My most memorable Richard Attenborough moment came not from Gandi or The Great Escape or even Jurassic Park. It occurred on a drizzly afternoon in New York City. I had left work at the World Journal Tribune and was racing across Times Square. Because it was drizzling I decided to seek shelter in a place that always beckoned me -- a movie theater. I don't think I even noticed precisely what film was playing.
The movie I saw that afternoon was called Oh What a Lovely War, the first film Attenborough directed. I sat in the theater stunned at the film's audacity and was absolutely mesmerized by the helicopter shot Attenborough used to end the film. After it was all over, I just sat in my seat, completely overwhelmed. Not so the rest of the audience, however. In something I had never seen before (or since), the audience rose in unison and applauded the now blank screen for more than 10 minutes. The standing ovation was well deserved.
Attenborough, who died Sunday after a long illness which caused him to move into a nursing home in March 2013, went on, of course to direct other films: Young Winston (1972) A Bridge Too Far (1977), and, of course, Gandhi (1982) a project he started in 1964 and for which he won an Oscar. I didn't care for most the films he directed after 1982: A Chorus Line (1985 [although I loved the original Broadway musical]), the preachy Cry Freedom, and Chaplin (1992). Then he came back superbly with Shadowlands (1993).
My favorite moment from Attenborough the actor came with one of my all-time favorite, little-seen (at least by today's audiences) films, 1964's Séance on a Wet Afternoon. Kim Stanley had the more scene-chewing role as the unstable medium who convinces her brow-beaten husband (Attenborough) to kidnap a child so that she can convince the world that she used her psychic abilities to solve the crime. Watch this scene in which Stanley tells Attenborough it's time to their make move. Every note he plays here is exactly the right one.
One of my favorite little known facts about Attenborough was that he was a huge football fan and his favorite team was Chelsea. He was a director of the club from 1962 until 1982 and between 1993 and 2008 he was Chelsea's Life Vice President, an honorary position. On Nov. 30, 2008 Chelsea named Attenborough the team's Life President. One of his greatest personal disappointments was that he never could get the funding to make the movie he so desperately wanted to make, a film based on the life of Thomas Paine, whom Attenborough called "one of the finest men that ever lived."
Attenborough's life had its share of tragedy -- on Dec. 26, 2004, his oldest daughter, her mother-in-law and his 15-year-old granddaughter were killed in the Indian Ocean tsunami that struck Thailand that day.
But I'll always remember Attenborough for that closing scene in Oh What a Lovely War and his acting in Séance on a Wet Afternoon, and that's more than enough.