Richard Attenborough, a baby-faced actor whose growing annoyance at playing “psychopaths and little squirts” led him to become a filmmaker, and who won Academy Awards as the director and producer of “Gandhi,” died Sunday in London. He was 90.
His family announced the death but did not give a cause.
Attenborough, who was knighted for his film work years before he completed “Gandhi” in 1982, had long been considered one of the most versatile and compelling of British character actors.
He was equally skilled at portraying wartime heroes (“The Great Escape,” 1963) and hysterical cowards (“In Which We Serve,” 1942), meek Cockneys (“Seance on a Wet Afternoon,” 1964) and sadistic thugs (“Brighton Rock,” 1947). To a later generation, he was well known as the scientist-entrepreneur who clones dinosaur DNA in Steven Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park” (1993).
But it was “Gandhi,” a project he had spent 20 years pursuing, for which he is chiefly remembered and which remains one of the greatest acts of creative perseverance by a filmmaker.
Attenborough said that, among other obstacles, he had to overcome skepticism by producers that no one would pay to see an epic-length drama about Mohandas K. Gandhi, also known as Mahatma Gandhi, the assassinated nonviolence advocate from India who led his country to independence from English rule. A 1963 Hollywood film, “Nine Hours to Rama,” starring Horst Buchholz as Gandhi’s killer, flopped.
Attenborough told Newsweek: “They were all terrified of the subject matter, they thought it was totally uncommercial, they wanted a major movie name to play the lead and I was absolutely determined not to have a star in the part. At one point Paramount (Pictures) actually said they’d give me the money if Richard Burton could play Gandhi.”