Richard Attenborough passed away today at age 90. To my generation, he'll always be John Hammond, the kindly megalomaniac responsible for Jurassic Park. But Attenborough's extraordinary career spanned nearly 70 years, as actor, director and leading light in the British film industry.
Attenborough was born on August 29th, 1923 to Frederick Attenborough, an academic, and Mary Attenborough of the Marriage Guidance Counsel (now Relate). Raised in Leicester, he studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and began acting on stage, appearing in several Shakespeare plays. His best-known stage role was Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap. Attenborough originated the role of Sergeant Trotter, in a play that's still running 62 years after its first performance.
His screen debut came in Noel Coward and David Lean's In Which We Serve (1942), playing a frightened sailor who endangers the lives of his crewmates. During World War II, Attenborough served in the Royal Air Force. Attenborough appeared in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's A Matter of Life and Death (1946), as an RAF pilot ascended to heaven, alongside several minor films. His babyish face and refined but gentle voice made an instant impression - contrasting dramatically with his breakthrough role.
Attenborough's star turn came in John Houghton's Brighton Rock (1947), a role he'd assayed onstage. Based on a Graham Greene novel, Attenborough plays Pinkie Brown, a razor-wielding "spiv" working for a London gangster. Attenborough makes Pinkie a hateful sociopath, murdering his victims with cruel detachment. This role made Attenborough a star, though it typecast him as criminals for several years.
Somehow, Attenborough metamorphosed into a less reprehensible type. Through the '50s and '60s he played upright military officers in films like Dunkirk, Sea of Sand (both 1958) and Guns at Batasi (1964). The Great Escape (1963) epitomized this role: as "Big X," the unflappable escape leader, Attenborough outshines even Steve McQueen. He occasionally sent up this image, like his soldier-turned-bank robber in The League of Gentlemen (1960).
Success offered Attenborough diverse roles. He appeared in comedies like I'm Alright Jack (1959), played a nightclub owner in All Night Long (1962), a pilot in Flight of the Phoenix (1965) and a lovelorn sailor in The Sand Pebbles (1966). This role earned Attenborough Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor, repeating the feat in 1967's Doctor Doolittle.
Attenborough's best performance, however, hewed closer to Pinkie Brown. In 1971 he starred in 10 Rillington Place, Richard Fleischer's film about serial killer John Reginald Christie. Nigh-unrecognizable with bald pate, heavy make-up and whispering Yorkshire accent, Attenborough chillingly underplays this doddering milquetoast who's really a crafty psychopath. When police arrest John Hurt instead, we don't blame them. Who'd suspect Christie of anything but being boring?
Established as a star, Attenborough began making his mark off screen. He became ubiquitous in England's entertainment unions, from Equity and RADA to the Royal Society of Arts and the British Academy of Film and Television Arts. He also engaged in philanthropic efforts like the Actors Charitable Trust and the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign. First knighted in 1967, he became a Life Peer as Baron Attenborough of Richmond-upon-Thames in 1993. He was also a political progressive and active member of the Labour Party.
And naturally, Attenborough became a director.
His debut came with Oh! What a Lovely War! (1969). It's a musical revue depicting World War I through period songs, juxtaposing mindless jingoism with the horrors of trench warfare. It's an uneven show, mixing imaginative spectacle (an ocean pier doubling as recruiting station, a scoreboard tallying casualties) with stilted staging. It's more notable for an all-star cast including Laurence Olivier, John Mills, Maggie Smith, Vanessa Redgrave and Dirk Bogarde, among others.
Attenborough's follow-up, Young Winston (1972), flopped ignominiously. The movie depicts Winston Churchill's early life, showing his fractious family life, military service in India and Africa, career as a journalist and rise to political power. Despite Simon Ward's excellent performance, the movie is long, dull and predictable.
Attenborough remained in epic mode for 1977's A Bridge Too Far, depicting World War II's disastrous Operation Market Garden. Attenborough balanced impressive battle scenes with a mediation on war's pointlessness. Again he wielded an impressive cast: Robert Redford, Sean Connery, Anthony Hopkins and Maximilian Schell. It's far better than his first two movies, and the best of that era's all-star war films.
In 1978, Attenborough directed Magic. This creepy horror movie features Anthony Hopkins as a ventriloquist who channels his psychoses into a dummy. The movie won praise for Attenborough's direction and the performances of Hopkins, Ann-Margaret and Burgess Meredith. One of Attenborough's more obscure flicks, it retains a fervent cult following.
Attenborough's magnum opus is Gandhi (1982), a passion project he spent decades developing. It's an earnest, straightforward biopic on a grand scale, presenting Mohandis Gandhi's (Ben Kingsley) rise from unengaged lawyer to India's founding father. Occasionally slow and stilted, it's nonetheless an engaging spectacle, anchored by Kingsley's magnificent performance. The movie earned eight Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor.
Attenborough never recaptured Gandhi's success. His adaptation of A Chorus Line (1985) earned largely negative reviews. Critics were kinder to his apartheid drama Cry Freedom (1987), but the movie bombed. And while Chaplin (1992) won plaudits for Robert Downey Jr.'s title performance, the film itself was dismissed. Audiences ignored his last two films, Grey Owl (1999) and Closing the Ring (2007).
After fourteen years without an acting appearance, Attenborough appeared in Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park (1993). In Michael Crichton's novel, Hammond was a typical greedy businessman. Attenborough's Hammond, however, is a grandfatherly figure who wants nothing more than realizing his dream: bringing dinosaurs alive. Attenborough makes Hammond pitiable, indeed tragic as his experiment goes horribly wrong.
After Jurassic Park, Attenborough made a few further movie appearances: he played Kris Kringle in the remake of Miracle on 34th Street (1994), cameoed in Kenneth Branaugh's Hamlet (1996) and played William Cecil in Shekhar Kapur's Elizabeth (1998). He played John Hammond again in 1997's The Lost World. His final appearance came in a 1999 adaptation of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.
Lord Attenborough's survived by his wife Sheila Sim, an actress he met while performing in The Mousetrap, and children Michael, Jane and Charlotte. His brother, Sir David Attenborough, is a well-known naturalist; another brother, John is a corporate executive.
Rest in peace, Lord Attenborough. Whether you remember him as John Hammond, Santa Claus, Big X or the director of Gandhi, his impact on British cinema is indisputable.