Last night (August 24th) the world learned of the passing of one of the titans of the film world, with the sombre news that Richard Attenborough had died aged 90.
For many, Attenborough was carved into their consciousness through a series of iconic roles. Children of the 90s will remember his portrayal of ambitious, but misguided, entrepreneur John Hammond in Jurassic Park, or as the benevolent and wonderful Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street. For those of an older generation it will be as Big X in The Great Escape, or Lew Moran in The Flight of the Phoenix.
Equally adept in front of and behind the camera, Attenborough began a storied career as part of the RAF Film Unit, during World War II. This unit was charged with keeping record of the war, as well as producing propaganda pictures for the war effort. During training he suffered permanent ear damage, but flew on a number of mission over Europe.
Away from the war he was getting steady work on both stage and screen, but his breakthrough came in 1947, playing Pinkie Brown in John Boulting’s film adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel Brighton Rock. On stage he was part of the original cast of Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap, which went on to become the world’s longest running stage production.
The 1960’s saw him win a BAFTA for Guns at Batasi, as well as back-to-back Golden Globe Awards for Best Supporting Actor in The Sand Pebbles and for Doctor Dolittle. The late 50s saw Attenborough form a production company, Beaver Films, with Bryan Forbes, and in 1969 he made his directorial debut with the screen version of the hit musical Oh! What a Lovely War.
His transition into directing saw his acting roles take a back seat, but he was rewarded for his efforts when, after 18 years of effort, he won the 1982 Academy Award for Best Director and for Best Picture for his historical epic Gandhi. He would also win two Golden Globes for that film, before garnering two further nominations for A Chorus Line in 1985 and the anti-apartheid drama Cry Freedom in 1987.
Despite becoming a pensioner at the end of the 1980’s age did not slow Attenborough, as in 1992 he directed Robert Downey Jr. to Oscar consideration for Chaplin and in 1993 did the same for Debra Winger in the C.S. Lewis biopic Shadowlands. He also starred in Jurassic Park in 1993, before playing Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street, and reprising his role of John Hammond in The Lost World: Jurassic Park.
Away from film, Attenborough was a patron of the arts and a great supporter of charity. He spent 33 years as President of the Muscular Dystrophy campaign before becoming the charity’s Honorary Life President in 2004. He served as Chancellor of the University of Sussex from 1998 to 2008, and as a lifelong supporter of Chelsea Football Club, served as a director of the club from 1969 to 1982, and as Life Vice President from 1993, before being awarded the honour of Life President in 2008.
For his services to British film he was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1967. He later was awarded a Knighthood in 1976, and in 1993 was made a life peer as Baron Attenborough, of Richmond upon Thames.
Illness blighted his later life and he retired from public life in 2008 after suffering heart problems and a stroke. He died just 5 days shy of his 91st birthday, having lived a long and full life. He is survived by his wife, children friend and family, and an entire planet for who his cinematic endeavours have left a permanent impression. Rest in Peace Dickie.