LONDON — Acclaimed actor and Oscar-winning director Richard Attenborough, who died Sunday at 90, grew up together with two younger brothers… and two German-Jewish girls he thought of as sisters, whom his parents took in as refugees in 1939.
The two girls, Helga and Irene Bejach, arrived when Attenborough was 15, and lived with the family for seven years. They came to the UK as part of the Kindertransport rescue mission.
Attenborough said he and his brothers saw the two as sisters, that “they helped shape our lives” and that “we loved them and cherished them.” He kept in touch with them, phoned them regularly, and they visited each other, and though Irene died in 1992 and Helga in 2005, Attenborough was still thinking about them and writing about them in the final years of his life.
In an article in Britain’s Daily Mail in 2009, he reminisced about their arrival at the family home: “They were two pale waifs with their pathetic little cases, aged ten and 12. They looked sad and ill. They were also nervous wrecks… Their house in Germany had been smashed by Nazis with guns and their father taken away. After the girls had been with us for three weeks, my brothers David, John and I were called into the study by our parents. Our mother said, ‘We absolutely love you boys, but we will have to show even more love to these girls because they are here on their own and without their parents. It is entirely up to you, darlings, if they stay…'”
He said his parents had always “stood up and were counted wherever they saw an injustice being done,” and that’s why they took in the girls. “The three of us boys had no hesitation in taking Helga and Irene into our family,” he wrote. “We really did see them as sisters, virtually from the time we were told they were going to live with us.”
Attenborough’s film career on both sides of the camera spanned 60 years. Prime Minister David Cameron issued a statement Sunday calling him “one of the greats of cinema… His acting in ‘Brighton Rock’ was brilliant, his directing of ‘Gandhi’ was stunning,” Cameron said.
Attenborough won an Academy Award for best director with “Gandhi” in 1982, only one of many highlights of a distinguished career as actor and director.
With his abundant snow-white hair and beard, Attenborough was one of the most familiar faces on the British arts scene — universally known as “Dickie.”
He appeared in a many major Hollywood films, directed a series of movies and was known for his extensive work as a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF and other humanitarian causes.
As a director, Attenborough made several successful movies, from “Oh What a Lovely War” in 1969 to “Chaplin” and “Shadowlands” in the 1990s. But his greatest success was “Gandhi,” a film that was 20 years in the planning and won eight Oscars, including best picture.
The generation that was introduced to Attenborough as an avuncular veteran actor in the 1990s — when he played the failed theme park developer in “Jurassic Park” and Kriss Kringle in a remake of “Miracle on 34th Street” — may not have appreciated his dramatic range.
A small, energetic man with a round face that remained boyish even in old age, he was perfectly cast at the start of his career as the young sailor or airman of British movies during and after World War II.
In his 1942 film debut as a terrified warship’s crewman in “In Which We Serve,” a 19-year-old Attenborough made a small part into one of the most memorable roles in the movie, which won the Best Picture Oscar.
In 1947, Attenborough gave one of the best performances of his career as the teenage thug Pinkie in “Brighton Rock,” the film version of Graham Greene’s novel. Attenborough’s baby face and air of menace combined to make it one of his most memorable roles.
His youthful appearance nearly cost him the lead role in the original cast of “The Mousetrap,” because its author, Agatha Christie, didn’t think he looked like a police detective. But he starred with his wife, actress Sheila Sim, when the hit play opened in November 1952 and stayed for 700 performances.
In 1959, Attenborough joined fellow actor Bryan Forbes in film production. “The Angry Silence” in 1960 was their successful debut, with Attenborough playing a strike-breaking factory worker. It was one of the first of the gritty, working-class films that heralded Britain’s “new realism” of the 1960s.
Together, Forbes and Attenborough produced “Whistle Down the Wind” in 1961 and “The L-Shaped Room” in 1962. Their last film, 1964’s “Seance on a Wet Afternoon,” won Attenborough Best Actor awards from the London Film Critics and British Film Academy.
In the meantime, he had appeared as a prisoner of war in 1963’s “The Great Escape” — known for its classic ensemble cast, including Steve McQueen, James Coburn and Charles Bronson — and starred in “Guns at Batasi,” for which he won another British Film Academy award. In 1967, he won a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor in “The Sand Pebbles.”
In 1969, Attenborough turned to directing with “Oh What a Lovely War,” a lampoon of World War I, which won a Golden Globe award as best English-language foreign film. Three years later, he made “Young Winston,” the story of Winston Churchill’s early life.
In between, in 1971, he turned in a chilling performance as 1950s mass murderer John Reginald Christie in “10 Rillington Place.”
By the mid-1970s, Attenborough had become a director who only occasionally acted. It was said that he took acting jobs to help finance the movies he wanted to direct.
But his return to directing in the 1977 war movie “A Bridge Too Far” was an expensive disaster, despite its cast of international stars. The following year, the heavy-handed 1978 thriller “Magic” was a failure despite the talents of Anthony Hopkins.
“A Chorus Line,” Attenborough’s 1985 film of the long-running stage musical, also took a critical beating. And, more recently, 1996’s “In Love and War,” failed to win much critical support.
Attenborough was often thought to be at his best when trying to coax the finest work from actors. “Gandhi” made a star of its little-known leading man Ben Kingsley, and Denzel Washington won an Oscar nomination for 1987’s “Cry Freedom.”
Debra Winger was nominated for an Oscar and Anthony Hopkins gave one of his best performances in “Shadowlands,” a small, subtle film that won Attenborough perhaps his greatest critical praise.
Attenborough, son of a university principal, was born Aug. 29, 1923, into a family with strong liberal views and a tradition of volunteer work for humanitarian concerns.
One of his younger brothers is naturalist David Attenborough, whose nature documentaries have reached audiences around the world.
Richard Attenborough was a tireless defender of the British film industry. His artistic and humanitarian efforts were rewarded with several international prizes, including the Martin Luther King Jr. Peace Prize in 1983.
He was knighted in 1976, and 17 years later received a life peerage, becoming Baron Attenborough of Richmond upon Thames.
His later years were marked by a horrendous personal tragedy when he lost his daughter Jane and granddaughter in the tsunami that hit Thailand the day after Christmas in 2004.
The heart-broken Attenborough said he was never able to celebrate the Christmas holidays after that.
He had been in frail health since a fall at his house in 2008, and spent his last years in a nursing home with his wife.
He is survived by his wife, their son and a daughter.