LOS ANGELES – Lord Richard Attenborough, the respected British actor and Academy Award-winning director of “Gandhi,” the multiple-Oscar-winning best picture of 1982, has died. He was 90.
Attenborough died Sunday, his son Michael told the BBC in London. No cause was given, but he had been in poor health after a fall in 2008.
Once described by Variety as “one of the stoutest pillars of the British film industry,” Attenborough was an alumnus of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and a World War II veteran who became a familiar screen face in postwar British films.
One of his most notable early roles was Pinkie Brown, a psychopathic young gang leader, in the 1947 crime-thriller “Brighton Rock” – a starring role that Attenborough originated on the London stage four years earlier.
Over more than six decades, he appeared in more than 70 films, including “Guns at Batasi,” “The Great Escape,” “Seance on a Wet Afternoon,” “The Flight of the Phoenix,” “The Sand Pebbles,” “Doctor Dolittle,” “10 Rillington Place,” “Brannigan,” “Jurassic Park,” “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” and the 1994 remake of “Miracle on 34th Street,” in which he played Kris Kringle.
Affectionately known as Dickie, Attenborough made his directorial debut in 1969 with “Oh! What a Lovely War,” a musical satire of World War I.
Known as a “socially engaged” filmmaker who often focused on major historical figures, he went on to direct 11 other films. Among them were “Young Winston,” “A Bridge Too Far,” “Magic,” “A Chorus Line,” “Cry Freedom,” “Chaplin” and “Shadowlands.”
“Gandhi,” Attenborough’s 1982 film about the life of Mohandas Gandhi, the nonviolent spiritual and political leader of India’s fight for independence from British rule, won eight Academy Awards, including a best actor Oscar for Ben Kingsley.
With “Gandhi,” Attenborough not only won the Oscar for best director but, as the film’s producer, he also took home the best picture Oscar.
“Gandhi,” the Times of London reported in 1993, earned “more Oscars and a bigger international market than any British film before.”
The epic movie was the culmination of Attenborough’s 20-year effort to bring Gandhi’s life story to the big screen, an obsession that began when he read a biography of him in 1962.
“Every career decision I’ve made since then has been tempered by my love affair with this one project,” Attenborough told the New York Times in 1981. “I’ve given up 40 acting roles and a dozen directing assignments to pursue it.”
During Attenborough’s pursuit, four screenwriters worked on scripts for the proposed movie, which numerous film companies rejected for being totally uncommercial.
Attenborough – he was knighted in 1976 and became Lord Attenborough in 1993 – was known to cheerfully downplay his achievements as a director.
In a 2003 interview with Variety, he said: “I’m not a pyrotechnical director; I’m not good with all those innovative things. What I am interested in is how actors can touch the heads and hearts of an audience.”
Born in Cambridge, England, on Aug. 29, 1923, Attenborough was the eldest of three brothers whose father was principal of University College in Leicester.
Attenborough first became interested in acting at age 11 when his father took him to London to see Charlie Chaplin’s silent film classic “The Gold Rush.”
Among other things, he also was chairman and president of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, chairman of Channel Four Television, chancellor of the University of Sussex, a trustee of the Tate Gallery and a UNICEF goodwill ambassador.
“His public image is of a passionate, impetuous, concerned, kindly, generous man – an idealist dedicated to human principles and utterly free of cynicism,” film critic David Robinson, who served as a consultant on “Chaplin,” told Variety in 1995.
“The biggest surprise is that the real man is not much different.”