The motion picture industry lost a great director and character actor this weekend with the passing of Richard Attenborough at age 90. Attenborough likely will be best remembered because of his starring role as the jolly John Hammond, the “spared no expense” creator of the dinosaur theme park in Jurassic Park (1993). Rightly so. The adventure film will go down as one of the biggest blockbusters of all time, and his performance is a big reason for it. Michael Crichton’s Hammond had been killed off in the original novel, but there was too much of the amiable Attenborough in the film version of Hammond and Steven Spielberg knew audiences wouldn’t stand for a similar fate for the film version. Attenborough would return to the role again in The Lost World (1997).
But Attenborough’s greatest feat was not being an actor, as he would take up making movies behind the camera with a second successful career as a major studio director. That work earned him an Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Director for Gandhi in 1982. He went on to a decade of critically acclaimed directing gigs, helming A Chorus Line (1985) with Michael Douglas, Cry Freedom (1987) with Denzel Washington and Kevin Kline, Robert Downey’ Jr.’s acting comeback in Chaplin (1992), and Shadowlands (1993) with Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger.
Never the guy for leading man roles, the character actor proved his skill with three other great films, two of which earned him Golden Globe Awards for Supporting Actor: For Albert Blossom in Doctor Doolittle (1967) and Frenchy Burgoyne in the 1920s naval drama starring Steve McQueen, The Sand Pebbles (1966). He’ll also be known for his performance as squadron leader Big X in The Great Escape (1963). And he even played opposite John Wayne in his brief detour from Westerns in the cool 1975 cop film Brannigan. But his best role in film? It’s one not to be missed.
It’s one of the greatest adventure stories to be captured on film, and features one of the best ensemble casts on film, too. It’s the tale of a downed cargo plane in the desert, dissecting the themes of determination, ingenuity, and the unbreakable human spirit. It’s the 1965 action/adventure The Flight of the Phoenix. If you haven’t seen it yet, you’re in for a thrill ride, and with a week of temperatures in the 100 degree range, watching it now will only add to the drama. Phoenix stars Jimmy Stewart, with Attenborough, Peter Finch, the great Ernest Borgnine, George Kennedy, and Hardy Kruger.
Has anyone told you lately that you can be anything you want to be? Someone must have told that to Attenborough early on. His career full of great performances and filmmaking is a superb legacy for generations to come to appreciate.
It’s no wonder that when Twentieth Century Fox decided to do the unthinkable and remake the Christmas classic Miracle on 34th Street in 1994, they tapped Attenborough for the role of Kris Kringle. If the film flopped it wasn’t because of Attenborough’s jolly old elf.