Richard Attenborough, Oscar-Winning Director of ‘Gandhi,’ Dead at 90

The English producer, director and actor’s career spanned six decades and his films brought social issues to light

English actor, director and producer Richard Attenborough, whose powerful movies including “Gandhi” brought awareness of subjects like war, pacifism and apartheid to millions, has died. He was 90.

Attenborough died at lunchtime Sunday, his son told BBC News. He had been in a nursing home with his wife for a number of years, after suffering a serious fall six years ago.

After spending several decades working as a character actor, Attenborough gained worldwide recognition in 1982 when he won an Oscar as Best Birector for his passion project, “Gandhi,” which he also produced. In all, the detailing of the life of India’s great spiritual leader won eight Academy Awards, including best picture and best actor for Ben Kingsley.

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Five years later, his epic “Cry Freedom” told the story of black leader Steve Biko — played by Denzel Washington — and provided an insight into the conditions in South Africa at the height of apartheid.

He also directed “Oh What a Lovely War,” “Young Winston,” “A Bridge Too Far,” “A Chorus Line,” “Chaplain” and “Shadowlands.”

Richard Attenborough and Ben Kingsley

As an actor, he is known for supporting roles in “The Sand Pebbles” and “Dr. Dolittle,” for which he earned back-to-back Golden Globes. He put his acting career on hold while focusing on directing, but returned to play developer John Hammond in Steven Spielberg‘s 1993 blockbuster “Jurassic Park.” The following year he starred as Kris Kringle in 1994’s “Miracle on 34th Street,” a remake of the 1947 Christmas classic.

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Attenborough’s film career, which would last more than six decades, began with a role as a deserting sailor in 1942’s “In Which We Serve.” As a result of that role, he was typecast for many years as a coward in films like “Dulcimer Street,” “Operation Disaster” and his breakthrough role as a psychopathic young gangster in 1947’s “Brighton Rock.”

He worked prolifically in British films for the next 30 years, and in the 1950s appeared in several successful comedies including 1956’s “Private’s Progress” and “I’m All Right Jack” in 1959.

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 Sheila Sim were among the original cast members of the production, which opened in 1952.

In the 1960s he played more character roles in films such as “Séance 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 Sergeant Major. He appeared in 1963’s “The Great Escape,” as Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett (“Big X”), the head of the escape committee.

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. He played serial killer John Christie in 1971’s “10 Rillington Place.”

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 the Allies’ ill-fated Operation Market Garden in World War II.

Universal Pictures

Universal Pictures

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His film “Gandhi,” was a project he fought with Indian officials to make and had to scrape money together for nearly two decades to finance.

His later 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” (1985)) and the apartheid drama “Cry Freedom” (1987). He was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for best director for both films. His most recent film as director was “Grey Owl” (1999), starring Pierce Brosnan.

Attenborough has served as president of Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, chairman of Capital Radio, president of BAFTA, president of the Gandhi Foundation, and president of the British National Film and Television School. He was also a vice patron of the Cinema and Television Benevolent Fund.

He was a tremendous supporter of education, and a major patron of the United World Colleges. He also founded the Jane Holland Creative Center for Learning at Waterford Kamhlaba in Swaziland in memory of his daughter who died in a tsunami in 2004.

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.

His son, Michael Attenborough, is also a director. The senior Attenborough has two younger brothers, the famous naturalist David Attenborough and John Attenborough, who has made a career in the automobile industry.

Born in Cambridge, Attenborough was educated at Wyggeston Grammar School for Boys in Leicester before studying at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. During the Second World War he served with the Royal Air Force.