LONDON (Reuters) - British Prime Minister David Cameron led tributes on Monday for actor and director Richard Attenborough who died just days before his 91st birthday after a career in the film industry spanning over six decades.
Tributes poured in from the worlds of entertainment, sports and politics for Attenborough, who died on Sunday, praising his film work, his charm, and his commitment to do good through various humanitarian causes.
One of Attenborough’s greatest achievements was overcoming 20 years of resistance from Hollywood studios to finally make a cinematic tribute to Mahatma Gandhi in 1982 with the $22 million epic “Gandhi” winning eight Academy Awards including best film and a best director Oscar for Attenborough.
He also won acting fame for a list of movies including playing a theme park owner in “Jurassic Park”, Kris Kringle in the 1994 Christmas fantasy film “Miracle on 34th Street”, and Big X in prison camp drama “The Great Escape”.
Cameron said Attenborough’s acting in the 1947 film “Brighton Rock”, in which he played psychopathic teenager Pinkie Brown, was brilliant and his directing of “Gandhi” stunning.
“Richard Attenborough was one of the greats of cinema,” Cameron wrote on Twitter.
Attenborough, the elder brother of naturalist and broadcaster David Attenborough, was in poor health since suffering a stroke in 2008. He lived in a care home for people from the theatrical profession with his wife of 59 years, actress Sheila Sims.
The couple was devastated in 2004 when their daughter Jane, one of their three children, and granddaughter Lucy were killed in Thailand in the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami in Asia.
Born on August 29, 1923, in Cambridge, England, Attenborough longed to act from the age of four and won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in 1941. That year he made his stage debut in London’s West End and in 1942 played his first film part in Noel Coward’s “In Which We Serve”.
He later joined the Royal Air Force, qualifying as a pilot, and in 1944 volunteered for a unit filming over Germany. Attenborough played underdogs and misfits in a string of character roles after World War Two, notably “Brighton Rock”,“Seance on a Wet Afternoon” and “10 Rillington Place”.
But it was directing “Gandhi” that won him a string of international awards and established him as one of Britain’s best-known cinema personalities, known for his habit of calling everyone “darling”.
Five years after “Gandhi” he made “Cry Freedom”, the story of South African black activist Steve Biko who died in police custody, that also went on to box office success.
But not all of his films were successful. His 1992 biopic of Charlie Chaplin failed to make money and “Grey Owl”, about a British schoolboy turned Canadian Indian environmentalist, received scathing reviews.
His final film, “Closing the Ring” in 2007, received mixed responses and was deemed a muted finale to his distinguished directorial career.
Actress Mia Farrow, who appeared in the 1964 film “Guns at Batasi” with Attenborough, tweeted: “Richard Attenborough was the kindest man I have ever had the privilege of working with. A Prince. RIP ‘Pa’ - and thank you.”
Attenborough was also a businessman with interests in commercial radio and television in Britain, and helped charities, attributing his will to do good to his parents.
His father Frederick was a university professor and his mother once marched behind a banner denouncing Spanish dictator General Franco and helped care for Spanish Civil War refugees. His family took in two Jewish refugees from Hitler’s Germany.
Part of his share of the profits from “Gandhi” went to organizations like the Save the Children Fund and Gandhi’s own ashrams, or alms houses, in India.
“I suppose you could say my family lived by the principles Gandhi preached,” Attenborough, a Labour peer knighted in 1976, once said.
Reporting by Belinda Goldsmith. Editing by Jeremy Gaunt.