Richard Attenborough

Richard Samuel Attenborough, Baron Attenborough, CBE (/ˈætənbʌrə/; 29 August 1923 – 24 August 2014) was an English actor, film director, film producer, entrepreneur and politician. He was the President of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) and the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA).

As a film director and producer, Attenborough won two Academy Awards for Gandhi in 1983. He also won four BAFTA Awards and four Golden Globe Awards. As an actor, he is perhaps best known for his roles in Brighton Rock, The Great Escape, 10 Rillington Place, Miracle on 34th Street and Jurassic Park.

He was the older brother of David Attenborough, a naturalist and broadcaster, and John Attenborough, an executive at Alfa Romeo. He was married to actress Sheila Sim from 1945 until his death.

    Early life

    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 R.A.F. 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.

    Acting career

    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 sailor deserting his post under fire 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.")

    in Flight of the Phoenix (1965)

    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 alongside Steve McQueen and James Garner in the 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 English ambassador who announces that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead at the end of Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet (1996).

    Producer and director

    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 later 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.

    Later projects

    Attenborough in 1975

    After 33 years of dedicated service as President of the Muscular Dystrophy campaign, Attenborough became the charity's Honorary Life President in 2004. In 2012, the charity, which leads the fight against muscle-wasting conditions in the UK, established the Richard Attenborough Fellowship Fund to honour his lifelong commitment to the charity, and to ensure the future of clinical research and training at leading UK neuromuscular centres.

    Attenborough was also the patron of the United World Colleges movement, whereby he contributed to the colleges that are part of the organisation. He was a frequent visitor to the Waterford Kamhlaba United World College of Southern Africa (UWCSA). With his wife, they founded the Richard and Sheila Attenborough Visual Arts Centre. He also founded the Jane Holland Creative Centre for Learning at Waterford Kamhlaba in Swaziland in memory of his daughter who died in the tsunami on 26 December 2004.

    He was a longtime advocate of education that does not judge upon colour, race, creed or religion. His attachment to Waterford was his passion for non-racial education, which were the grounds on which Waterford Kamhlaba was founded. Waterford was one of his inspirations for directing the film Cry Freedom, 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. He stood down as Chancellor of the university following graduation in July 2008. There now hangs a 42 inch by 46 inch portrait of him in the university's library.

    A lifelong supporter of Chelsea Football Club, Attenborough served as a director of the club from 1969–1982 and between 1993 and 2008 held the honorary position of Life Vice President. On 30 November 2008 he was honoured with the title of Life President at the club's stadium, Stamford Bridge. He was also head of the consortium Dragon International Film Studios, which was constructing a film and television studio complex in Llanilid, Wales, nicknamed "Valleywood". In March 2008, the project was placed into administration with debts of £15 million and the site is believed to be being considered for breaking-up with a sale of the assets.

    He had a lifelong ambition to make a film about his hero the political theorist and revolutionary Thomas Paine, whom he called "one of the finest men that ever lived". He said in an interview in 2006 that "I could understand him. He wrote in simple English. I found all his aspirations – the rights of women, the health service, universal education... Everything you can think of that we want is in Rights of Man or The Age of Reason or Common Sense." He could never secure the funding to do so. The website "A Gift for Dickie" was launched by two filmmakers from Luton in June 2008 with the aim of raising £40m in 400 days to help him make the film, but the target was not met and the money that had been raised was refunded.

    Personal life

    Lord Attenborough during his term as Chancellor of the University of Sussex, February 2006

    Attenborough's father was the principal of University College, Leicester, now the city's university. This resulted in a long association with the university, with Attenborough becoming a patron. The university's Embrace Arts at the RA centre, which opened in 1997 is named in his honour. He had two younger brothers: naturalist and broadcaster David; and John (died 2012), who had made a career in the motor trade.

    Attenborough married actress Sheila Sim in 1945. From 1949 until October 2012 they lived in Beaver Lodge on Richmond Green in London. The house was sold in October 2012 for £11.5 million, owing to the couple's deteriorating health.

    On 26 December 2004 the couple's eldest daughter, 49-year-old Jane Holland, along with her mother-in-law, also named Jane, and Attenborough's 15-year-old granddaughter, Lucy, were killed when a tsunami caused by the Indian Ocean earthquake struck Khao Lak, Thailand, where they were on holiday. A 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, an actor in his own right, who survived the tsunami uninjured, and granddaughter Alice Holland, who suffered severe leg injuries, also read in the service. A commemorative plaque was placed in the floor of St. Mary Magdalen's parish church in Richmond. Attenborough later described the Boxing Day of 2004 as "the worst day of my life". Attenborough had two other children, Michael and Charlotte. Michael was a theatre director and the former artistic director of the Almeida Theatre in London and has been married to actress Karen Lewis since 1984; they have two sons. Charlotte is an actress, and has three children.

    Attenborough collected Picasso ceramics from the 1950s. More than 100 items went on display at the New Walk Museum and Art Gallery in Leicester in 2007, in an exhibition dedicated to family members lost in the tsunami.

    In 2008 he published an informal autobiography entitled Entirely Up to You, Darling in association with his long-standing friend and colleague Diana Hawkins.[]

    Illness and death

    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. He was considered for and had been in negotiations for a reprising of his role as John Hammond in the soon-to-be-at-the-time-released-in 2015 film Jurassic World before his death. Unfortunately, he died before full production on it properly began.


    Attenborough was the subject of This Is Your Life in December 1962 when he was surprised by Eamonn Andrews at the Savoy Hotel, during a dinner held to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Agatha Christie play The Mousetrap, in which he had been an original cast member.

    In the 1967 Birthday Honours, he was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE). He was made a Knight Bachelor in the 1976 New Year Honours, having the honour conferred on 10 February 1976 and on 30 July 1993 he was created a life peer as Baron Attenborough, of Richmond upon Thames in the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames. Although the appointment by John Major was 'non-political' (it was granted for services to the cinema) and he could have been a crossbencher, Attenborough chose to take the Labour whip and so sat on the Labour benches. In 1992 he had been offered a peerage by Neil Kinnock, then leader of the Labour Party, but refused it as he felt unable to commit to the time necessary "to do what was required of him in the Upper Chamber, as he always put film-making first".

    In 1983, Attenborough was awarded the Padma Bhushan, India's third highest civilian award, and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Nonviolence Peace Prize by the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change.

    In 1992 he was awarded the Shakespeare Prize for his life's work by the Alfred Toepfer Foundation in Hamburg.[]

    In 1993, Attenborough was appointed a Fellow of King's College London.

    On 13 July 2006, Attenborough, along with his brother David, 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".

    On 20 November 2008, Attenborough was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Drama from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (RSAMD) in Glasgow.

    Attenborough was an Honorary Fellow of Bangor University for his contributions to film making.

    Pinewood Studios paid tribute to his body of work by naming a purpose-built film and television stage after him. The Richard Attenborough Stage has an area of 30,000 sq ft. In his absence because of illness, Lord Puttnam and Pinewood Chairman Lord Grade officially unveiled the stage on 23 April 2012.

    Corporate appointments

    • Actors Charitable Trust. Chairman 1956–88, President 1988–2014
    • Equity. Council Member 1949–73
    • Royal Theatrical Fund Board of Directors. Vice President 1985–2014
    • Muscular Dystrophy Campaign. Vice President 1962–71, President 1971–2004, Life President 2004–2014
    • Cinema and Television Benevolent Fund. Council Member 1962–2003, Vice Patron 2003–2014
    • King George V Fund for Actors. Committee Member 1962–73, Trustee 1973–2014
    • Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA). Member of Council 1963–73, Chairman 1973–2003, President 2003–2014
    • Combined Theatrical Charities Appeals Council. Chairman 1964–88, President 1988–2014
    • Royal Society of Arts. Life Fellow 1965
    • Chelsea Football Club. Vice President 1966, Director 1969–82, Life Vice President 1993–2008, Life President 2008–2014
    • Cinematograph Films Council Member 1967–73
    • Gardner Centre for the Arts, University of Sussex. Patron 1969–90, President 1990–2014
    • National Film and Television School. Governor 1970–81, President 1977–2014
    • University of Sussex. Pro Chancellor 1970–98, Chancellor 1998–2008
    • BAFTA. Vice President 1971–94, Chairman of David Lean BAFTA Foundation Trustees 1972–2002, President 2002–2014
    • Capital Radio. Chairman 1972–92, Life President 1992–2014
    • The Little Theatre, Leicester. Patron 1973–92, Honorary Life President 1992–2014
    • The Young Vic Theatre Company. Director 1974–84
    • "Help a London Child". Founder & Life Patron 1998–2014
    • Tate Gallery. Trustee 1976–82 & 1994–96
    • Waterford Kamhlaba School, Swaziland. Chairman UK Trustees 1976–2004, Member Governing Council 1987–, President 2004–2014
    • Duke of York's Theatre. Chairman 1979–92
    • Channel Four Television Corporation. Deputy Chairman 1980–86, Chairman 1986–92
    • Board of Governors of the British Film Institute. Chairman 1981–92
    • Goldcrest Films & Television. Chairman 1982–87
    • Kingsley Hall Community Centre. (Mahatma Gandhi lodged there in 1931) Patron 1982–2014
    • Committee of Enquiry into the Arts and Disabled People: Reporting on access and inclusion. Chairman 1983–85
    • The Gandhi Foundation. President 1983–2014
    • Brighton Festival. President 1984–85
    • British Film Year. President 1984–86
    • British Screen Advisory Council. Chairman 1987–96, Honorary President 1996–2014
    • UNICEF. Goodwill Ambassador 1987–2014
    • European Script Fund. Chairman 1988–96, Honorary President 1996–2014
    • Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond, London. Patron (with Lady Attenborough) 1988–2014
    • Arts For Health. President 1989–2014
    • European Film Academy. Co-founder (with Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini and Claude Chabrol) 1989
    • Richard Attenborough Centre for Disability and the Arts, University of Leicester. Patron 1990–2014
    • Foundation for Sport and the Arts. Trustee 1991–2003, President 2003–2014
    • Chicken Shed Theatre Company. Honorary Patron 1992–2014
    • One World Action. Patron 1992–2014
    • Satyajit Ray Foundation. Patron 1995–2014
    • Oxford University, Cameron Mackintosh Visiting Professor of Contemporary Theatre. 1996
    • Sussex Centre for German-Jewish Studies. Patron 1996–2014
    • United World Colleges. Member of the International Board 1996–2000, International Patron 2000–2014
    • Amnesty International. Patron 1997–2014
    • Mousetrap Theatre Projects. Trustee 1997–2014
    • The Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund. Trustee 1998
    • UK Film Council. Government Advisor 1999–2014
    • Sir John Gielgud Charitable Trust. Trustee 2001–2014
    • Themba HIV/AIDS Project in South Africa. Patron 2002–2014
    • Unicorn Theatre. Patron 2002–2014
    • Mandela Statue Fund. Chairman 2003–2007
    • St Edward's Oxford North Wall Arts Centre. Patron and Steering Committee Member 2005–2014
    • CLIC Sargent. Ambassador 2006–2014
    • Greater London Fund for the Blind. Vice President 2006–2014
    • The Richard Attenborough Regional Film Critics Award. Patron 2007–2014

    Attenborough also headed a committee awarding the eponymous Attenborough Prize, a £2,000 annual arts prize celebrating creativity by emerging artists.


    Year Title Credited as
    Producer Director Actor Role
    1942 In Which We Serve Yes A young stoker
    1943 Schweik's New Adventures Yes Railway worker
    1944 The Hundred Pound Window Yes Tommy Draper
    1946 Journey Together Yes David Wilton
    1946 A Matter of Life and Death Yes An English pilot
    1946 School for Secrets Yes Jack Arnold
    1947 Brighton Rock Yes Pinkie Brown
    1947 The Man Within Yes Francis Andrews
    1947 Dancing with Crime Yes Ted Peters
    1948 London Belongs to Me Yes Percy Boon
    1948 The Guinea Pig Yes Jack Read
    1949 The Lost People Yes Jan
    1949 Boys in Brown Yes Jackie Knowles
    1950 Morning Departure Yes Stoker Snipe
    1951 The Magic Box Yes Jack Carter
    1951 Hell is Sold Out Yes Pierre Bonnet
    1952 Father's Doing Fine Yes Dougall
    1952 Gift Horse Yes Dripper Daniels
    1954 Eight O'Clock Walk Yes Thomas "Tom" Leslie Manning
    1955 The Ship That Died of Shame Yes George Hoskins
    1956 Private's Progress Yes Pvt. Percival Henry Cox
    1956 The Baby and the Battleship Yes Knocker White
    1957 The Scamp Yes Stephen Leigh
    1957 Brothers in Law Yes Henry Marshall
    1958 Dunkirk Yes John Holden
    1958 The Man Upstairs Yes Peter Watson
    1958 Sea of Sand Yes Brody
    1959 The League of Gentlemen Yes Lexy
    1959 I'm All Right Jack Yes Sidney De Vere Cox
    1959 Danger Within Yes Capt. "Bunter" Phillips
    1959 Jet Storm Yes Ernest Tiller
    1959 SOS Pacific Yes Whitney Mullen
    1960 The Angry Silence Yes Yes Tom Curtis
    1961 Whistle Down the Wind Yes
    1962 Only Two Can Play Yes Probert
    1962 The L-Shaped Room Yes
    1962 The Dock Brief aka Trial and Error Yes Herbert Fowle
    1963 The Great Escape Yes Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett
    1964 The Third Secret Yes Alfred Price-Gorham
    1964 Séance on a Wet Afternoon Yes Yes Billy Savage
    1964 Guns at Batasi Yes Regimental Sgt. Major Lauderdale
    1965 The Flight of the Phoenix Yes Lew Moran
    1966 The Sand Pebbles Yes Frenchy Burgoyne
    1967 Doctor Dolittle Yes Albert Blossom
    1968 Only When I Larf Yes Silas
    1968 The Bliss of Mrs. Blossom Yes Robert Blossom
    1969 The Magic Christian Yes Oxford coach
    1969 Oh! What a Lovely War Yes Yes
    1970 Loot Yes Inspector Truscott
    1970 The Last Grenade Yes Gen. Charles Whiteley
    1970 A Severed Head Yes Palmer Anderson
    1971 10 Rillington Place Yes John Christie
    1972 Cup Glory Yes Narrator
    1972 Young Winston Yes Yes
    1974 And Then There Were None Yes Judge Arthur Cannon
    1975 Rosebud Yes Edward Sloat
    1975 Brannigan Yes Cmdr. Sir Charles Swann
    1975 Conduct Unbecoming Yes Maj. Lionel E. Roach
    1977 Shatranj Ke Khilari Yes Lt. General Outram
    1977 A Bridge Too Far Yes Yes Lunatic wearing glasses
    1978 Magic Yes
    1979 The Human Factor Yes Col. John Daintry
    1982 Gandhi Yes Yes
    1985 A Chorus Line Yes
    1987 Cry Freedom Yes Yes
    1992 Chaplin Yes Yes
    1993 Jurassic Park Yes John Hammond
    1993 Shadowlands Yes Yes
    1994 Miracle on 34th Street Yes Kris Kringle
    1996 Hamlet Yes English Ambassador to Denmark
    1996 In Love and War Yes Yes
    1997 The Lost World: Jurassic Park Yes John Hammond
    1998 Elizabeth Yes Sir William Cecil
    1999 Grey Owl Yes Yes
    1999 Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat Yes Jacob
    2002 Puckoon Yes Narrator
    2007 Closing the Ring Yes Yes
    2015 Jurassic World Yes John Hammond (archive audio)


    In early 1973 he was spoofed as "Dickie Attenborough" in the British Showbiz Awards sketch late in the third series of Monty Python's Flying Circus. Attenborough is portrayed by Eric Idle as effusive and simpering.

    In 2012 Attenborough was portrayed by Simon Callow in the BBC Four biopic The Best Possible Taste about Kenny Everett.


    • Richard Attenborough, Esq. (1923–1967)
    • Richard Attenborough, CBE (1967–1976)
    • Sir Richard Attenborough, CBE (1976–1993)
    • The Rt Hon. The Lord Attenborough, CBE (1993–2014)[]

    See also

    • List of oldest Best Director Academy Award winners


    External links