Attenborough was born on 29 August 1923 in Cambridge, the eldest of three sons of Mary Attenborough (née Clegg), a founding member of the Marriage Guidance Council, and Frederick Levi Attenborough, a scholar and academic administrator who was a fellow at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and wrote a standard text on Anglo-Saxon law. Attenborough was educated at Wyggeston Grammar School for Boys in Leicester and studied at RADA.
In September 1939, the Attenboroughs took in two German-Jewish refugee girls, Helga and Irene Bejach (aged 9 and 11 respectively), who lived with them in College House and were adopted by the family after the war when it was discovered that their parents had been killed. The sisters moved to America in the 1950s and lived with an uncle, where they married and took American citizenship; Irene died in 1992 and Helga in 2005.
During the Second World War, Attenborough served in the Royal Air Force. After initial pilot training he was seconded to the newly formed RAF Film Unit at Pinewood Studios, under the command of Flight Lieutenant John Boulting (whose brother Peter Cotes would later direct Attenborough in the play The Mousetrap) where he appeared with Edward G. Robinson in the propaganda film Journey Together (1943). He then volunteered to fly with the Film Unit and after further training, where he sustained permanent ear damage, qualified as a sergeant, flying on several missions over Europe filming from the rear gunner’s position to record the outcome of Bomber Command sorties.
Attenborough’s acting career started on stage and he appeared in shows at Leicester’s Little Theatre, Dover Street, prior to his going to RADA, where he remained Patron until his death. Attenborough’s film career began in 1942 in an uncredited role as a deserting sailor in the Noël Coward/David Lean production In Which We Serve (his name and character were accidentally omitted from the original release-print credits), a role which would help to type-cast him for many years as a spiv or coward in films like London Belongs to Me (1948), Morning Departure (1950) and his breakthrough role as Pinkie Brown in John Boulting’s film adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel Brighton Rock (1947), a part that he had previously played to great acclaim at the Garrick Theatre in 1942. In 1949, exhibitors voted him the sixth most popular British actor at the box office.
Early in his stage career, Attenborough starred in the West End production of Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap, which went on to become the world’s longest running stage production. Both he and his wife were among the original cast members of the production, which opened in 1952 at the Ambassadors Theatre and as of 2014 is still running at the St Martins Theatre. They took a 10% profit-participation in the production, which was paid for out of their combined weekly salary (“It proved to be the wisest business decision I’ve ever made… but foolishly I sold some of my share to open a short-lived Mayfair restaurant called ‘The Little Elephant’ and later still, disposed of the remainder in order to keep Gandhi afloat.”)
Attenborough worked prolifically in British films for the next 30 years, including in the 1950s, appearing in several successful comedies for John and Roy Boulting, such as Private’s Progress (1956) and I’m All Right Jack (1959).
In 1963, he appeared in the ensemble cast of The Great Escape as RAF Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett (“Big X”), the head of the escape committee, based on the real-life exploits of Roger Bushell. It was his first appearance in a major Hollywood film blockbuster and his most successful film thus far. During the 1960s, he expanded his range of 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 Regimental Sergeant Major (RSM). In 1965 he played Lew Moran opposite James Stewart in The Flight of the Phoenix and 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, again co-starring Steve McQueen, and the second time for Doctor Dolittle starring Rex Harrison.
His portrayal of the serial killer John Christie in 10 Rillington Place (1971) garnered excellent reviews. In 1977, he played the ruthless General Outram, again to great acclaim, in the Indian director Satyajit Ray’s period piece The Chess Players.
He took no acting roles following his appearance in Otto Preminger’s version of The Human Factor (1979) until his appearance as the eccentric developer John Hammond in Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993) and the film’s sequel, The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997). He starred in the remake of Miracle on 34th Street (1994) as Kris Kringle. Later he made occasional appearances in supporting roles, including as Sir William Cecil in the historical drama Elizabeth (1998), Jacob in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and as “The Narrator” in the film adaptation of Spike Milligan’s comedy book Puckoon (2002).
He made his only appearance in a film adaptation of Shakespeare when he played the British ambassador who announces that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead at the end of Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet (1996).
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 (1959), The Angry Silence (1960) and Whistle Down the Wind (1961), appearing in the cast of the first two films.
His feature film directorial debut was the all-star screen version of the hit musical Oh! What a Lovely War (1969), after which his acting appearances became sporadic as he concentrated more on directing and producing. 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 Best Director and as the film’s producer, the Academy Award for Best Picture for his historical epic Gandhi and another two Golden Globes, this time for Best Director and Best Foreign Film, for the same film in 1983, a project he had been attempting to get made for 18 years. Attenborough also directed the screen version of the musical A Chorus Line (1985) and the anti-apartheid drama Cry Freedom (1987), based on the life and death of prominent anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko and the experiences of Donald Woods. He was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Director for both films.
His most recent films as director and producer include Chaplin (1992) starring Robert Downey, Jr., as Charlie Chaplin and Shadowlands (1993), based on the relationship between C. S. Lewis and Joy Gresham (the star of the latter was Anthony Hopkins, who had appeared in four previous films for Attenborough: Young Winston, A Bridge Too Far, Magic and Chaplin). Between 2006-07, he spent time in Belfast, working on his last film as director and producer, Closing the Ring, a love story set in Belfast during the Second World War and starring Shirley MacLaine, Christopher Plummer and Pete Postlethwaite.
In August 2008 Attenborough entered hospital with heart problems and was fitted with a pacemaker. In December 2008 he suffered a fall at his home after a stroke, and was admitted to St George’s Hospital in Tooting, southwest London. In November 2009 Attenborough, in what he called a “house clearance” sale, sold part of his extensive art collection, which included works by L. S. Lowry, Christopher R. W. Nevinson and Graham Sutherland, generating £4.6 million at Sotheby’s.
In January 2011, he sold his Rhubodach estate on the Scottish Isle of Bute for £1.48 million. In May 2011, David Attenborough revealed that his brother had been confined to a wheelchair since his stroke in 2008, but was still capable of holding a conversation. He added that “he won’t be making any more films.” In June 2012, shortly before her 90th birthday, Sheila Sim entered the actors’ home Denville Hall, for which she and Attenborough had helped raise funds. In July 2012 it was announced that Sim has been diagnosed with senile dementia.
In October 2012, it was announced that Attenborough was putting the family home, Old Friars, with its attached offices, Beaver Lodge, which come complete with a sound-proofed cinema in the garden, on the market for £11.5 million. His brother David stated “He and his wife both loved the house, but they now need full-time care. It simply isn’t practical to keep the house on any more.” In March 2013, in light of his deteriorating health, Attenborough moved into a nursing home in London to be with his wife, as confirmed by their son Michael.
Attenborough died on 24 August 2014, five days before his 91st birthday. Richard Attenborough was survived by his wife of almost 70 years, their two surviving children, six surviving grandchildren and a great-grandchild.
- August, 29, 1923
- Cambridge, England
- August, 24, 2014
- London, England