Lord Richard Attenborough was born in Cambridge, England, the son of Mary (née Clegg), a founding member of the Marriage Guidance Council, and Frederick Levi Attenborough, a scholar and academic administrator who was a don at Emmanuel College and wrote a standard text on Anglo-Saxon law. Attenborough was educated at Wyggeston Grammar School for Boys in Leicester and at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA).
His film career began with a role as a deserting sailor in In Which We Serve (1942), a part that contributed to his being typecast for many years as a coward in films like Dulcimer Street (1948), Operation Disaster (1950) and his breakthrough role as a psychopathic young gangster in the film adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel, Brighton Rock (1948). During World War II, Attenborough served in the Royal Air Force.
He worked prolifically in British films for the next 30 years, and in the 1950s appeared in several successful comedies for John Boulting and Roy Boulting, including Private’s Progress (1956) and I’m All Right Jack (1959). Early in his stage career, Attenborough starred in the London West End production of Agatha Christie’s “The Mousetrap”, which went on to become one of the world’s longest-running stage productions. Both he and his wife were among the original cast members of the production, which opened in 1952 and (as of 2007) is still running.
In the 1960s, he expanded his range of character roles in films such as Seance on a Wet Afternoon (1964) and Guns at Batasi (1964), for which he won the BAFTA Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of the regimental Sergeant Major. He appeared in the ensemble cast of The Great Escape (1963), as Squadron Leader “Roger Bartlett” (“Big X”), the head of the escape committee.
In 1967 and 1968, he won back-to-back Golden Globe Awards in the category of Best Supporting Actor, the first time for The Sand Pebbles (1966), starring Steve McQueen, and the second time for Doctor Dolittle (1967), starring Rex Harrison. He would win another Golden Globe for Best Director, for Gandhi (1982), in 1983. Six years prior to “Gandhi”, he played the ruthless “Gen. Outram” in Indian director Satyajit Ray’s period piece, Shatranj Ke Khilari (1977). He has never been nominated for an Academy Award in an acting category.
He took no acting roles following his appearance in Otto Preminger’s The Human Factor (1979), until his appearance as the eccentric developer “John Hammond” in Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993). The following year, he starred as “Kris Kringle” in Miracle on 34th Street (1994), a remake of the 1947 classic. Since then, he has made occasional appearances in supporting roles, including the historical drama, Elizabeth (1998), as “Sir William Cecil”.
In the late 1950s, Attenborough formed a production company, “Beaver Films”, with Bryan Forbes and began to build a profile as a producer on projects, including The League of Gentlemen (1960), The Angry Silence (1960) and Whistle Down the Wind (1961), also appearing in the first two of these as an actor.
His feature film directorial debut was the all-star screen version of the hit musical, Oh! What a Lovely War (1969), and his acting appearances became more sporadic – the most notable being his portrayal of serial killer “John Christie” in 10 Rillington Place (1971). He later directed two epic period films: Young Winston (1972), based on the early life of Winston Churchill, and A Bridge Too Far (1977), an all-star account of Operation Market Garden in World War II. He won the 1982 Academy Award for Directing for his historical epic, Gandhi (1982), a project he had been attempting to get made for many years. As the film’s producer, he also won the Academy Award for Best Picture. His most recent films, as director and producer, include Chaplin (1992), starring Robert Downey Jr. as Charles Chaplin, and Shadowlands (1993), based on the relationship between C.S. Lewis and Joy Gresham. Both films starred Anthony Hopkins, who also appeared in three other films for Attenborough: “Young Winston”, “A Bridge Too Far” and the thriller, Magic (1978).
Attenborough also directed the screen version of the hit Broadway musical, “A Chorus Line” (A Chorus Line (1985)), and the apartheid drama, Cry Freedom (1987), based on the experiences of Donald Woods. He was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Director for both films. His most recent film as director was another biographical film, Grey Owl (1999), starring Pierce Brosnan.
Attenborough is the President of RADA, Chairman of Capital Radio, President of BAFTA, President of the Gandhi Foundation, and President of the British National Film and Television School. He is also a vice patron of the Cinema and Television Benevolent Fund.
He is also the patron of the UWC movement (United World Colleges), whereby he continually contributes greatly to the colleges that are part of the organization. He has frequented the United World College of Southern Africa(UWCSA) Waterford Kamhlaba. His wife and he founded the “Richard and Sheila Attenborough Visual Arts Center”. He also founded the “Jane Holland Creative Center for Learning” at Waterford Kamhlaba in Swaziland in memory of his daughter, who died in the Tsunami on Boxing Day, 2004. He passionately believes in education, primarily education that does not judge upon color, race, creed or religion. His attachment to Waterford is his passion for non-racial education, which were the grounds on which Waterford Kamhlaba was founded. Waterford was one of his inspirations for directing Cry Freedom (1987), based on the life of Steve Biko.
He was elected to the post of Chancellor of the University of Sussex on 20 March 1998, replacing the Duke of Richmond and Gordon. A lifelong supporter of Chelsea Football Club, Attenborough served as a director of the club from 1969-1982 and, since 1993, has held the honorary position of Life Vice President. He is also the head of the consortium, “Dragon International”, which is constructing a film and television studio complex in Llanilid, Wales, often referred to as “Valleywood”.
In 1967, he was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE). He was knighted in 1976 and, in 1993, he was made a life peer as Baron Attenborough, of Richmond-upon-Thames in the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames.
On 13 July 2006, Attenborough and his brother, David Attenborough, were awarded the titles of Distinguished Honorary Fellows of the University of Leicester “in recognition of a record of continuing distinguished service to the University”. Lord Attenborough is also listed as an Honorary Fellow of Bangor University for his continued efforts to film making.
Attenborough has been married to English actress Sheila Sim, since 1945. They had three children. In December 2004, his elder daughter, Jane Holland, as well as her daughter Lucy and her mother-in-law, also named Jane, were killed in the tsunami caused by the Indian Ocean earthquake. A memorial service was held on 8 March 2005, and Attenborough read a lesson at the national memorial service on 11 May 2005. His grandson, Samuel Holland, and granddaughter, Alice Holland, also read in the service.
Attenborough’s father was principal of University College, Leicester, now the city’s university. This has resulted in a long association with the university, with Lord Attenborough a patron. A commemorative plaque was placed on the floor of Richmond Parish Church. The university’s “Richard Attenborough Centre for Disability and the Arts”, which opened in 1997, is named in his Honor.
His son, Michael Attenborough, is also a director. He has two younger brothers, the famous naturalist Sir David Attenborough and John Attenborough, who has made a career in the motor trade.
He has collected Pablo Picasso ceramics since the 1950s. More than 100 items went on display at the New Walk Museum and Art Gallery in Leicester in 2007; the exhibition is dedicated to his family members lost in the tsunami.
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