Richard Attenborough - a biography

Richard Attenborough was born in Cambridge on Wednesday 29th August 1923 and is the eldest of three brothers. His brothers are John and David Attenborough, David is the famous naturalist and TV presenter. Interested in theatre whilst a teenager, (his mother was the president of the Leicester Little Theatre), Richard, or "Dickie" as he is usually known, won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) and went to London to train to become an actor at the age of 17. Whilst there, he won his first film role - In Which We Serve. Dickie's performance as a cowardly sailor was very good, possibly too good, as it had the effect of causing him to be somewhat typecast for many years.

Whilst still at RADA, Dickie met actress Sheila Sim. The got married on Monday 22nd January 1945 and are still happily married now, some 58 years later! This was after some three years active service with the RAF during the Second World War. With his round cherubic face, Dickie often played youngsters - far younger than his actual age. He was cast against type as Graham Greene's villian 'Pinkie Brown' in Brighton Rock. His performance as the razor wielding psychopath was chilling and one of the many highlights in his long career. Dickie and his wife Sheila were also amongst the original cast of the play 'The Mousetrap', the world's longest running play. The play opened on 25th November 1952 and is still running today after over 50 years!


After playing numerous cowards, naval ratings and psychopaths, Dickie made three hit comedies for the Boulting Brothers. These were Private's Progress, Brothers in Law and I'm All Right Jack. Dickie then formed 'Beaver Films' with his friend, Bryan Forbes and starred in their first film production, The Angry Silence. It is interesting to note that the principals took only a nominal payment, with the balance deferred in the form of a percentage of the film's ultimate profitability. Dickie gives an astonishing performance in the film as a man sent to Coventry by his work mates for refusing to be bullied into joining an unofficial strike. My favourite line in the film is when his wife says to him, "you're quiet" and he replies "well it's been a quiet day ........." but Dickie's best scene is when he goes mad in the canteen and rants and raves at his colleagues.


Dickie and Beaver Films went on to produce other films, including two that Dickie didn't star in, 'Whistle Down the Wind' and 'The L-Shaped Room'. Production culminated in a classic performance from Dickie in Seance on a Wet Afternoon. I believe that he personally rates this as his best ever performance. I beg to disagree as I outline below. Long resisting the call of Hollywood, Dickie went to Germany to make my own personal favourite film of all time, The Great Escape. In this film, Dickie plays Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett (known as 'Big X') who organises the escape with meticulous precision. As a child I always identified myself with him as his character in this film had the same first name as myself! In 1979, I wrote to David Attenborough to ask for his brother Richard's address and David sent me a lovely hand-written reply giving the address of Beaver films. I then wrote to Richard Attenborough and he sent me the signed photo below. It has to be said that Richard Attenborough, rarely responds to any fan mail and this photograph has always been one of my most treasured possessions.




Dickie then went on to make three classic films for 20th Century Fox. The first was The Flight of the Phoenix, another favourite of mine. His best scene here is where he is laughing hysterically after finding out that Hardy Kruger was a "toy" aircraft designer rather than a real aircraft designer. That scene is something that has always stuck in my mind. His next film was the classic 'The Sand Pebbles" - another all time favourite film of mine and again with his friend, Steve McQueen. Dickie's performance was honoured with a Golden Globe award for best supporting actor. This was a feat he repeated the next year with his third Hollywood film, Doctor Dolittle, in which we have the surprise of seeing Dickie dance and sing "I've Never Seen Anything Like It In My Life!" You can see a list of all of Richard Attenborough's awards by clicking here


For many years, Dickie had been hoping and planning to make a film about the life of Mahatma Gandhi. As an initial directing project Dickie directed Oh! What a Lovely War and did such a good job of it that his career as a film director took off. Before directing his second film, Dickie gave his most chilling performance in 10 Rillington Place and it is that that I personally rate as his best ever performance. A brilliant film from an equally brilliant book, I urge you to see it - an all time classic that has been grossly underrated. The film is the astonishing true story about how an innocent man was hanged for a murder he did not commit. In 1972, Dickie also became the Chairman of RADA, a position that he still holds.


Dickie then directed a classic adventure film, Young Winston, based on Winston Churchill's book 'My Early Life' and this features some epic battle scenes - most notably an incredible recreation of the battle of Omdurman (1898). The huge amount of extras and sheer scope of some of the scenes no doubt led to Joseph Levine choosing Richard Attenborough to direct the epic war film A Bridge Too Far. Dickie had to get either Steve McQueen or Robert Redford to star in the film as they were the two biggest stars of the mid 1970's. Meeting up with his old friend Steve McQueen, Dickie was unable to persuade him to join the cast - Steve had effectively retired after the huge success of 'The Towering Inferno' and did not want to work. It was Robert Redford who was paid $1000,000 to be one of "14 Superstars" referred to on the UK quad poster. This is a film with one of the best star casts of all time (The Great Escape is another). This feat is unlikely to be repeated bearing in mind top film star salaries. The recreation of the 'Operation Market Garden' is truly astonishing - no computer generated images here! When you see hundreds and hundreds of soldiers parachuting, you see it for real.

Dickie's acting career began to wane as he concentrated more and more on directing. Again working for Joseph Levine, Dickie directed Anthony Hopkins in Magic where Hopkins gave a performance of a lifetime playing a schizophrenic. Hopefully many more people will discover this film - a fantastic thriller. I loved the sinister dummy "Fats" - where is it now? If anybody knows, please e-mail me! After a few acting performances in the mid to late 1970's, notably Brannigan with John Wayne, Dickie made what appeared to be his final acting performance in a film in 1980 in The Human Factor.


Dickie then went on to major success by finally realising his dream and making his film, Gandhi. The film is a tremendous epic and boasts, amongst other things, the biggest scene with extras of any film - a million Indians are in the scene of Gandhi's funeral! Now that must take some directing! Gandhi was a huge success. Dickie won the Oscar for best director and Ben Kingsley won the best actor Oscar for his role of Gandhi. The film not only won the Oscar for best film of 1982 (beating Steven Speilberg's box office giant, 'E.T') but went on to win a total of 8 Oscars.


Since this huge success, Dickie has directed a number of, mainly biographical, films and he has become one of leading film directors in the world. His friendship with fellow film director, Steven Speilberg lead to his return to acting. Speilberg needed an authority figure for his film, Jurassic Park. Dickie had specialised in authority figures from the late 1960's to 1980, playing mainly army officers and the like, ever since a tremendous performance as a Regimental Sergeant Major in Guns at Batasi. It was The Great Escape that Speilberg remembered though. Dickie's performance as the man who planned the entire escape was on his mind when he decided that Dickie was perfect for the role of John Hammond and he talked him out of acting retirement. Jurassic Park was a worldwide smash and bought Dickie to the attention of a whole new generation of fans.

The acting bug obviously bit Dickie again because the following year he starred in Miracle on 34th Street, making an ideal Father Christmas with his snow-white beard. Although still occasionally acting, Dickie has many other things on his plate. He is quite simply a giant of the British Film Industry. He was awarded the CBE in 1967 and received a Knighthood in 1976. Sir Richard Attenborough then was created a Life Peer in 1993 so now he is Lord Attenborough of Richmond-upon-Thames, which is where he has lived for 50 years. His other achievements include being Chairman of Channel 4 Television and he has been the Chairman of the British Film Institute and President of the British Screen Advisory Council. He had been a visiting Professor of Drama at Oxford, a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF, Chancellor of Sussex University and is a Vice-President of Chelsea Football Club. Indeed, there are numerous other honours and positions which I haven't noted here!


What astonishes me, is that nobody has created an Internet web site for Richard Attenborough until this one. I was after this web domain name for many years before I finally got it. This web site was launched on 27th April 2003 (my 38th birthday) and I hope to add to it to create a suitable tribute to the great Richard Attenborough.

Richard, thanks for all of those great films. It is to you that I respectfully dedicate this web site.


Roger Harris

Click on my name to e-mail me

April 2003