Richard Attenborough, the British movie director who chronicled the end of British colonial rule in India with his Oscar-winning epic “Gandhi” and performed in more than 50 films, died Sunday. He was 90.
He would have turned 91 this week.
Attenborough, who was knighted in 1976, acted in 45 movies before he turned to directing. His 1982 cinematic tale about Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi won eight Academy Awards, including ones for directing and best picture. They were the only Oscars he would win in his six-decade career.
The brother of David Attenborough, the naturalist and television-documentary maker, made his directorial debut in 1969 with a film based on the musical “Oh! What a Lovely War.” He followed up with “Young Winston” (1972), a biography of Winston Churchill’s early years, and with World War II drama “A Bridge Too Far” (1977). None of those movies stirred the passions that accompanied his 20-year battle to make a film about Gandhi, the charismatic Indian leader who espoused nonviolent resistance — and was murdered in 1948 soon after gaining his country’s independence.
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In 1962, Attenborough met an Indian official in London who urged him to make a film about Gandhi. Aware that Hollywood director Otto Preminger and U.K. filmmaker David Lean had tried and failed to make a movie on the same topic, Attenborough was wary about the project.
Though he knew Gandhi had been assassinated, Attenborough was “utterly ignorant as to where he was born, where he had lived or the kind of life he had led,” the filmmaker wrote in “In Search of Gandhi” (1982).
Nonetheless, he was hooked. In the next two decades, he made many trips to India, winning the approval of Prime Ministers Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi for the project. He gained financing promises from U.K. and Hollywood studios, independent producers and even an Indian maharajah on the strength of scripts by well-known screenwriters.
All his efforts came to nothing. In the late 1970s, he was nudged aside when director Lean said he wanted to make the movie.
At the last moment, Lean and his would-be scriptwriter backed out and Attenborough was approached again. This time, the stars were favorably aligned: Financial backers came through and he managed to cut the five-hour shooting script to 191 minutes.
After years of struggle, shooting began on Nov. 26, 1980, in India and ended 121 days later. The star-studded film — featuring Candice Bergen, Edward Fox, John Gielgud, John Mills and Martin Sheen — even came in on budget at $22 million.
Attenborough produced and directed about a dozen movies, though only “Gandhi” was ever nominated for an Academy Award. In addition to Attenborough’s two Oscars, Ben Kingsley won an Oscar for best actor for his portrayal of Gandhi. The film also collected Oscars for cinematography, screenplay, editing, costumes and art direction.
Richard Samuel Attenborough was born on Aug. 29, 1923, in Cambridge, England, the eldest of three sons. To the distress of his father, a university professor, Attenborough bypassed college to attend the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, graduating in 1942.
He showed talent as a drama student, winning the part of a deserting seaman in Noel Coward’s film “In Which We Serve” in 1942. He was cast as a hoodlum in “Brighton Rock,” a Graham Greene’s play, reprising the role in the film version in 1947.
While studying at RADA, he met actress Sheila Sim, whom he married in 1945. They starred together in the original cast of Agatha Christie’s “The Mousetrap,” a murder mystery that opened in 1952 and is still playing in London.
As an actor, Attenborough showed a deft touch in “Private’s Progress” (1956), in which he played a scam artist, and in the satire “I’m All Right, Jack” (1959), which starred Peter Sellers.
He also appeared in “The Great Escape” (1963), “The Sand Pebbles” (1966), “Doctor Doolittle” (1967) and in two of Steven Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park” movies.
Though he received some of his best reviews as serial killer John Christie in “10 Rillington Place” (1971), his acting career tailed off with his growing involvement in producing and directing.
By then, he had produced “Whistle Down the Wind” (1961) and “Séance on a Wet Afternoon” (1964). After “Gandhi,” he went on to direct “Cry Freedom” (1987) — the story of the murdered South African civil-rights activist Steve Biko — and “Chaplin” (1992), starring Robert Downey Jr.
Attenborough served as chairman of the British Film Institute from 1981 to 1992.
He is survived by his wife and son Michael, a theater director, and daughter Charlotte, an actress. Daughter Jane Holland died in a 2004 tsunami while traveling in Thailand. Attenborough had been in a nursing home with his wife for a number of years, BBC reported Sunday.