When Richard Attenborough played the rich, well-meaning old fool John Hammond in 1993’s Jurassic Park, he was already 69 years old; and though the popularity of Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster meant that Attenborough would be recognized as Hammond for the rest of his life, he had an impressive resumé long before he played a man who could turn amber into velociraptors. Attenborough was already in possession of two Academy Awards—for directing and producing the 1982 biopic Gandhi—and he’d had a long career as a character actor, best-known to American audiences for the 1960s action-adventure pictures The Great Escape, The Sand Pebbles, and The Flight Of The Phoenix. And alongside his friend Bryan Forbes, Attenborough produced some of the most daring British films of the 1960s.
Richard Attenborough died yesterday in London at age 90, in the nursing facility for retired actors where he’d been living with his wife of nearly 70 years, Sheila Sim. It’s a measure of Attenborough’s accomplishments across his six decades in show business that it’s hard to know which of his career highlights to cite first. For fans of film noir and post-WWII British cinema, Attenborough will be remembered as the star of the 1947 film Brighton Rock, an adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel which saw Attenborough playing a charismatic, brutal thug (very much unlike the parts he’d be better-known for later on). For fans of prestige pictures, Attenborough’s greatest achievement will always be Gandhi—an epic saga of faith, conviction, and fading British colonialism—although he directed other ambitious, nuanced period films, including the 1969 musical Oh! What A Lovely War and the tough 1977 war movie A Bridge Too Far. Attenborough resisted having his work classified or analyzed, but he was drawn over and over to stories about England and the English character, when making movies about global conflict, and even when making movies about Charlie Chaplin (1992’s Chaplin) and C.S. Lewis (1993’s Shadowlands).
Perhaps the most under-recognized phase of Attenborough’s career was his partnership with Forbes in the company Beaver Films, which produced Forbes-directed movies like 1961’s Whistle Down The Wind (about a fugitive criminal who allows a group of naive farm kids to believe that he’s Jesus Christ), and 1964’s Seance On A Wet Afternoon (which stars Attenborough as a beaten-down husband who agrees to kidnap a girl to help his desperate wife’s career as a “psychic”). Forbes’ atmospheric, eccentric work was very different from what Attenborough would make when he became a director. He helped facilitate films that ran counter to both the kitchen-sink realism and the “mod” movies that his countrymen were making in the 1960s. Just as a producer alone, Attenborough made a major contribution to British cinema.
But while Attenborough was honored most as a director (it’s hard to argue with two Oscars), he showed the most range and had the most persistent big-screen presence as an actor. Anyone who could make his first big impression in movies as a murderous psychopath and then play Santa Claus in a Miracle On 34th Street remake nearly 50 years later was a performer with a strong understanding of humanity at its darkest and lightest. That’s the reason why Attenborough’s performance as John Hammond was so indelible: The old billionaire’s enthusiasm and arrogance go hand-in-hand. Hammond’s a malevolent force with a benevolent spirit. And if there’s one characteristic that binds all the work that Attenborough did over the decades, it was his willingness to confront the injustice in the world, and to start by looking in the mirror.