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FLASH SPECIAL: A Richard Attenborough Remembrance

Today we celebrate the life and career of legendary actor, producer and director Richard Attenborough in honor of his death this week at the age of 90.


Starting out on the stage at the vaunted Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, where he would much later become president, Richard Attenborough showed a strong sense of humor as evidenced in his comedic work as well as a pronounced penchant for the dramatic, both of which he utilized in his film debut in the David Lean production of Noel Coward's patriotic World War II drama IN WHICH WE SERVE. Later on in his career, Attenborough would repeatedly return to properties concerned with war - most notably, the lauded and masterfully constructed musical OH! WHAT A LOVELY WAR as well as the highly acclaimed A BRIDGE TOO FAR and the ultimate anti-war message movie of all time, GANDHI. As an actor, Attenborough snowballed his memorable turn in IN WHICH WE SERVE into more character roles in British films throughout the 1940s and 1950s, such as LONDON BELONGS TO ME and MORNING DEPARTURE, in addition to the film adaptation of Grahame Greene's BRIGHTON ROCK, the latter of which he had previously found great success with on the stage in its original 1942 West End production.

Perhaps most notably in his theatrical career, Attenborough appeared alongside his wife Sheila Sim in the original cast of the West End's longest running production to date, Agatha Christie's THE MOUSETRAP. In an unusual move, the Attenboroughs received 10 percent of the show's profits each week in lieu of receiving payment for their acting duties, which Attenborough would later claim helped save his own film of the eventual multi-Academy Award-winning 1982 Best Picture GANDHI when it ran wildly over budget and was almost forced to shut down late in shooting. Intriguingly, Attenborough also produced and briefly appeared in a handful of properties which were eventually musicalized later on, including two noted Bryan Forbes films of the 1960s - WHISTLE DOWN THE WIND (later adapted into a musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Jim Steinman) and SÉANCE ON A WET AFTERNOON (which was adapted into an opera by Stephen Schwartz).

Additionally, Attenborough made a late-career star-turn as Jacob, the titular character's father, in the film adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's JOSEPH & THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT decades after making a mark in the family-friendly film musical DOCTOR DOLITTLE (and winning one of his 4 Golden Globes for it). Of course, Attenborough found much success as the star of the screen adaptation of Joe Orton's LOOT, in 1970, and also made a memorable cameo appearance in Kenneth Branagh's word-complete film version of Shakespeare's most famous tragedy, HAMLET, in 1996, as far as his theatrical oeuvre is concerned - that HAMLET also featured recently deceased stage and screen stalwart Robin Williams, incidentally.

Of utmost import to theatre fans, Attenborough directed two major movie musicals over the course of his career in addition to highly acclaimed dramas, biopics and even thrillers - each of them receiving wildly divergent reactions from critics and audiences; and, many would argue, justifiably so. His first film as director, OH! WHAT A LOVELY WAR, presented a vaudeville phantasmagoria of a film centered on World War I, based on the stage musical of the same name, while his second major movie musical was the follow-up to his greatest success, GANDHI: the derided film adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize winner and Tony Award champ A CHORUS LINE. While these musicals are both enjoyed to varying degrees to this day by audiences around the world, it was his epic historical dramas that many remember Attenborough most fondly for - and, given that the list includes A BRIDGE TOO FAR and GANDHI, among others, that should come as a surprise to few among us.

Both A BRIDGE TOO FAR and the horror/thriller MAGIC featured screenplays by two-time Academy Award-winning scribe William Goldman, who also contributed to the warmly-received CHAPLIN. Undoubtedly, GANDHI may be the most notable entry on Attenborough's vast resume given that he received not only a Best Director Oscar, but also a Best Picture Oscar in acting as one of the primary producers of the film, but his countless acting performances in a gob-smacking variety of character turns no doubt have endeared him to multiple generations, too. THE GREAT ESCAPE, THE SAND PEBBLES, TEN LITTLE INDIANS, THE FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX, GUNS AT BATASI, 10 RILLINGTON PLACE, JURASSIC PARK, MIRACLE ON 34th STREET and ELIZABETH are just a few of the nearly 100 onscreen appearances Attenborough clocked in his life in front of the camera.

Actor, director, patron of the arts, charity organizer and much more, Richard Attenborough was one of a kind and the type of multi-hyphenate talent that only comes around all-too rarely. To cite one of his own films, he was truly magical.

Oh! What A Lovely Life

So, now, let's take a look at some of the highlights from Richard Attenborough's long and unique career.

First, see Attenborough's first film appearance in David Lean's IN WHICH WE SERVE.

Next, sample a scene from the 1947 hit BRIGHTON ROCK.

Attenborough displayed his comedic chops in PRIVATE'S PROGRESS.

THE GREAT ESCAPE introduced him to an international audience.

Also, Attenborough earned a Best Actor BAFTA for GUNS AT BATASI.

THE SAND PEBBLES provided Attenborough with a juicy role that he took to Golden Globe glory.

DOCTOR DOLITTLE garnered Attenborough's second Golden Globe in as many years.

Based on a hit play, LOOT provided Attenborough with more fabulous acting fodder.

Of course, OH! WHAT A LOVELY WAR was Attenborough's directorial debut.

A BRIDGE TOO FAR was another high-point, acting as a director.

Attenborough re-teamed with William Goldman for MAGIC starring Anthony Hopkins.

GANDHI was the apotheosis of Attenborough's career as film director.

Unfortunately, A CHORUS LINE was perceived by many as the exact opposite - a dud, albeit well-intentioned.

CHAPLIN was a fine return to form for Attenborough in 1992.

IN LOVE & WAR is a romantic favorite of the 1990s, as well.

A whole new generation discovered Attenborough thanks to JURASSIC PARK and its sequel, THE LOST WORLD.

In 1994, the remake of MIRACLE ON 34th STREET was another family-friendly venture.

HAMLET showcased Attenborough returning to his theatrical roots.

JOSEPH & THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT was another late-career highlight as an actor.

2007's CLOSING THE RING was Attenborough's last film as producer and director.

What has been your absolute favorite Richard Attenborough acting appearance out of the many we've all enjoyed over the decades? Furthermore, what is your favorite film from him as director? Given the comedic highs, dramatic thrills and memorable musical moments he has given us all over the years, we shall surely celebrate the life and career of this talented thespian for many decades and centuries to come.

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From This Author Pat Cerasaro

Pat Cerasaro contributes exclusive scholarly columns including InDepth InterViews, Sound Off, Theatrical Throwback Thursdays, Flash Friday and Flash Special as well as additional special features, (read more...)


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