Richard Attenborough: Tougher Than The Rest

Recalling a 2000 meeting with the late, great director

Sir Richard Attenborough on the set of Grey Owl

Forget all the eulogies praising him as an aristocratic poet of cinema. The one time I met him, Lord Richard Attenborough was one tough bastard, puckish and funny.

The cinematic legend passed away this week, just five days shy of his 91st birthday. In Leeds, England, late 2000, I was introduced to him by his assistant, who called us both by our full names. "Richard and Richard, eh?" chortled Attenborough. "That'll make us a pair of dicks."

I laughed, and said something like, for a peer of the realm, he was surprisingly sweary. He laughed and scurried into the back room of the hotel suite, offering me a glass of water.

It was a press day for Grey Owl, his penultimate movie as a director and a personal passion project. As a young man, back in 1938, he and his brother David had attended a lecture in Leicester by Grey Owl, a member of the Chippewa Nation who became one of the first great spokesmen for the conservation movement. It shaped both Attenborough boys: David became the preeminent nature television documentarian of his age, while Richard was transfixed by the speaker's performance. "Although he didn't have a good voice or attractive delivery, he was magnetic, and you couldn't take your eyes of him."

Performance is the right word. There was no Grey Owl. He was really Archibald Stansfeld Belaney, a British migrant to Canada who assumed the name Wa-sha-quon-asin, and created a personal history as part of the First People. His whole life became a performance, a character. When Attenborough made him the subject of his seventh biopic (after works like Ghandi, Chaplin, and Cry Freedom), his thesis was simple: He told the whole story of Belaney, and how the good he did – raising ecological awareness between the wars – outweighed any deceit. It's hard not to see an actor's logic there, especially one who dedicated his life to telling stories about the best and worst of humanity.

It's easy to forget that, before he became an Oscar-winning director, Attenborough was a world-class actor of stage and screen. He described his path behind the lens as almost accidental. "I don't write. I can't write. I'm not an intellectual. I am fundamentally an actor, a performer, but I moved from acting to directing because I felt it was interpretive. As a director, I can make my own statements fom my own views, and they're there for people to accept, or not, as the case may be."

Let's backpedal for a moment. Attenborough was 76 when he made Grey Owl. He was easily of retirement age, and could have simply swum away into plaudits and retrospectives. Instead, he decided to travel to the heart of Canada in midwinter to make a movie in the wilds of nowhere. Trust me, the beard helps, but it doesn't take all the edge off the weather.

Attenborough wasn't some fey aristocrat. When we talked, we chatted about him playing the vicious thug Pinkie in a 1944 West End production of Brighton Rock. He put on the mantle of the tiny psychopath night in, night out, three years before he took the role to the screen. He'd played a full-blown serial killer, based on the real murderer John Christie, in 10 Rillington Place, and a maniac military martinet in The Bridge Over the River Kwai. We talked about his acting career, and about Leeds in the Forties when he performed there. He asked me whether the local shops still sold sold single matches and single cigarettes to local kids (highly illegal, but that never stopped them) and I told him yes. Some traditions never change.

He was still vital enough to call out other filmmakers: He'd lambasted Guy Ritchie as "a pornographer of violence" because of his showy, amoral gangster flicks. It wasn't about the imagery. It was about what he was doing with it. Attenborough said, "Take Pulp Fiction. It was a major movie, a major creative piece of work, innovative and special unto itself. Mr. Tarantino has not, because of its success, just copied that in a synthetic way. One or two filmmakers have done that, and it's a great pity, because it seems to deny the value of the original."

He continued, "I remember, years ago, seeing Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin. It had a scene with crowds of people running down stairs being shot, and he cut to a close-up of a woman's face with a pair of glasses shattered, which, in other words, says a bullet has gone into that woman's head. There was an audible gasp of horror, of amazement in the cinema. If you blow a woman's head off these days, it's taken for granted, it's part of the scene. I am adamant that we must say confrontation, violence, and war are unacceptable to our society. What worries me, truly terrifies me in a way, is that my grandchildren are seeing a world through film and TV in which gratuitous violence, which is not inherent in the subject matter, is accepted as the norm."

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