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When 'Gandhi' Met 'E.T.'

Richard Attenborough was a respected actor and Oscar-winning director who turned an initial rivalry with Steven Spielberg into an enduring friendship

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Ron Galella/WireImage

Richard Attenborough, 1923-2014

There should have been bad blood between Richard Attenborough and Steven Spielberg. Since 1982, movie lovers have been fighting a grudge match over the filmmakers’ two landmarks — Attenborough’s Gandhi and Spielberg’s E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial — which were locked in a rivalry at the 55th Academy Awards. The biographical drama about the nonviolent Indian leader Mohandas Gandhi won eight Oscars, beating E.T. (which won four) for Best Picture, Director, and Screenplay.

Attenborough was the first to extend his hand during their Oscar battle. On the night of his upset at the Directors Guild of America awards, the British filmmaker walked over to his younger colleague before going on stage. ”This isn’t right; this should be yours,” he said. Humble to the core, in 2008 he called E.T. ”an infinitely more creative and fundamental piece of cinema.” And when he died on Aug. 24 at age 90, one of the first to pay tribute was Spielberg. ”Dickie Attenborough was passionate about everything in his life — family, friends, country, and career,” Spielberg said in a statement. Gandhi, he added, was ”a gift to the world.”

Attenborough began his career as an actor, with a role in the 1942 war drama In Which We Serve, followed by acclaimed performances in films such as 1947’s Brighton Rock and 1963’s The Great Escape. He later shifted to directing and gained recognition for 1985’s A Chorus Line and 1992’s Chaplin. He returned to acting in 1993, accepting a role in a project by his former competitor that would again redefine cinematic storytelling: Jurassic Park. (It was, coincidentally, the same year that Schindler’s List finally earned Spielberg his first Best Director and Picture awards.) In Jurassic Park (and its 1997 sequel, The Lost World), Attenborough played John Hammond, the charismatic billionaire whose deep pockets help resurrect an extinct species. ”He was the perfect ringmaster to bring the dinosaurs back to life,” Spielberg said in his statement. ”He was a dear friend and I am standing in an endless line of those who completely adored him.” So let the Oscar obsessives argue whether Gandhi or E.T. should have won. The two filmmakers were content to bury the hatchet — but not before using it to dig up some spectacular dinosaurs.