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Richard Attenborough: Man behind the epic Gandhi film

One of the most talented British film actors, he is best known for directorial achievements, specially the Academy Award-winning magnum opus biographical movie Gandhi

ht-school Updated: Aug 10, 2020, 18:40 IST
HT  Correspondent
HT Correspondent
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Richard Attenborough
Richard Attenborough(Gajanan Nirphale)

Born on August 29, 1923 in Cambridge, England, Richard was the eldest son of Frederick Attenborough, scholar and fellow of the Emmanuel College at Cambridge and Mary Clegg, founding member of the Marriage Guidance Council. Growing up in a socially responsible and principled family, Richard studied at the Wyggeston Grammar School in Leicester before enrolling for theatre studies at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA).


Attenborough devoted the early part of his career to the stage. He starred in the London West End production of Agatha Christie’s murder mystery play The Mousetrap, which later became one of the world’s longest-running stage productions. He and his wife, Sheila Sim, were among the original cast members of the production which opened in 1952 and is still running.

The actor took the big leap into films in 1942 that he first appeared in a film in a minor role that went uncredited. He got a breakthrough in 1947 when he played the fictional character Pinkie Brown in the film named Brighton Rock, based on Graham Greene’s novel. It was a performance that won accolades.

The 1950s were a highly productive period for Attenborough who had by then grown into a popular actor. It was a period during which he also appeared in numerous comedies such as Private’s Progress (1956) and I’m All Right Jack (1959). In 1963, he appeared as Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett in the ensemble cast of a movie titled The Great Escape which became a blockbuster. In 1966, he starred along with Steve McQueen and Richard Crenna in the period war film The Sand Pebbles which narrated the story of a rebellious US Navy machinist’s mate.


He made his directorial debut in 1969 with the film Oh! What a Lovely War!, that was based on the stage musical of the same name. The film had an ensemble cast including John Mills, Laurence Olivier and Jack Hawkins.

The highest point of Attenborough’s career came in 1982 with the epic biographical film titled Gandhi that, under his directorial baton, admirably captured on celluloid the life of Mahatma Gandhi whose leadership and revolutionary method of non-violent protest broke India’s colonial shackles.

Making the film was the fulfilment of Attenborough’s two-decade-long ambition. Gandhi won eight Oscars at the 55th Academy Awards in 1983 which included the Best Director and Best Picture Awards for Attenborough.

The film also won him BAFTA Awards for Best Film and Best Direction. In 1983, he was also conferred the Padma Bhushan. His last directorial venture in films was Closing the Ring in 2007.

Attenborough breathed his last on August 24, 2014, five days short of what would have been his 91st birthday.


In 1967, he was made 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 London’s Richmond-upon-Thames borough. He headed organisations such as RADA, BAFTA, the Gandhi Foundation and the British National Film and Television School.

Interesting facts

Richard Attenborough served in the Royal Air Force (RAF) during the World War II. During that period, he flew over Europe with the RAF’s Film Unit on many occasions and filmed from the rear gunner’s position. Attenborough was a philanthropist who actively took part in the activities of Muscular Dystrophy UK, a charity that focuses on muscular dystrophy and related conditions. A staunch believer in the principle that everyone, irrespective of race, colour, or ethnicity should have easy access to quality education, the noted film actor and director and was also involved with the United World Colleges movement.

He was also a huge fan of ceramics made by great artist Pablo Picasso and had a vast collection of them. His younger brother, British naturalist and broadcaster David Attenborough, is equally famous.

In 1977, he acted in a movie directed by renowned director Satyajit Ray. Attenborough portrayed the character of General Outram in Shatranj Ke Khilari that was based on a short story by Munshi Premchand.

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