critical praise while receiving several awards for his performances. After playing the navigator in "The Flight of the Phoenix" (1965), he won a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor in "The Sand Pebbles" (1966), playing the shipmate of a crew member (Steve McQueen) who makes enemies for his fair treatment of the Chinese during a patrol of the Yangtze River during the country's turbulent civil war in the 1920s. The following year, he earned another Golden Globe Award in the same category for his performance in "Doctor Dolittle" (1967), then joined David Hemmings and Alexandra Stewart as a trio of con artists planning a big scam in the slapstick comedy "Only When I Larf" (1968). In 1969, Attenborough made his first foray into directing with "Oh! What a Lovely War," a war-time musical that satirized England's involvement in World War I, as seen through the eyes and experiences of a working-class family. With an all-star cast that included Ian Holm, Laurence Olivier, Maggie Smith, John Gielgud and Vanessa Redgrave, Attenborough directed a biting film that earned him another Golden Globe; this time for Best English Language Foreign Film.

Attenborough's venture into directing soon led to less frequent appearances in front of the camera, though he did manage to appear in four films the year following his filmmaking debut - "The Magic Christian" (1970), "A Severed Head" (1970), "Loot" (1970) and "10 Rillington Place" (1970). Getting back behind the camera, he helmed his second film, "Young Winston" (1972), an historical biopic that focused on the early life of Winston Churchill (Simon Ward), including his childhood, time spent in Africa as a war correspondent and his first election to Parliament. In the midst of a brief return to acting, which included turns in Otto Preminger's final two films, "Rosebud" (1975) and "The Human Factor" (1979), Attenborough directed "A Bridge Too Far" (1977), a sprawling World War II epic that detailed the disastrous Allied strike at Arnhem, the Netherlands in 1994, which led to a humiliating defeat. With another all-star cast to work with, including James Caan, Sean Connery, Michael Caine, Gene Hackman, Robert Redford and Sir Laurence Olivier, Attenborough made a dark, somber film that dispensed of jingoistic fervor in order to tell an engrossing cautionary tale.

In perhaps his greatest triumph, Attenborough brought to the screen a life-long dream project, "Gandhi" (1982), the most epic, but ultimately intimate historical biographies ever filmed. Starring Ben Kingsley as the non-violent revolutionary, "Gandhi" began with his life as a lawyer who sees his country in the grips of oppression and soon forsakes his life and possession in order to lead India's fight for independence through his policy of passive resistance, which ended in the leader's assassination. Both sweeping and personal, "Gandhi" was a landmark in cinematic history, earning Attenborough Academy Awards for Best Director and Best Picture. By the time he made "Gandhi," Attenborough had largely left acting behind. Meanwhile, he directed his next film, "A Chorus Line" (1985), which proved to be as much of a misfire as his previous effort had been a stunning achievement. Though faithful to the Broadway production, "A Chorus Line" suffered from an uneasy translation from stage musical to film. After narrating the documentary "Mother Theresa"(1986), he directed "Cry Freedom" (1987), a stirring look at the friendship between two men (Kevin Kline and Denzel Washington) struggling against Apartheid in South Africa during the 1970s.

After a five year hiatus from filmmaking, Attenborough returned with what was largely considered to be his biggest flop, "Chaplin" (1992), a long, sprawling biography about silent film star Charlie Chaplin (Robert Downey, Jr.). Despite a spot-on performance from Downey, Jr. and a potent mix of both drama and slapstick humor, "Chaplin" ultimately failed to catch on with audiences, resulting in an astoundingly poor box office performance. Attenborough soon returned to the director's chair, however, helming "Shadowlands" (1993), a lavish telling of the real-life love affair between C.S. Lewis (Anthony Hopkins) and a brash American divorcee (Debra Winger). Back in front of the camera for the first time in awhile, Attenborough played an eccentric millionaire who builds an amusement park populated with dinosaurs cloned from the DNA of prehistoric fossils in "Jurassic Park" (1993). Also that year, he earned the rank of Baron Attenborough - he was knighted Sir Richard Attenborough in 1976 - which entitled him a seat in the House of Lords. With rejuvenated purpose, Attenborough tackled the role of Kriss Kringle for the contemporary remake of "Miracle on 34th Street" (1994). Attenborough then stepped back behind the camera for "In Love and War" (1996), the true story behind a young Ernest Hemingway (Chris O'Donnell) and his romance with a Red Cross nurse (Sandra Bullock) during World War I, which later proved to be the inspiration for A Farewell to Arms.

With his feet firmly replanted in the acting world, Attenborough played the English Ambassador in Kenneth Branagh's four-hour version of "Hamlet" (1996), then revived the eccentric millionaire John Hammond for "The Lost World: Jurassic Park" (1997). In "Elizabeth" (1998), he played Sir William Cecil, the chief advisor of Elizabeth I (Cate Blanchett) who warns the young queen to focus on domestic matters rather than personal relations. He next directed "Grey Owl" (1999), a true story about Archibald Belaney (Pierce Brosnan), an Englishman who emigrates to Canada and reinvents himself as a Native American who becomes a famous writer and conservationist. Once the new millennium came around, Attenborough had largely removed himself from both acting and directing, only to occasionally re-emerge.

In fact, after playing Magog in "Jim Henson's Jack And The Beanstalk: The Real Story" (2001), Attenborough retreated to an unannounced semi-retirement that allowed him to delve into his role as Chancellor of the University of Sussex, an honor he earned in 1998 and left following graduation in July 2008. On Dec. 26, 2004, tragedy struck the Attenborough clan - his daughter, Jane Holland, and his granddaughter, Lucy, were killed along with 225,000 others in the devastating tsunami that engulfed the landmasses around the Indian Ocean. Then after almost a decade removed from directing, he helmed "Closing the Ring" (2007), a romantic drama about a woman (Shirley MacLaine) who learns that her old boyfriend - who died in World War II - had tasked a Belfast local to give her a ring, which she receives 50 years after the fact.