Richard Attenborough and Steven Spielberg: When 'E.T.' met 'Gandhi,' we got dinosaurs

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Image Credit: Ron Galella/WireImage

To those who know their whole history, it may seem surprising that there was never any bad blood between Steven Spielberg and the late Richard Attenborough — unless you want to count the prehistoric kind drawn from those amber-encased mosquitos in Jurassic Park, the one big project they made together.

The two filmmakers, separated in age by more than a generation, were rivals who became collaborators and eventually friends. When Attenborough died at age 90 on Sunday, he left behind a legacy as an actor, director, and philanthropist — but the story of his relationship with Spielberg is evidence of another defining trait: gentleman.

Their complicated camaraderie began after the pair crossed paths at the most critical point in each of their careers — 1982, when Attenborough finally completed his 20-year quest to make the biographical drama Gandhi, and Spielberg finished a deeply personal film that stands as one of the best movies ever made about families: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.

Those two films couldn’t have been more different, but were destined for eternal comparison after becoming competitors at the 55th Academy Awards.

THE OSCAR BATTLEGROUND

Gandhi, starring Ben Kingsley as the Indian revolutionary whose most powerful weapon was a message of peace and nonviolence, was a historical epic, which went into the awards with a leading 11 nominations. E.T., the story of a lonely boy from a broken home who becomes the protector of a little alien left behind, had nine nominations. Each of them was up for Best Picture, and Attenborough and Spielberg were both vying for Best Director.

By the time all the envelopes were opened, Gandhi went home with eight awards: picture, director, best actor for Kingsley, best screenplay for writer John Briley (besting E.T.‘s Melissa Mathison), and also beat the heartfelt sci-fi story in cinematography and editing. (Its other two awards were for art direction and costume design, but E.T. wasn’t a contender in those categories.)

E.T. lost in all the major categories, but claimed four awards. It won for visual effects and sound editing, and although it beat out Gandhi in two fields — original score and sound mixing — the clear victor at the Oscars that night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion was Attenborough’s film.

It was one of those decisions that was instantly and fiercely debated by movie lovers, many of them claiming E.T. was robbed.

‘THIS SHOULD BE YOURS …’

One would assume the two men would also be separated by that divide, but even in the run-up to the Oscars, Attenborough and Spielberg chose to forge an unexpected friendship. The first major sign that Spielberg, Hollywood’s blockbuster wunderkind, was not destined for his first directing Oscar came at the Directors Guild of America Awards, where Attenborough was the surprise victor.

“Steven and I were at opposite sides of the room, and when the winner’s name was announced after all the speeches and such, I literally had to be nudged. I couldn’t believe it,” Attenborough says in the 1997 book Steven Spielberg: A Biography, by Joseph McBride. “I got up from the table and it was a sorty of knee-jerk actor’s reaction. I didn’t go to the podium, I went over to Spielberg. He got up, I put my arms ’round him, and I said, ‘This isn’t right, this should be yours.'”

It was a gesture that Spielberg never forgot, easing the sting as Attenborough and Gandhi claimed Oscars that the test of time suggests should have gone to E.T.

It would be 11 years before 1993’s Schindler’s List would finally bring Spielberg his first directing and Best Picture awards from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and in that same year, he teamed up with Attenborough on another film that would redefine cinematic storytelling: Jurassic Park.

NATURE FINDS A WAY

Attenborough, who started his career as a character actor before transitioning behind the camera, agreed to co-star in Spielberg’s modern Frankenstein tale, taking on the role of John Hammond, the multi-billionaire entrepreneur who dreams of opening a theme park that’s a window to a lost age — a decision frontloaded with hubris and miscalculation.

In the Michael Crichton novel, Hammond was a much more sinister figure who meets a far more merciless end. In the hands of Attenborough and Spielberg he is depicted as a tragic dreamer, a man bewildered by ambition who pays a price of grief and regret in the movie (not a punishment of — spoiler alert — being eaten alive.) Attenborough’s boyish enthusiasm and savvy intelligence made an intriguing and beguiling mix, neither hero nor villain. Hammond was probably the most complex character in the film.

Attenborough joked that although he was denied a dramatic death scene, he was given something else in return: a sequel. (Although his role was much smaller, Attenborough returned for a brief appearance in 1997’s The Lost World.)

The relationship between Spielberg and Attenborough remained surprising to those who might have assumed that E.T.’s defeat would result in a lifetime grudge. Perhaps it would have if not for that detour Attenborough took on his way to the stage of the Directors Guild Awards.

No one would have faulted Attenborough for taking umbrage at the  complaints calling his film unworthy of the trophy. Gandhi was a project he had been developing since 1962, one with a message that was as personal to him as anything in Spielberg’s film, and it stands as an epic cinematic achievement. But humility was hardwired into Attenborough.

As proud as he was of his film, he was also a lover of movies. E.T. was a film he adored, and years later he made a shocking admission: He thought E.T. was the better film, too.

‘WE HAVE NO CHANCE’

“I went to see E.T. in Los Angeles shortly before all the awards and we used language, when we came out, to the extent of saying ‘we have no chance – E.T. should and will walk away with it’,” Attenborough said in a 2008 interview with the BBC. He called Spielberg’s movie “an infinitely more creative and fundamental piece of cinema.”

Of Gandhi, he said: “It’s a piece of narration rather than a piece of cinema, as such. E.T. depended absolutely on the concept of cinema and I think that Steven Spielberg, who I’m very fond of, is a genius. I think E.T. is a quite extraordinary piece of cinema.”

Still, that moment at the 1983 Academy Awards, when he collected the top prize of the night, remained the pinnacle of his life in the movies. “It was when they stood up,” he told the BBC. “The entire huge auditorium stood up at the end of the show. And the fact that I’d got Best Film and so on and I didn’t weep… I had difficulty speaking in that I was, what is known as, choked up a bit.”

Upon his death Sunday, Attenborough’s one-time rival turned decades-long friend got to his feet, at least figuratively, one last time.

“Dickie Attenborough was passionate about everything in his life — family, friends, country and career,” Spielberg said in a written statement. “He made a gift to the world with his emotional epic Gandhi and he was the perfect ringmaster to bring the dinosaurs back to life as John Hammond in Jurassic Park. He was a dear friend and I am standing in an endless line of those who completely adored him.”

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