Richard Attenborough: ‘I want to be remembered as a storyteller’

The revered actor, Oscar-winning filmmaker and humanitarian Richard Attenborough has died at the age of 90, leaving behind an extraordinary legacy of films and performances.

Richard Attenborough, left, and Ben Kingsley with their Oscars, for Gandhi. Reed Saxon / AP Photo
Powered by automated translation

He was a lord, an Oscar-winning director of the much-lauded Gandhi and an unflagging pillar of British cinema. But to most people, Richard Attenborough, who has died at the age of 90, was best known as Dickie.

Baby-faced as a young actor and white-bearded in his older age, Attenborough – warmly known as “Dickie Darling” – presided over six decades of British moviemaking as an actor and filmmaker with a genial warmth that endeared him to his fans, fellow actors and filmmakers.

"I have no great interest in being remembered as a great creative filmmaker," he told The New York Times when Gandhi was released in 1982. "I want to be remembered as a storyteller."

The actor’s son, Michael, announced that his father, who had been in poor health for some time, died on Sunday.

Ben Kingsley, who shot to stardom for his performance as Mahatma Gandhi, recalled Attenborough’s passionate 20-year struggle to bring the Indian leader’s story to the big screen.

“He placed in me an absolute trust and, in turn, I placed an absolute trust in him and grew to love him,” said Kingsley. “I along with millions of others whom he touched through his life and work will miss him dearly.”

Gandhi won eight Oscars, including Best Director for Attenborough, Best Actor for Kingsley and Best Picture – defeating ET, directed by a young Steven Spielberg, who would later cast Attenborough as John Hammond, Jurassic Park's naive idealist whose dream of resurrecting the dinosaurs turns into a nightmare.

The British prime minister, David Cameron, described Attenborough as "one of the greats of cinema", adding: "His acting in Brighton Rock was brilliant, his directing of Gandhi was stunning."

A product of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, Attenborough made his screen debut in the patriotic, 1942 Second World War film In Which We Serve. He served, too, in the Royal Air Force.

In 60-plus years of acting, he amassed more than 70 credits, including roles in classics such as Brighton Rock, The Great Escape, Doctor Dolittle and 10 Rillington Place. In later life, in addition to acting in Jurassic Park, he played Kriss Kringle in the 1994 remake of Miracle on 34th Street.

Attenborough's move into directing began with 1969's First World War musical comedy Oh! What a Lovely War. He directed 12 films, including A Bridge Too Far, A Chorus Line, Cry Freedom, Chaplin and Shadowlands.

He was a constant advocate for the British film industry as well as other humanitarian causes. He did extensive work as a goodwill ambassador for Unicef and was awarded the Martin Luther King Jr Nonviolence Peace Prize in 1983.

He was knighted in 1976 and in 1993 received a life peerage, becoming Baron Attenborough of Richmond upon Thames.

The son of a university principal, Attenborough was born on August 29, 1923, into a family with strong liberal views and a tradition of voluntary work for humanitarian concerns. One of his younger brothers is the naturalist David Attenborough, whose BBC nature documentaries have reached audiences around the world.

In his 1942 film debut as a terrified warship crewman in In Which We Serve, the 19-year-old Attenborough made a small part into one of the most memorable roles in the film, which won the Best Picture Oscar.

In 1947, he gave one of the best performances of his career as the teenage thug Pinkie in Brighton Rock, the film version of Graham Greene's novel.

Attenborough's youthful appearance nearly cost him the lead role in the original cast of The Mousetrap because its author, Agatha Christie, didn't think he looked like a police detective. But he starred with his wife, the actress Sheila Sim, when the hit play opened in November 1952 and stayed for 700 performances.

He also appeared as a prisoner of war in 1963's The Great Escape and, in 1971, turned in a chilling performance as the 1950s mass murderer John Reginald Christie in 10 Rillington Place.

Denzel Washington won an Oscar nomination for his role as the South African activist Steve Biko in Attenborough's 1987 film Cry Freedom.

“The people I want to reach are those who have never even considered the whole question of South Africa,” said Attenborough at the time. “In order to do that, you have to make a film that is fundamentally entertaining. I’m in the entertainment business; I’m not a politician. I make movies for millions of people all over the world.”

Attenborough’s later years were marked by a personal tragedy when he lost his daughter and granddaughter in the tsunami that hit Thailand on Boxing Day in 2004. The heartbroken Attenborough said he was never able to celebrate the Christmas holidays after that.

Attenborough had been in frail health since a fall at his home in 2008 and spent his last years in a nursing home with his wife.

He is survived by his wife, their son and a daughter.