Oscar Directors: Attenborough, Richard–Background, Career, Awards

Research in Progress: Oct 24, 2021

Richard Attenborough Career Summation

Occupational Inheritance: No

Social Class: Upper-middle; father scholar and academic administrator, fellow at Emmanuel College,


Nationality: UK

Formal Education:

Training: first, an actor

First Film: As director, Oh Lovely War, 1969

First Oscar Nomination: Gandhi, 1983; aged 61

Other Nominations:

Oscar Awards: Gandhi, 1983; aged 61

Nominations Span: No

Other Awards: BAFTA. Globes

Genre (specialties):

Major Flops: A Chorus Line, 1983


Last Film:


Career Output:

Career Span: as actor; as director, 1969

Marriage: actress Sheila Sim (married for 69 years)


Death: 2014; aged 90

Richard Samuel Attenborough, Baron Attenborough, CBE, FRSA (August 29, 1923– August 24, 2014) was an English politician, actor, filmmaker and entrepreneur.

He was the President of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) and the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA).

Attenborough joined the Royal Air Force during the Second World War and served in the film unit. He went on several bombing raids over Europe and filmed action from the rear gunner’s position.

He was the older brother of Sir David Attenborough, naturalist, documenter, and broadcaster, and John Attenborough, an executive at Alfa Romeo. He was married to actress Sheila Sim from 1945 until his death. He was also the life president of Chelsea F.C.

For his directorial debut, Oh! What a Lovely War, in 1969, he was nominated for the BAFTA Award for Best Direction, as he would be for Young Winston, A Bridge Too Far, and Cry Freedom.

Attenborough won two Oscars for Gandhi in 1983, Best Picture and Best Director. The BFI ranked Gandhi the 34th greatest British film of the 20th century. He also won four BAFTA Awards, four Golden Globe Awards, and in 1983 he received the BAFTA Fellowship for lifetime achievement.

As actor, Attenborough is best known for his roles in Brighton Rock (1948), I’m All Right Jack (1959), The Great Escape (1963), The Sand Pebbles (1966), Doctor Dolittle (1967), 10 Rillington Place (1971), Jurassic Park (1993) and Miracle on 34th Street (1994).

Attenborough was born August 29, 1923 in Cambridge, the eldest of 3 sons of Mary Attenborough (née Clegg), a founding member of the Marriage Guidance Council, and Frederick Levi Attenborough, scholar and academic administrator who was a fellow at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and wrote 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 the US in the 1950s and lived with uncle, where they married and took American citizenship; Irene died in 1992 and Helga in 2005.

During WWII, Attenborough served in the Royal Air Force. After initial pilot training he was seconded to the newly formed Royal Air Force Film Production Unit at Pinewood Studios, under the command of Flight Lieutenant John Boulting (whose brother Peter Cotes later directed 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 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 RAF Bomber Command sorties.

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 first major credited role was provided in Brian Desmond Hurst’s The Hundred Pound Window (1944) playing Tommy Draper who helps rescue his accountant father who has taken a wrong turn in life. Attenborough’s film career had begun in 1942, however, 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 omitted from the original release-print credits), a role that type-cast him for many years as a spiv 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 role 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 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 2019 is still running at the St Martin’s Theatre. They took a 10 per cent 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.”)

At the beginning of the 1950s Attenborough featured on radio on the BBC Light Program introducing records.

Attenborough worked 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 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 major Hollywood film blockbuster.

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 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.

In 1967 and 1968, he won back-to-back Golden Globes as Best Supporting Actor, for The Sand Pebbles, again co-starring Steve McQueen, and for Doctor Dolittle starring Rex Harrison.

His portrayal serial killer John Christie in 10 Rillington Place (1971) garnered excellent reviews. In 1977, he played the ruthless General Outram, to great acclaim, in the Indian director Satyajit Ray’s period piece The Chess Players.

He took no acting roles after Preminger’s version of The Human Factor (1979) until his role John Hammond in 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.

He took 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 only appearance in adaptation of Shakespeare as the English ambassador who announces that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead at the end of Branagh’s “Hamlet” (1996).

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.[10] His performance in The Angry Silence earned him his first nomination for a BAFTA.

Seance On A Wet Afternoon won him his first BAFTA award.

His 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 Second World War Operation Market Garden.

He won the 1982 Oscar for Best Director for his historical epic Gandhi, and as the film’s producer, the Academy Award for Best Picture; the same film garnered two Golden Globes, this time for Best Director and Best Foreign Film, in 1983. He had been attempting to get the project made for 18 years. He directed the screen version of the musical A Chorus Line (1985) and the anti-apartheid drama Cry Freedom (1987). 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 Chaplin and Shadowlands (1993), based on the relationship between C. S. Lewis and Joy Gresham (C. S. Lewis was played by Anthony Hopkins, who appeared in four previous Attenborough films: Young Winston, A Bridge Too Far, Magic and Chaplin).

Last Film

Between 2006 and 2007, 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.

Despite acting career alongside directorial roles, Attenborough never directed himself (save for cameo in A Bridge Too Far).

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 Attenborough Fellowship Fund to honor his lifelong commitment to the charity, and to ensure the future of clinical research and training at leading UK neuromuscular centers.

Attenborough was the patron of the United World Colleges movement, whereby he contributed to the colleges that are part of the organization.

He was advocate of education that does not judge upon color, 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 founded The Attenborough Arts Centre on the Leicester University campus in 1997, designed to provide access for the disabled as practitioners.

A mooted long-term lease to Fox 21 fell through in 2015, though the facilities continue to be used for filmmaking.

He had 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 not 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 raised was refunded.

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 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 Kensington on January, 22 1945. From 1949 until October 2012, they lived in London.

In the 1940s, he was asked to ‘improve his physical condition’ for his role as Pinkie in Brighton Rock. He was asked to train with Chelsea Football Club for fortnight, subsequently becoming good friends with those at the club. He went on to become a director during the 1970s, helping to prevent the club losing its home ground by holding onto his club shares and donating them – worth over £950,000 – to Chelsea. In 2008, Attenborough was appointed Life President of Chelsea Football Club.

On December 26, 2004, the couple’s elder daughter, Jane Holland (September 30, 1955–December 26, 2004), along with her mother-in-law, Audrey Holland, 81, and Attenborough’s 15-year-old granddaughter, Lucy, were killed in tsunami caused by the Indian Ocean earthquake struck Khao Lak, Thailand, where they were on holiday.

A service was held on March 8, 2005 and Attenborough read  lesson at the national memorial service on 11 May 2005. His grandson Samuel Holland, 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 Magdalene’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 (born 13 February 1950) and Charlotte (born 29 June 1959). Michael is a theatre director formerly the Deputy Artistic Director of the RSC and Artistic Director of the Almeida Theatre in London and has been married to actress Karen Lewis since 1984; they have two sons, Tom and Will. Charlotte, an actress, married Graham Sinclair in 1993 and has two children.

He endorsed the Labor Party in the 2005 General Election, despite opposition to the Iraq War.

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 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 colleague Diana Hawkins.

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, Tooting, South West London.

In November 2009, Attenborough 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 said his brother had been confined to wheelchair since his stroke in 2008, but was still capable of holding conversation. He added that “he won’t be making any more films.”

In June 2012, shortly before her 90th birthday, Sheila Sim entered the professional actors’ retirement home Denville Hall, for which she and Attenborough had helped raise funds.

Attenborough died August 24, 2014, five days before his 91st birthday.

He was survived by his wife of 69 years, their two younger children, six grandchildren, two great-grandchildren, and his younger brother David. His widow, actress Sheila Sim, died on January 19, 2016, aged 93.

In the 1967 Birthday Honors, he was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE). He was made a Knight Bachelor in the 1976 New Year Honors, having the honor conferred on 10 February 1976 and on July 30, 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’ (granted for services to the cinema) and he could have been a crossbencher, Attenborough chose to take the Labor whip and so sat on the Labor benches. In 1992 he had been offered a peerage by Neil Kinnock, then leader of the Labor Party, but refused it as he felt unable to commit himself to the time necessary “to do what was required of him in the Upper Chamber, as he always put film-making first”.

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 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. He was also awarded France’s most distinguished award, the Legion d’Honeur and the Oliver Tambo Award by the South African government ‘for his contribution to the struggle against apartheid’.

In 1992, the Hamburg-based Alfred Toepfer Foundation awarded Attenborough its annual Shakespeare Prize in recognition of his work. The following year he was appointed a Fellow of King’s College London.

In July 2006, Attenborough, along with his brother David, were awarded Distinguished Honorary Fellows of the University of Leicester “in recognition of a record of continuing distinguished service to the university”.

In 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 filmmaking.

Pinewood Studios paid tribute to his work by naming a purpose-built film and television stage after him, unveiled on April 23, 2012.

The Arts for India charity committee honored Attenborough posthumously on  October 19, 2016 at an event hosted at the home of BAFTA.