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TalkTalk have created this exclusive biography of Ben Kingsley - we believe it to be the most comprehensive on the web
It's said that success tastes sweeter the longer you have to wait for it. For Ben Kingsley, approaching his 40th birthday after 17 years in theatre, the Academy Award and worldwide fame brought by his outstanding performance as Gandhi must have been like drowning in nectar. And he clearly grew hungry for the flavour as he went on to be Oscar-nominated three more times. This doyen of the Royal Shakespeare Company had matched his thespian peers Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, Ian McKellen and Michael Gambon and become one of the most celebrated screen actors of his generation.
He was born Krishna Pandit Bhanji on the last day of December, 1943, in Snainton, Yorkshire. It was a peaceful little village, mid-way between Scarborough and Pickering, at the southern foot of the north Yorkshire moors. Soon after Krishna's birth, Snainton would become renowned for its train station and rail-yards, through which would pass bricks and timber for the rebuilding of the North after Hitler's blitzkrieg. Incongruously, under the station's canopy, mounted on a bracket, would be the skull of a hippopotamus, used as a nest-box by local birds. Rather less charmingly, once a week the station would also handle barrels of excrement from the nearby kennels, the poop being transported to Leeds for use in the tanneries there.
It was all a long way removed from the Bhanjis' roots, the family having owned plantations in the north-western Indian state of Gujarat. Beyond this, Krishna's paternal grandfather, shipwrecked at the age of 12 off Zanzibar, had been adopted by a spice-grower on the island and rose to a mighty status within the spice industry, becoming known as The Clove King. Krishna's father, Rahimtulla Harji Bhanji, had been born and raised in Kenya and educated in England at Dulwich College, south London. Training in medicine, he would eventually become a GP and would marry Anna Lyna Mary, an English model and actress of Russian and Jewish extraction.
Had the Bhanjis remained in Snainton it's more than likely that young Krishna would never have enjoyed the career he has. Fortunately for him (in some ways) the family would relocate to Pendleton, part of Salford borough on the western side of Greater Manchester. They'd live at Number 119, Station Road where Rahimdulla would conduct his surgery (it's now a local authority nursing home). Interestingly, up until 1948 the famed northern artist LS Lowry had lived at Number 117, right next door. Ben Kingsley still returns often to Pendleton, holding workshops in the Ben Kingsley Theatre there.
An ambition to act would come to Krishna early. At seven years of age his parents took him to see an Italian movie called Never Take No For An Answer, a cute film where an Italian boy, fearing for his sick donkey's life, walks the ailing creature from his village to the Vatican, hoping for a blessing from the Pope. Young Krishna, it turned out, heavily resembled the prepubescent actor and so, when the Bhanjis entered the foyer, the cinema's manager rushed up to them shouting "It's little Peppino! It's little Peppino!", and held Krishna aloft for the crowd to see. Their generous applause had a mighty effect on the young boy; being a film star certainly made you feel good. Where many lonely children invent imaginary friends, Krishna now had an entire film crew following him around, capturing and preserving his every moment.
Feeling good is not something Ben Kingsley mentions much when describing his childhood. Indeed he's usually pretty bitter. He's made his hatred for his maternal grandmother very clear. A former East End rag trader, he's said she was cold and venomous, aggressive and occasionally physically violent, always joking at the expense of others. Worse, she was fascist, racist and anti-semitic. Though this hurt the boy, it would prove in some ways to be helpful. To escape her he would retreat into a fantasy world, thus feeding his actorly imagination. And later her memory would fuel his efforts onscreen. "When I play great heroic Jews and great heroic dark people I'm sticking two fingers up at her", he's explained.
Beyond grandma there were deeper problems with family life. Krishna, a sensitive kid perhaps needing more attention than most, found himself lost among his brothers and sisters, his feelings ignored as the family stuck rigidly to the behavioural imperatives of the Fifties. "As a child," he once said "I was neither seen nor heard. I was not taken seriously. Everything I attempted to articulate was diminished, distorted or interrupted. It's a miracle that I got out of that; affluent, middle class, horrible. That is why I honour that child and voice in me by saying 'They're going to hear and see me, and I'm not going to be interrupted. I'll put them in a place where they can't interrupt me'." You can see the need for his imaginary film crew, a loyal team that would focus their attention and every effort on the star of the show.
Outside the family, Krishna didn't enjoy a sense of belonging at school, either. That middle class affluence saw him enrolled at the prestigious and highly academic Manchester Grammar School, whose former pupils included the children's author Alan Garner and screenplay writer Robert Bolt, an Oscar winner for Dr Zhivago and A Man For All Seasons (later attenders would be theatre producer Nicholas Hytner and England cricket captain Michael Atherton). As said, the school pushed the kids towards academic achievement, with Oxford and Cambridge being the aim. This did not sit well with Krishna who had decided to follow his father into medicine but was uninspired by the subject matter. Bullying did not make things easier. Krishna and his brothers and sisters were the darkest peers the other kids had ever had and, of course, many people's immediate reaction to someone out of the ordinary is to punch them in the mouth. Krishna nervousness only increased.
To escape the fear and unpredictability of normal school life, Krishna would spend much of his time in the school's theatre, involving himself in its regular productions. One of his peers here would be Robert Powell, six months his junior. Though on leaving school they would be separated for a while, Powell would be right beside Krishna as he made his initial forays into serious acting, and when he made his first major breakthrough. Oddly, some 20 years after their first meeting back in the theatre of Manchester Grammar School, both would be world famous for their portrayals of icons of peace and love - Krishna playing Gandhi and Powell Jesus in Franco Zeffirelli's brilliant production Jesus Of Nazareth.
Though he was keen, Krishna was not exceptional at drama. Neither, despite his undoubted intelligence and a natural musical ability, was he successful academically. Abysmal A-level results meant that he failed to score a university place to study medicine, so plans to follow in his father's footsteps were abandoned (his mother's were more to his taste). Instead, after some time out, he took a job as a lab technician for ICI and became a member of the amateur theatrical troupe The Salford Players. With them his talent began to shine through, so noticeably that his fellow Players realised they had a star in their midst. After much badgering they persuaded him he ought to turn professional and so he decided to follow the time-honoured path and apply to RADA. It was a disaster. At the audition, when his time came to be called, the name Kristina Blange was bellowed across the hall. It must be the girl he'd been eyeing up, he thought. But it wasn't. In fact none of the women present stood up. And then, after an interminable pause, it struck him. The name was an error, the result of his own dreadful handwriting, and they were calling for HIM. Horribly flustered he botched his audition, his path to glory was a frustrating dead end.
But all was not lost. About three weeks after the RADA fiasco he secured his first paid employment as an actor. This was with the London-based Theatre In Education group, a touring party that aimed to take drama into the nation's schools. This was vital, confidence-building experience, but it was not the real deal. Seeing Ian Holm's performance as Richard III for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1964 made up his mind. He would devote himself to serious acting, learn his craft and see how far he could rise. At his father's suggestion he also took a new name as Krishna Bhanji might limit the roles he was offered. Ben had been his father's nickname while at Dulwich, Kingsley would spring from grandad's Clove King moniker. Now he sounded like a classical actor.
With serious drama in mind, 1965 saw him reunite with Robert Powell who, after studying at Manchester University, had taken a job at the Victoria Theatre in Stoke-On-Trent under the renowned director Peter Cheeseman. Operating both as actors and assistant stage managers, the pair would appear in Five To A Flat, As You Like It, The Three Musketeers, The Master Builder and Pygmalion (Kingsley playing Eliza's dad), a wild variety of performances. More importantly, though, there'd be A Smashing Day, a contemporary piece where Kingsley would perform as singing narrator (he'd written the music himself), playing guitar with Powell accompanying on harmonica. This was a huge success and had Kingsley noticed by Brian Epstein, manager of The Beatles, then on an extreme high as the band dominated the charts worldwide. Acting as a theatre producer, Epstein would now open A Smashing Day at the New Arts Theatre in London, with Hywel Bennett in the lead and Kingsley and Powell continuing in their musical roles. After one performance John Lennon and Ringo Starr would come backstage and urge Kingsley to change tack into a musical career. He'd regret it forever if he didn't, they said. Epstein would offer him a deal. But Ben had already received a better offer and now went to the Chichester Festival where he'd appear alongside Ray McAnally, Tom Courtenay and John "We're doomed!" Laurie in Lindsay Anderson's The Cherry Orchard and Macbeth, the latter seeing Kingsley appear in his first sinister role, as First Murderer.
It was an exciting time of great change for Kingsley. 1966 also saw him get married to actress Angela Morant (cousin of Penelope Wilton), a union that would continue through to 1972 and produce two children, Thomas and Jasmine. Morant would meet with varying success, appearing in the classic serial I, Claudius and the Oscar-winning Iris, as well as TV hits like Callan, Tumbledown, The Bill, Bergerac and Inspector Morse (her actor cousin, Richard Morant was the nephew of Bill Travers and, in 1969, would marry the daughter of Douglas Fairbanks Jr). On top of this, 1966 would bring Kingsley a TV debut in the long-running soap Coronation Street (his Victoria Theatre pal Roy Barraclough had already scored pop-up parts on the show). He'd be likely lad Ron Jenkins who takes a fancy to Ken Barlow's first wife Valerie, a story ranging over just two episodes but being so well-received Ben was asked back for a brief one-episode reprisal in 1967.
Still, Kingsley was lacking in real theatrical experience and so it came as something of a surprise when, in 1967, he was taken on as a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company. At his audition, performed for esteemed director Trevor Nunn, he made speeches from Byron, Hamlet and the more contemporary Little Malcolm And His Struggle Against The Eunuchs. As at RADA, he was horribly nervous, but thankfully Nunn was looking deeper, seeing in Kingsley what he'd later describe as an element of danger and recklessness. He was 23 and he was on his way.
His first season with the RSC would see him begin at Stratford as a huntsman in The Taming Of The Shrew, a lord in The Revenger's Tragedy and Amiens in As You Like It. The troupe would then transfer to the Aldwych Theatre in London and reprise As You Like It (with Dorothy Tutin, Janet Suzman and Patrick Stewart) and The Taming Of the Shrew, following them with The Relapse where Kingsley, here credited below Suzman and Stewart as well as Susan Fleetwood and Donald Sinden, would play both a wigmaker and an attendant.
1968 would begin with a 6-week stint at Los Angeles' Ahmanson Theatre with, once again, As You Like It and The Taming Of The Shrew. The group would then return to Stratford where Kingsley would play Oswald in King Lear, Amiens (again) in As You Like It, Trojan commander Aeneas in Troilus And Cressida and Conrade in Much Ado About Nothing. Small roles but invaluable experience. The next year would bring a full US tour with Much Ado with Kingsley this time accompanying Suzman, Stewart and the new thespian love goddess Helen Mirren. Then it was back to the Aldwych with Troilus (with Stewart and Mirren again), a production they'd then take out across Europe. Back at the Aldwych they'd reprise Much Ado, and follow it with The Silver Tassie and Bartholomew Fair, in which Kingsley would play Ned Winwife, rival of Mirren's husband.
Back in Stratford, 1970 would see Ben as Claudio in Measure For Measure, in Richard III, then as Demetrius in Peter Brook's legendary staging of A Midsummer Night's Dream, before ending the season as Ariel in The Tempest (for which he also wrote the music). The next year would be busier still with Brook's A Midsummer Night's Dream going on a US tour (including Broadway) and then returning to the Aldwych. Kingsley would remain at the Aldwych as Sintsov in Gorky's Enemies, with Stewart and Mirren, then tour the UK with the Italian workers' rights play Occupations in which he was Gramsci. Director Buzz Goodbody would then take the production to The Place, a new studio theatre in London, where the troupe would continue on with Subject To Fits and The Oz Trial. Though she'd die ridiculously young, Goodbody would also open The Other Place in Stratford and be instrumental in the development and popularisation of studio theatre - a project in which Kingsley gave her vital support.
1972 would be a little different. Aside from getting divorced, he'd take The Oz Trial to the Aldwych, then travel to Newcastle to play Puck in The Fairy Queen and on to Ipswich to play Mesa in Break Of Noon. And, at long last, he'd make a cinematic debut in Alistair Maclean's Fear Is The Key. Here a gang of thugs led by John Vernon shoot down a plane carrying gold and jewels, inadvertently killing Barry Newman's wife and kid. He goes after them, pretending to be a salvage expert and infiltrating the gang, Kingsley playing the thoroughly reprehensible Royale, one of Vernon's main enforcers.
1973 would see a change in Kingsley's approach. Having immersed himself in theatre for the last eight years, now he began to really branch out into TV. This was far easier back then because of the number of plays being filmed by the BBC. Onstage he would only appear as Johnny in Athol Fugard's Hello And Goodbye (opposite Janet Suzman at the King's Head and then The Place) and as Fritz in John Wiles' A Lesson In Blood And Roses. Onscreen, meanwhile, he'd team up with two independent greats. First he'd appear in Ken Loach's A Misfortune, a BBC adaptation of a Chekhov short story. Then there'd be Mike Leigh and Hard Labour, a Play For Today concerning class and sex divisions that saw poor Liz Smith horribly abused by her husband and daughter, Kingsley popping up as an Asian cab driver, one of the very few decent coves on display.
Taking a break from the RSC and keeping in the spirit of these maverick, socially-conscious directors, Kingsley would now remain for a spell at the Royal Court, playing Errol Philander in Fugard's Statements After An Arrest Under The Immorality Act. But he'd not stray from the Bard for long. On TV he'd show up in the RSC's Antony And Cleopatra, with Suzman as the Egyptian vamp and Patrick Stewart as Enobarbus. He'd then return to Stratford and a real breakthrough part when, under Buzz Goodbody's direction at The Other Place, he took on the starring role of Hamlet (backed by George Baker and Charles Dance). This production would, in 1976, be taken to London's Roundhouse and its glowing reviews would see Kingsley rise to the status of star-in-waiting. Perhaps even more important, as it turned out, was that in the Roundhouse audience one night sat Michael Attenborough, son of Sir Richard. Five years later he would still remember Kingsley's intensity as he committed his fatal prevarications and would recommend him to his father, then searching for the man who would be Gandhi. On TV, meanwhile, there'd been another excellent production, The Love School, a five-part examination of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, wherein Kingsley starred as a wild and wilder-haired Dante Gabriel Rossetti (yes, he did once have hair) with Peter Egan, once a fellow minor back in The Cherry Orchard at Chichester, as Millais.
Now a big name, Kingsley would join Sir Peter Hall, Paul Schofield and John Gielgud at the National Theatre, as Mosca in Volpone. Then he'd be the snorting Restoration fop Sparkish in The Country Wife, alongside Albert Finney, and would stay with Finney for The Cherry Orchard (also with Dorothy Tutin and Ralph Richardson) where he'd play the student Trofimov. In between these, in keeping with his commitment to studio theatre and the notion of taking theatre to the people, he joined the Actors In Residence programme where he and other RSC stalwarts twice toured the States, visiting university drama departments where they performed Shakespeare scenes and conducted workshops. He also managed to find the time to get married again, to theatre director Alison Sutcliffe. And there was Judgement, a National Theatre production staged at the Cottesloe telling a beastly story where German soldiers leave a squad of Russians locked in a monastery cellar. Murder and cannibalism ensue and there are only two survivors, one of whom is insane. But which one? Amazingly, Kingsley would perform this two-hour show solo, again receiving outstanding reviews.
Flushed with this success, he returned to the RSC and Stratford, playing Frank Ford in the Merry Wives Of Windsor, Iachimo in Cymbeline and Brutus in Julius Caesar. At The Other Place he also took the lead in Baal, writing the music himself. The next year, 1980, he'd reprise those productions with the RSC in Newcastle, then return to London's Aldwych for Merry Wives and, as Squeers, Trevor Nunn's famed production of Nicholas Nickleby, before taking Baal to the Warehouse.
And now it happened. Due to the exertions of Nicholas Nickleby, Kingsley had grown tense and tired, so his wife bought him a biography of Gandhi to relax him. He'd barely started it when the call came. Richard Attenborough's 20-year-old struggle to film the life of Gandhi was at last bearing fruit. John Hurt had been mentioned for the lead, but then Michael had made his recommendation. Kingsley turned up to audition and his first reading was not that impressive. But then he tried the costume and makeup and what would soon be obvious to everyone became immediately apparent to Attenborough. Kingsley was born to play this part. He was given the job in the dressing-room, performing a second reading only as a formality. Krishna Bhanji, who'd changed his name to something more English in order to win parts, was to play Mohandas Gandhi.
And what a performance. Following Gandhi from his youth, facing racism in South Africa, to the brilliantly conceived non-violent revolution that liberated his country, Kingsley was quiet, observant, amusing and imbued with moral force. You could understand how this charismatic man could move so many people (and, given that there were 300,000 extras in one scene, he had an awful lot of people to move). It was an epic success and deservedly won Attenborough Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director. And Kingsley would be properly honoured, too, taking an Oscar, a Golden Globe and a BAFTA as Best Actor.
As if to prove this was no fluke (most were not aware of his many years in theatre), after filming had ceased he'd proceeded immediately to another triumph. This was another one-man stage-show, Kean, based on the crazily colourful life of the 19th Century actor Edmund Kean, reputedly the greatest Shylock of them all. Directed by his wife, he'd open at Harrogate in 1981, then in '83 take the piece to the Lyric in Hammersmith and on to Broadway. It would also be filmed and shown on TV. Once again the reviews were ecstatic (Kingsley's first son with Sutcliffe would be named Edmund, the second Ferdinand). For most, Kingsley seemed to have come out of nowhere to establish himself as one of his country's finest stage and screen actors. An 18-year overnight success.
Gandhi would naturally raise Kingsley's cinematic profile to such a degree that he soon left the theatre behind altogether. Directed once more by his wife, he'd appear in Melons at The Other Place and the Barbican, then star as Othello for the RSC in Stratford (David Suchet would be his Iago), but his performance with Geraldine James in A Betrothal at the Man In the Moon in 1986 would be the last time he'd tread the boards in over a decade.
After appearing on TV in The Merry Wives Of Windsor, trying to seduce rich Judy Davis and giving Richard Griffiths' Falstaff a damn good thrashing, he moved to Harold Pinter's Betrayal, based on Pinter's affair with Joan Bakewell. Superbly written and playing backwards through the long tryst, it saw Kingsley as Robert, publisher husband of Patricia Hodge, keeping his fury repressed as she gets it on with Pinter-figure Jeremy Irons. Next would come Camille, where he played the righteous father of young Colin Firth, begging courtesan Greta Scaachi to stay away from his son - with tragic results.
1985 would bring The Turtle Diary, again written by Pinter, a charming piece that had Kingsley as a bookshop clerk obsessed with the giant sea turtles in London Zoo. Enjoying a sweet romance with colleague Harriet Walter, he joins up with fellow turtle fan Glenda Jackson and turtle keeper Michael Gambon in a plot to set the imprisoned creatures free. It was a far cry from his next picture, an exotic epic called Harem set in the early 1900s where he played an Arab mogul who falls for New York businesswoman Nastassja Kinski and has her kidnapped, re-employing her as his concubine in his north African fortress. Featuring such fine female talents as Ava Gardner, Sarah Miles and Cherie Lunghi, the movie aimed for eroticism but ended up just looking beautiful, though Kingsley did add depth - he was powerful but still shocked by his captive's open attitude to sex.
He would briefly continue to veer between art and African silliness. He'd turn in a great performance as Silas Marner, the damaged miser brought back to full life by caring for young Patsy Kensit, and he'd stay with TV to play the great 20th Century Brit painter Stanley Spencer, before returning to the desert for The Secret Of The Sahara, an adventure tale of talking mountains and hidden treasure with murderous Foreign Legion deserters. It was good fun, though, better than you'd expect from a mid-Eighties miniseries starring Michael York and David Soul.
Thankfully, Kingsley's background would ensure that he was still offered classy projects, and he moved on to Merchant-Ivory's Maurice. Set post-WWI, this would see James Wilby and Hugh Grant struggling to accept their illegal homosexual feelings at Cambridge. Once the doomed affair is ended Wilby seeks help in "curing" himself of homosexuality and thus ends up dealing with Kingsley, an American hypnotist who advises him to enhance his masculinity by exercising and carrying a gun, or perhaps take off for France or Italy where you could get away with that kind of thing.
Equally fine would be Pascali's Island, set a few years earlier, where Kingsley played the title role of a man on a Greek island who's been spying for the Turks for 20 years (though he suspects no one has ever bothered to read his reports). Then his old Hamlet co-star Charles Dance arrives, claiming to be an archaeologist and Kingsley works as his translator, though he's terribly peeved when Dance makes a move on his old RSC mucker Helen Mirren, an artist Kingsley has long fancied from afar. When an ancient statue is discovered no one can be trusted and the drama leads to a sad but rather beautiful disaster.
Perhaps because of his heavyweight RSC reputation, perhaps because of Gandhi, Kean and Silas Marner, the public didn't realise that Kingsley had started out as a singer and something of a comedian (he actually considers himself to be an entertainer rather than a classical actor). So, it came as something of a shock when he now turned up in Without A Clue, a comedy where he played Dr Watson to Michael Caine's Sherlock Holmes. The twist was that Watson is really the super-sleuth and has invented Holmes to conceal his own identity, Caine just being a drunken actor employed to fill the role. The film would give Caine a chance to bumble hilariously, his performance massively enhanced by Kingsley's absolute lack of any kind of good humour.
After this it was back to the tough stuff with Testimony where he played the Russian composer Shostakovich whose liberated artistic views and works kept him constantly in danger of offending Stalin's brutal regime. Next would come a true oddity, the British sci-fi epic Slipstream. In a future world ravaged by climate change, where life is dominated by a mega-wind that sweeps endlessly around the globe, this would see Mark Hamill make a surprise reappearance six years after Return Of The Jedi. He'd play a tough cop chasing Bill Paxton, a bounty hunter who's stolen his quarry, while Kingsley would do his best as the badly-injured leader of a cult who worship the wind and offer captives up in sacrifice.
Slipstream was not a success and did not receive a theatrical release in the States. Far more effective would be the HBO production Murderers Among Us where Kingsley would stick two fingers up at his grandma by playing Simon Wiesenthal, the movie following him from Malthausen concentration camp , through the American War Crimes Unit at Nuremberg and on into his long quest to hunt down Nazi offenders, in later life trying to persuade his daughter that he's seeking justice, not vengeance. It was another great performance and would have Kingsley nominated for both an Emmy and a Golden Globe. Also very impressive would be Romeo-Juliet, where cats were carefully filmed to look if they were living the story, with a soundtrack by Prokofiev. Kingsley would provide the voice of Father Capulet and would be joined by other thesps like John Hurt, Vanessa Redgrave, Francesca Annis and, back after a 25 year separation, Robert Powell.
As is so often the case, such excellent productions would not keep coming. On the Silver and small screens Kingsley was entering his most prolific phase but he was not satisfied by his work. Worse still, he was splitting from Alison Sutcliffe and would divorce in 1992. This led to a slump in confidence that led him to admit "I was doing really bad work, I was in a bad way".
There was a lot of work in this period, none of it really "bad". In The Children, based on an Edith Wharton novel, he was a middle-aged engineer attempting to romance Kim Novak only to be foiled when he becomes legal guardian of a bunch of kids (and has dodgy feelings for the oldest but still too-young daughter). Next he'd be suspicious, intense and joyous as Lenin in The Train, returning to Russia as the Tsarist regime collapses in 1917. Then would come an Italian production, Una Vita Scellerata, a biography of the Renaissance artist Cellini, featuring murder, rape, sex, incarceration and plague, with Max Von Sydow as the Pope and Kingsley as the Governor. After this, he'd be off to Brazil for The Fifth Monkey. Here he'd play a poor villager who scratches a living catching snakes for scientists. Bitten by one of them, he has visions of four monkeys which then appear to turn up for real and so he decides to take them to the city and sell them, hopefully earning enough cash to marry a local widow. It was an odd movie, quite magical in parts, but it suffered a troubled production, with at one point the entire Brazilian crew quitting.
Kingsley's next effort would be equally different. This was The War That Never Ends which told the story of the Peloponnesian Wars between Athens and Sparta simply by using newscast-like monologues from the main characters involved, Kingsley appearing as Pericles. Then would come a rare sexy role (Harem had been the last of those) in another Italian production, L'Amore Necessario where he played a late 19th Century architect married to Marie-Christine Barrault. Deciding to spice up their relationship by bringing in new blood, they spot a couple of newly-weds in their resort hotel and move in on them.
These were the films that were failing to inspire Kingsley and it did seem that his career had stalled. Even a Grammy nomination for an album of songs from The King And I he'd recorded with Julie Andrews and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra did not ease his mind. But a truly great British thespian will never want for decent work for long, as so it was that Hollywood came calling. First it was Warren Beatty who cast him in Bugsy. Beatty himself would play Bugsy Siegel, the gangster who had a dream of building casinos in the desert town of Las Vegas while Kingsley would appear as Meyer Lansky, the mobster who understands Siegel and warns him that he needs to be more careful with the mob's money. Beatty's love interest would be Annette Bening who'd go on to become his real-life wife. Lansky's mix of kindness and menace was a heady combination and Kingsley found himself nominated for an Oscar and Golden Globe again.
After providing the lead voice in the animation Freddie The Frog (his son Edmund, who'd later best his dad by entering RADA, would also lend his voice), Kingsley would move on to Sneakers, a computer hacker thriller starring Robert Redford. Redford would lead a gang of techies asked to steal a universal code allowing its owner to access any file in the world. Kingsley, meanwhile, clearly enjoying his oily and vicious character, would play an international cyber-crim with an army of thugs who also wants the code.
1993 would be a huge year. First would come Dave where Kevin Kline would play a stand-in for the president whose position become frighteningly permanent when the president suffers a stroke. While Kline tries to deceive and win over over the First Lady, Sigourney Weaver, Kingsley would play the Vice President, attempting to maintain his dignity and decency as evil chief of staff Frank Langella tries to use Kline to seize the reins of power. This would be followed by Searching For Bobby Fischer, the real-life tale of chess prodigy Josh Waitzkin. His parents being unsure how to deal with their little genius, a battle breaks out over the way he should live, with Kingsley as an intense chess tutor scarred by a disastrous defeat who thinks the kid must toughen up and learn to hate his opponent. Bobby Fischer, written and directed by Steve Zaillian, was highly emotional stuff, dealing in sacrifice and humanity. But it was not a patch on Kingsley and Zaillian's next outing, Steven Spielberg's immense Schindler's List. Having been drained by his efforts as Simon Wiesenthal, Kingsley was not convinced he wanted to return to the Holocaust, but a meeting with Spielberg on the set of Jurassic Park made his mind up. Kingsley was hoping that Spielberg would describe Itzhak Stern, the character on offer, as "a witness". Spielberg instead described him as the movie's conscience. So that was that. In stepped Kingsley as Stern, the man who organises Liam Neeson's efforts to save Jews from the camps in occupied Poland, who keeps him from excess and final shame and who so nearly suffers the horrible fate of millions of his peers. Neeson and Ralph Fiennes had the showier roles, but Kingsley's little man was so big inside he never let you forget the danger his people faced and the sheer bloody injustice of the situation.
Of course, Schindler's List was a massive hit, but more importantly Kingsley was clearly back on top form and being offered projects worthy of his talents. He moved on to Death And The Maiden, directed by Roman Polanski (Spielberg had asked him to direct Schindler's List, but he wasn't ready to revisit his memories of the Holocaust, and wouldn't be till he made The Pianist ten years later) and co-starring his Dave buddy Sigourney Weaver. This saw Weaver as a former political prisoner who's been raped and tortured. Though she never saw her tormentor's face, she believes that the now-neighbour Kingsley, by his voice, expressions and smell, is the man, and so captures him, ties him up and begins to give him a big piece of his own medicine. But is he the one? Kingsley's brilliant performance as he squirms, whines and cajoles, trying to convince her wavering husband that she's wrong, has us wondering as the film follows its tense and challenging path.
Kingsley's thespian authority of course made him ideal for biblical epics and now he'd appear in two for Ted Turner's network. In the first, Joseph, he'd play Potiphar, chief steward of the Pharoah who buys Joseph when he's sold into slavery by his brothers (he'd be Emmy-nominated for his efforts amidst a top female cast featuring Alice Krige, Monica Bellucci and Lesley-Ann Warren). Then he'd take the title role in Moses, treating the prophet as a flawed and thus more believable hero, stuttering and mocked in the Egyptian court, confused and troubled by his origins, begging God to release him from his responsibilities. His Dave co-star Frank Langella would play the Pharoah with Kingsley's former Iago David Suchet also appearing. In between these would come the rather less wholesome Species. Here DNA is mysteriously sent to Earth from outer space and scientists create Natasha Henstridge, half alien and half human, who now seeks to breed with eligible males and devour all the rest. When she escapes, Kingsley leads the chase, bravely keeping a straight face as the foolishness unfolds.
After a decade away, Kingsley now decided to revisit the classics. Onscreen he reunited with Trevor Nunn for Twelfth Night, playing Feste the worldly-wise clown who warns, taunts and advises in equal measure as the cross-dressing confusion takes hold, and helps plot the downfall of Nigel Hawthorne's Malvolio, the grumpy, arrogant steward of Helena Bonham Carter (one of whose early credits was Maurice). He'd also make a long-anticipated return to the stage, starring as Estragon to Alan Howard's Vladimir in Waiting For Godot, the highlight of Peter Hall's new season at the Old Vic.
His next two onscreen projects were iffy to say the least. Weapons Of Mass Distraction, where he and Gabriel Byrne played billionaires battling for control of a football team, was intended to be a sharp satire on media manipulation but turned out confusing and dated. After this came Christian Duguay's The Assignment, where the CIA planned to get naval officer and lookalike Aidan Quinn to impersonate Carlos The Jackal and spoil his relationship with his KGB paymasters. Kingsley would play an Israeli agent - very clear, very direct - who trains Quinn and warns him that Carlos is "fan-AT-ical". It was ho-hum stuff and buried at the box-office by George Clooney's terrorist drama The Peacemaker.
For a while Kingsley's projects would be up and down in quality, but Photographing Fairies was definitely an up. Concerning the famous Cottingley Fairies Hoax of 1912, this would see Kingsley as Reverend Templeton, the stern father of the two girls involved, angry that they've slipped so far from the Scriptures. He'd also be jealous of his wife Frances Barber and investigating photographer Toby Stephens and rigidly suspicious of the woodland flowers that send consumers into states of hyper-reality. Yet where Photographing Fairies successfully used Kingsley to portray close-minded attitudes, The Tale Of Sweeney Todd wouldn't give him enough to do, despite his obvious relish for his part as the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
Better would be Crime And Punishment, another adaptation of Dostoevsky's classic, where Kingsley would shine as Porfiry, the relentless inspector who questions and watches and waits for the student killer Raskolnikov to make a mistake. A tad less successful would be The Confession where Kingsley kills three hospital personnel he believes to be responsible for his son's death. Devoutly Jewish, he turns himself in and wishes to accept society's retribution, but slick lawyer Alec Baldwin thinks he'll be promoted to DA if he can get Kingsley off with temporary insanity. And so the questions are raised. WAS Kingsley insane when he committed his crimes, and what's the right thing to do? Sadly, most never found out as the movie was denied a theatre release.
Also in 1999 would come a lavish "re-imagining" of Alice In Wonderland, featuring real actors and creatures from Jim Henson workshop. Kingsley would play Major Caterpillar, being joined on the credit-list by such heavyweights as Peter Ustinov, Miranda Richardson and Simon Russell Beale, as well as comedians Gene Wilder and Ken Dodd. With their presence, it was certainly a great deal funnier than Kingsley's next movie, Michael Winner's Parting Shots. Here po-faced pop-merchant Chris Rea is given six weeks to live and sets about gunning down anyone who's annoyed him, Kingsley being on the list as he's an irascible chef who's had Rea tossed out of his restaurant. It was all very stilted, but proof of Winner's networking skills as he persuaded not just Kingsley but also Diana Rigg, Bob Hoskins, John Cleese and Felicity Kendal to come onboard.
The Year 2000 would bring a wide variety of roles. In kids' flick Spooky House he'd ham it up as The Great Zamboni, a master illusionist with a pet jaguar who scares the local kids but then helps them take on Mercedes Ruehl's gang of bullies. Next would come the strangely unfunny What Planet Are You From?, where Garry Shandling played an alien from a race with no emotions or genitals, sent to Earth to impregnate women with a device hidden in his pants. His eventual victim would be Annette Bening, Kingsley's Bugsy co-star, with Kingsley himself appearing as the leader of Shandling's home planet who advises him on seduction technique ("Compliment her on her hair and footwear", "Make like you're interested in what she's saying by responding 'Uh huh' after every statement") and, when meeting Shandling on aircraft, dematerialises by flushing himself down the toilet. On a budget of $50 million, it took just $6 million at the US box office. A screaming dud.
But Kingsley would be back before the year was out. William Friedkin's Rules Of Engagement saw marine commander Samuel L Jackson facing murder charges after his troops have opened fire on Yemeni civilians demonstrating outside the embassy there. Kingsley would play the Ambassador who Jackson has saved, a weak man who wavers in court but sadly the movie did not place him in confrontation with his gutsier wife, Anne Archer. This was a waste of Kingsley's abilities, an accusation that could never be aimed at his next picture, Sexy Beast, which let him run riot. Here Ray Winstone played a safecracker, now retired to the Costa Del Sol, who's wanted back in London by crime boss Ian McShane for the proverbial one last job. To persuade him, McShane sends over Kingsley's Logan who proceeds to veer between pretty persuasion and psychotic rage as Winstone remains undecided. He went so overboard with his cod Cockney menace he made Steven Berkoff look like Buster Keaton. One had to marvel at his audacity, but this was comic more than convincing. Non-Brits, though, were mightily impressed and Kingsley would win nominations for both an Oscar and a Golden Globe.
And the glory would keep coming. Returning to TV, Kingsley would have another pop at grandma by playing father Otto Frank in Anne Frank: The Whole Story. Once again, much of the story would be told simply on his face as he kept from his family the true horror of their situation, and he'd deservedly receive further nominations for an Emmy and Golden Globe. Next, after helping out his pal Spielberg by providing a voiceover for AI: Artificial Intelligence, he moved on to a real bizarro number. This was The Triumph Of Love, based on an 18th Century Marivaux play, where Mira Sorvino was a princess who decides her family has stolen the throne from the rightful heir, a prince she actually rather fancies. In order to achieve a handover of power, she dresses up as a boy (in this she's joined by her maid Rachael Stirling who dresses up as a boy suspiciously often) and attempts to infiltrate the home of the prince's guardians, Kingsley and sister Fiona Shaw. She does this by pretending she wants to study under Kingsley, an occult scholar complete with the prerequisite robes and star-marked skull-cap, and she also turns on the sexual heat, which at least allows Kingsley to act a little as he moves from arid academia though deep suspicion to an emotional awakening. It was strange but sweet, silly but playful and quite beautiful.
Following a return to the stage for a few benefit performances of The Tarnished Phoenix at the Oxford Playhouse and for the Playbox Theatre Company in Warwick, it would be back to Mr Menacing in his following film, Disney's Tuck Everlasting. This was another strange one, involving a family who've drunk from the spring of eternal youth and have remained the same age for 100 years. Now, on the eve of the US entry into WWI, a young girl falls for the youngest of the family Tuck and must decide whether she will suffer immortality to be with him. Kingsley, meanwhile, known only as The Man In The Yellow Suit, is a mysterious guy who knows the Tucks' secret and is out to exploit it, the bounder.
Things were going well, in his private life, too. In 2001 he'd been knighted for his services to his profession. It was an honour that pleased him mightily (and very publicly - more than all his peers, Kingsley is capable of the most outrageous pomposity). Then, in 2002 at the Berlin Film Festival he met one Alexandra Christmann, an advertising saleswoman whom he'd marry in September, 2003 (she was 28, he was 59). Sadly, it wouldn't last. Come 2005 he'd see newspaper pictures of her kissing the 41-year-old son of a German movie producer - ouch - and filed for divorce. She countered that she'd left him for being a snob. It was all most unbecoming.
Happily, Kingsley's work was not much affected. Following Tuck Everlasting he'd meet with yet more success with The House Of Sand And Fog. Here recovering alcoholic Jennifer Connelly inadvertently falls behind on payments on her beloved house and is evicted. The place is then snapped up at auction by Kingsley, an Iranian immigrant to the US who's holding down two jobs in an attempt to rebuild his family's fortunes. She wants the house back at a reasonable price, and he knows he should give it to her, but the family must come first and, besides, he's close to broke. And so they all slip down the darkest of roads in one of the more memorable film dramas of recent years. Rightly, Kingsley would be nominated for an Oscar for the fourth time.
His next effort would not be Oscar-nominated. In fact it was one of the bigger duds of the year. This was Thunderbirds, an adaptation that attempted to cash in on the success of the Spy Kids franchise by aiming directly at children. Thus Kingsley, as the sinister Hood (and desperately trying to add weight to this flimsy production), cons International Rescue into shooting off into outer space while he knocks off the Bank Of England - only to be foiled by those pesky kids. Far better would be Suspect Zero, where troubled FBI agent Aaron Eckhart is demoted to New Mexico and finds himself targeted by Kingsley, a super-creepy killer who can "remotely view" murders committed by others. But is Kingsley taunting him, or helping him? It was an interesting role for Kingsley, allowing him to play vicious, dangerously intelligent and vulnerable, and he did it well. Sometimes he doesn't. If Kingsley has one failing as an actor it's the same one Olivier had before him and Kevin Spacey has had since. Occasionally he fails to hide his own sharp intelligence, he's too knowing, almost smug, as if he's enjoying his superiority over the other actors rather than engaging in the scene. Mercifully, you only see it very rarely.
2005 would be an immensely busy year for Kingsley releases. First would come A Sound Of Thunder where he starred as a greedy businessman with a time machine who sends rich men back into pre-history to enjoy dinosaur safaris. Cleverly, he only has them shoot dinosaurs that are already on the cusp of death, so the future is not altered. But then, by accident, the future IS changed, Chicago is a swamp, with giant bats, and so Edward Burns must make heroic efforts to change things back. Based on a Ray Bradbury short story, the production was troubled throughout. Sets were destroyed in the Prague floods of 2002, the money ran out during post-production. However, despite some dodgy effects the film remained charming, in a 1930s kind of way.
Kingsley would have more to get his teeth into in his next release. This saw him reunite with his Death And The Maiden director Roman Polanski for a new version of Oliver Twist. Here, naturally, he'd be Fagin and would make huge efforts to widen this hoary old character. He was playful, repellent, sly, hilarious, pitiful and dangerous, both Oliver's saviour and curse - it was a performance of the highest energy. After this would come Mrs Harris, based on a sensational 1980s murder case. Here Kingsley would play an eminent cardiologist and diet guru, a keen safari hunter and even keener sexual predator, despite dating former Bugsy and What Planet Are You From co-star Annette Bening for 14 years. The final humiliation comes when he dumps her for young secretary Cloe Sevigny. She kills him, but it's not that simple as the film flashes back from the court-room to see the killing and its build-up from several different angles. It was interesting stuff, part black comedy, part psych horror. Very different would be Lucky Number Slevin where Kingsley would return to the Mob to play The Rabbi, leader of a Jewish gang in New York City. Cunning and brutish he murderously strikes out at Morgan Freeman, leader of a rival black gang, and poor Josh Harnett gets caught up in the middle.
There'd be more in 2006. The videogame spin-off Bloodrayne would see Kristanna Loken as the titular half-vampire, happily drinking blood and having sex as she gathers together a team of vampire hunters and arcane talismans that will help her destroy her own father, Kingsley as Kagan, king of the vampires who raped her mother. With the flame-haired temptress dominating the screen, Kingsley would not have much to do but sit on his throne and scowl. He'd see a little more action in The Last Legion where, with the Roman Empire crumbling, the 12-year-old emperor is imprisoned on Capri. Kingsley would play his wise teacher, Abrosinus, and Colin Firth (Kingsley's Camille co-star from 22 years earlier) a brave legionnaire who helps him escape and flee to Britain in search of the famed Dragon Legion that might help to save Rome. This was, some claimed, the origin of Arthurian legend.
Now over 60, Ben Kingsley shows no sign of slowing down nor of losing his famed intensity. We can only hope that the film industry throws up enough decent characters to challenge him. But whatever parts he's given he will make something interesting from them. He is, after all, one of the finest of them all.