UPDATED WITH REACTIONS FROM THE BFI, DGA, BAFTA, SIR BEN KINGSLEY, STEVEN SPIELBERG: Two-time Oscar-winner Lord Richard Attenborough has died in England at the age of 90 after a glittering career on both sides of the camera that included acting in films such as The Great Escape and Jurassic Park, and directing and producing Gandhi.
Attenborough won the Oscar for best director in 1983 for his work on Gandhi, and for Best Picture for producing Gandhi. He also won three Golden Globes for supporting actor in Doctor Doolittle and The Sand Pebbles, and as director for Gandhi, which seemingly won everything the year it came out, including the DGA’s top prize (its Oscar total was eight). His directing of the musical adaptation A Chorus Line and Cry Freedom, the biopic about slain anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko, also earned Golden Globe nominations.
Attenborough’s relationship with BAFTA (where he served as president for seven years, beginning in 2002) was even longer, beginning in 1959 and including 11 BAFTA Award nominations and four wins. Beginning in 1961, he was nominated as Best British Actor for his work in The Angry Silence, which he also produced. His last BAFTA winner (with Brian Eastman) was the C.S. Lewis biopic Shadowlands, in 1994, which won for Best British Film and was nominated for two other awards. BAFTA’s leadership issued a lengthy and heartfelt statement (see below) calling Attenborough a “monumental figure” in the organization’s history and detailing the many ways he helped shape the organization and its predecessor. Attenborough also spent 13 years as chair of the British Film Institute which issued a statement (see below) noting his advocacy for the local industry.
Sir Ben Kingsley, who won a Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal in Gandhi, issued a statement as well: “Richard Attenborough trusted me with the crucial and central task of bringing to life a dream it took him twenty years to bring to fruition. When he gave me the part of Gandhi, it was with great grace and joy. He placed in me an absolute trust and in turn, I placed an absolute trust in him and grew to love him. I, along with millions of others whom he touched through his life and work, will miss him dearly.”
Steven Spielberg, who directed Attenborough in Jurassic Park, also issued a fond statement: “Dickie Attenborough was passionate about everything in his life. Family, friends, his country and career. He made a gift to the world with his emotional epic Gandhi and he was the perfect ringmaster to bring the dinosaurs back to life as John Hammond in Jurassic Park. He was a dear friend and I am standing in an endless line of those who completely adored him.”
Directors Guild of America President Paris Barclay said, “Lord Richard’s immense contribution to the film industry has few parallels. As a director, actor and producer, he dedicated his lifetime to the arts, entertaining us from both behind and in front of the camera. As a director he took on passion projects, many of which were biographical, highlighting individuals who lived extraordinary lives, dedicated to a particular passion – much like Richard himself. A winner of the 1982 DGA Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Feature Film for the biographical Gandhi, Richard was a true master filmmaker, embodying the alchemy necessary to turn film into art. He will be greatly missed.”
Attenborough had been in failing health in recent years, selling his beloved estate and moving into a nursing home in 2013 to be near his wife, Sheila, whom he married in 1945. He died at lunchtime today in west London, his son said, five years after a stroke that had confined him to a wheelchair and only a few days before his 91st birthday. Richard Samuel Attenborough was born on Aug. 29, 1923 in Cambridge, England, the son of the principal at University College, Leicester, a school that Attenborough remained a patron of throughout his life.
Educated at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (where he later served as president), Attenborough’s acting career began in 1942, during WWII, playing a cowardly soldier in In Which We Serve. He also served in the Royal Air Force during the war. Attenborough’s breakthrough role came in 1947’s Brighton Rock, a film adaptation of the Graham Greene novel of the same name, where he played a combustible young gangster. He would continue to work as a film actor for the next three decades in a wide variety of films. He also acted on stage, including, notably, as one of the original cast members of The Mousetrap in 1952. The play in London’s West End went on to set a record for most consecutive performances.
He stopped taking acting roles beginning in 1979, after appearing in Otto Preminger’s The Human Factor, until resurfacing in 1993 in front of the camera as John Hammond, the man developing Jurassic Park as a haven for dinosaurs reconstructed from DNA. He also appeared as Kris Kringle the following year in the remake of Miracle on 34th Street, and continued in smaller supporting roles in films such as Elizabeth thereafter.
He became a producer relatively early, forming Beaver Films and beginning in 1960, producing films such as The League of Gentlemen and Whistle Down the Wind. He ultimately produced 13 films, and directed 12. He appeared in 78 films as an actor.
Attenborough first directed in 1969, with the film version of the stage musical Oh! What a Lovely War, and continued with notable period films in the 1970s such as Young Winston, about the adventures in South Africa of a young Winston Churchill, and A Bridge Too Far, based on a disastrous airborne operation in WWII. He also directed the Charlie Chaplin biopic Chaplin, starring Robert Downey Jr.
Attenborough was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1967, knighted in 1976 and made a life peer as Baron Attenborough in 1993. He served as chancellor of the University of Sussex and as director of the Chelsea Football Club (he was a lifelong fan of the English Premier League soccer team).
At various times, Attenborough served as chairman of Capital Radio, president of the Gandhi Foundation, and president of the British National Film and Television School. He was also a vice patron of the Cinema and Television Benevolent Fund in the U.K.
He was also older brother of naturalist and TV personality Sir David Attenborough, who survives him, as does his wife and three sons. A daughter, Jane Holland, and her daughter died in the 2004 tsunami that killed an estimated 230,000 people in Southeast Asia. Attenborough created multiple facilities at Leicester and elsewhere to honor his lost family members and others killed in the disaster.
BFI CEO Amanda Nevill issued the following statement on Monday:
“The world has lost a very, very special person. Dickie was multi-talented as an actor, producer and world-class film director, but he was also a warm, compassionate and empathetic man and a friend to all those who met him. He loved the art and culture of film and was a tremendous advocate for every part of it, not least for the BFI where he was chair for 13 years, as well as for the British film industry, playing a major part in enabling it to attain and hold the position it has today as a world-leader. His support for individuals whether they were starting out in the industry or accomplished professionals such as himself, knew no bounds and his legacy will continue to be an inspiration for generations to come. We are all saddened.”
BAFTA Chief Executive Amanda Berry and Chair Anne Morrison issued the following statement:
We are deeply saddened by the death of Lord Attenborough Kt CBE, a monumental figure in BAFTA’s history.
Lord Attenborough was intimately involved with the Academy for over 50 years. He believed in it passionately, supported it tirelessly and was integral to the organisation that BAFTA has become today.
He was a Trustee of BAFTA and its predecessor (SFTA) from 1972 to 2003, but his involvement was considerably more far-reaching. He joined The Society of Film and Television Arts in 1959 and became a Council member two years later. Between 1969 and 1971 he was Chair of SFTA. In 1971 he became one of the original members of the Premises Committee, becoming a Trustee of the SFTA Endowment Fund which oversaw the conversion and administration of the Academy headquarters at 195 Piccadilly, as well as its renaming to the British Academy of Film and Television Arts.
A proposal to introduce an Academy Fellowship was originally put forward by Lord Attenborough and it was first presented by SFTA as part of the annual Film Awards in 1971 to Alfred Hitchcock. The occasion was hosted by Lord Attenborough and reached a television audience of 16.5 million. Lord Attenborough himself became an Academy Fellowship recipient in 1983.
In 1976, he played a pivotal role in the Royal opening of the present Academy’s headquarters and during that occasion introduced the presentation of the Fellowship to Sir Charles Chaplin, whom he admired enormously.
Lord Attenborough was Vice President from 1973 to 1995. He took over from The Princess Royal to become our fourth President in 2002, a position he held until 2009, when he was immensely proud to hand over to our current President HRH Prince William, The Duke of Cambridge.
Lord Attenborough occupies a special place in the hearts of so many and will be missed enormously.
Our thoughts are with his family, to whom we offer our deepest sympathy at this sad and difficult time.