From the archives: Remembering Richard Attenborough

Lord Richard Attenborough, one of the giants of British cinema, died on Sunday, August 24, at the age of 90. Film Journal International pays tribute with our December 1985 interview with the actor-director on the eve of his film version of the Broadway smash A Chorus Line. Some eight years later, Attenborough the actor—who made his international breakthrough in the 1963 classic The Great Escape—would reach his widest audience yet as entrepreneur John Hammond in Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster Jurassic Park.

Mammoth film directing chores have a way of finding Sir Richard Attenborough, the 62-year-old veteran of 57 screen acting roles who, ironically, says he never intended to become a filmmaker. Attenborough’s directing debut came in 1969 with the musical Oh! What a Lovely War, a virtual who’s-who of British acting royalty starring Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, Michael Redgrave, Vanessa Redgrave, John Mills, Dirk Bogarde and Maggie Smith. Next came 1972’s Young Winston, a large-scale biography of Britain’s man of the century, followed in 1977 by the star-studded (Robert Redford, Michael Caine, Sean Connery, Gene Hackman, Laurence Olivier) war epic A Bridge Too Far. After a change of pace with the intimate thriller Magic in 1978, Attenborough finally realized a 20-year dream in 1982 with the release of Gandhi, the wide-ranging story of India’s great pacifist leader that won eight Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director.

Obviously not a man to shun a challenge, Attenborough has now tackled the film of the longest-running and one of the most acclaimed musicals in Broadway history, A Chorus Line.

As far as Attenborough is concerned, a project like A Chorus Line is more difficult than an epic shot on exotic locations: “You put the Himalayas in the background and 15,000 people all dressed in white, with a solitary little figure in the front, and how can you go wrong? All you’ve got to do is to get it in focus. But to deal with a stage and solid brick walls and a black auditorium, with a line of 16 people who wear the same clothes and stay in virtually the same positions for one hour and 50 minutes—that’s tough.”

Did Attenborough, as a non-dancer, find it daunting to direct a film that’s all about dance? “How dare you say I’m not a dancer?” he responds in mock outrage. “Have you not seen me dance? It’s the most extraordinary thing, and it’s part of being an actor, particularly if you’re a character actor like me. If I play a part of a man who’s six foot two with a big bulbous nose and a hump on my back, I am that person as an actor. And that applies to dancing. So that when I’m saying to the kids, ‘Darlings, I want this [he stands and attempts an arabesque] and I want that,’ I’m Baryshnikov. No question of being five foot seven, fat, bald and 62. I’m 23, ravishingly beautiful, with a mop of beautiful hair, and as slim as a rake. You have this actor’s ability to discard your embarrassment. I can’t dance at all, but I have an inherent rhythmic and musical sense. Music is the joy of my life, really. I tend to express things musically even when I’m not talking about music. So from the word go I had a feeling of communication. The kids at first would fall about with laughter when I would attempt to show how that pirouette in fact should be done, but by the end of it they just took it for granted that dear old fat daddy was demonstrating this or that.”

Attenborough marvels at the breed of American “gypsies” depicted in A Chorus Line. “They are more disciplined than any other performer I’ve ever encountered. They assume that they’ve got to dance, sing and act. When I began in the business, the thought of acting in musicals was as ridiculous as the thought of acting in movies. The only place you acted in the U.K. was in the theatre. I remember being asked, ‘Do you act or do you work in films?’ Everything that we knew emanated from the word—actors created their effects by the voice, the word. It was only with the onslaught of Brando that all our preconceptions as to how an actor should convey what he wanted to say were absolutely wiped out. Meanwhile, musicals were performed by matinee idols. I remember as if it were yesterday going to the Drury Lane and seeing Oklahoma. It was something we never dreamt of—the strength and virility and energy and impact of the combination of these talents was absolutely staggering. And that is what the gypsies have got… I am lost in admiration for the commitment and discipline and resultant talent of the American gypsy.”

Attenborough is as self-effacing about his own career as he is complimentary about his performers. He says he made the transition to working behind the camera because “I suffer from my physique. An actor’s opportunities, unless he’s a genius, are to a large degree determined by his physical appearance. I am relatively short and I am, or was, cursed with this sort of cherubic face, and I used to be typecast quite cruelly. I decided to break this cycle by, first, saying that I would never play essentially character parts. When that didn’t go as well as I hoped it might, I decided to give up acting to produce. It so happened that through various circumstances I didn’t give up acting, because I had to play in a picture that I produced. So I then got another cycle of producing pictures that I played in. My partner, Bryan Forbes, wrote and directed them, and I was as happy as a sandboy. Then, out of the blue, somebody gave me the Gandhi biography, and I suddenly knew that I desperately wanted to make that statement, I wanted to say what I felt about that man. And there was only one way to do that, and that was to direct. And so my ambition to direct was to direct Gandhi. It so happened, because it took 20 years to raise the money and get the script and the facilities and permissions and casting and everything else, that I did the other films. I didn’t begin wanting to direct–now I don’t want to do anything else."