For most of my generation, the great Richard Attenborough is best known to us as the lovable and dangerously ambitious John Hammond, the creator of the tragically disastrous Jurassic Park in Steven Spielberg’s movie of the same name. At nearly 91 years old at his death on Sunday, however, Richard Attenborough was much more than his most iconic character. He was an actor of amazing versatility and an Oscar winning director of great films. So here’s a look at some of his best works, both in front of and behind the camera, including that one from Jurassic Park.
6. All Night Long (1962)
You probably haven’t heard of this movie – at least not unless you’re either a really dedicated Patrick McGoohan or Richard Attenborough fan. This is a 1960s jazz club version of Shakespeare’s Othello, which sounds like a great concept but is actually rather dull. It is worth it for the great performances by the two men previously mentioned, and for the historical oddities of the film dealing with interracial marriage and having the characters openly smoke marijuana throughout the movie. It is a rather odd movie in general, actually, and there is something about it that sticks with you when its all over.
5. Flight of the Phoenix (1965)
This survival movie boasts a cast that includes James Stewart, Ernst Borgnine, Peter Finch, and of course, Richard Attenborough. Attenborough could often be found appearing along side casts of legendary, big name actors – sometimes even fostering big name, soon-to-be legendary actors like Sean Connery and Michael Caine (A Bridge Too Far, 1977), or James Garner and Steve McQueen (The Great Escape, 1963). In Flight of the Phoenix, Attenborough plays a character a bit like his character in The Great Escape – fiercely intelligent and resourceful, a born problem solver – but with a softer edge. He’s not a soldier, he’s a pilot, and not used to the extreme conditions in which he finds himself. Of course, inside every man is the capacity for incredible action, and Lew Moran finds himself having to do things that were previously unthinkable.
4. Chaplin (1992)
As a fan of silent film and Charles Chaplin, this is one of my very favorite movies. Attenborough perfectly captures the nostalgia of lost times and the ironic humor when contrasted with the facts. Robert Downey Jr. – at a time when he was basically considered an outcast member of the brat pack – is an inspired casting choice for the role as Chaplin and would eventually earn him a best actor Oscar nomination. While perhaps not as honest as it could be about the questionable quirks of Chaplin’s life, it serves as a beautiful and funny dedication to the great Charles Chaplin.
3. The Great Escape (1963)
This is one of the most iconic WWII films of its time, and certainly – as the title implies – one of the greatest escape movies ever made. Attenborough plays Bartlett “Big X”, the brains of the operation and the man keeping the team in check. He’s disciplined, controlled, and always, always thinking. At the same time a palpable sense of constant sweaty panic seems just brewing beneath the surface, restrained only by a strong self will. Together with his ragtag team of fellow POWs, he plans and executes the greatest escape since Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion (1937).
2. Gandhi (1982)
I have a special fondness for this incredibly long and stoic epic of Gandhi’s life and political struggles. I saw it for the first time in my high school World History class, and like most if the class started this cinematic journey with a mixture of anticipated boredom and ambivalence. It turns out, however, that Attenborough did something incredible by favoring a circular narrative – he could track how much the audience had come to care for Gandhi from start to finish. The movie starts with Gandhi’s assassination in 1949, then doubles back to track his life from the start of his political career up until his assassination, leaving us knowing all the time the exact moment at which he goes to his death. The difference in feeling between the beginning and the end is a striking experience. By the second time Gandhi goes to his death, the entire class was shouting at the TV for Gandhi not to go. Of all the great gifts a good filmmaker possesses, the ability to make an audience care is perhaps the most powerful – and Attenborough had that in spades.
1. Jurassic Park (1993)
This is the movie that brought Attenborough out of his 15 year retirement from acting and it was Steven Spielberg’s involvement that convinced him to portray one of the most iconic characters of the 90s. As a director, Attenborough had admired Spielberg’s work since E.T.: The Extraterrestrial went up against Gandhi for best picture at the 1983 Academy Awards (Gandhi won). Attenborough gave a marvelous and mischievous performance as an aging and enthusiastic entertainment entrepreneur. His catch phrase – “Spared no expense!” – his charm and his tragic hubris endeared him to millions as the grandfather with a dinosaur theme park they always wished they’d had.