Born in Cambridge, he was educated at Wyggeston Grammar School for Boys in Leicester and at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA). His film career as an actor began in 1942 as a deserting sailor in In Which We Serve, a role which would help to type-cast him for many years as spivs or cowards in films like London Belongs to Me (1948), Morning Departure (1950), and his breakthrough role as a psychopathic young gangster in the film adaptation of Graham Greene's novel Brighton Rock (1947). He worked prolifically in British films for the next thirty years, and in the 1950s appeared in several successful comedies for John and Roy Boulting, including Private's Progress (1956) and I'm All Right Jack (1959).
In the late 1950s he formed a production company, Beaver Films, with Bryan Forbes and began to build a profile as a producer on projects including The League of Gentlemen (1959), The Angry Silence (1960) and Whistle Down the Wind (1961), also appearing in the first two of these as an actor. He continued to work in films in character roles throughout the decade, winning the BAFTA Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of the regimental Sergeant Major in Guns at Batasi in 1964. One of Attenborough's most notable film roles was as Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett ("Big X"), the head of the escape committee, in The Great Escape (1963). As of July 2006, he is one of only three surviving stars of the film, the others being James Garner and David McCallum.
In 1969, he made his first film as director, Oh! What a Lovely War, and his appearances as an actor became more sporadic, the most notable being his portrayal of serial killer John Christie in 1971's 10 Rillington Place. He also directed two more epic period films, Young Winston (1972), based on the early life of Winston Churchill, and A Bridge Too Far (1977). He won the 1982 Academy Award for Directing for his historical epic, Gandhi, a project he had been attempting to get made for several years. As the film's producer, he also won the Academy Award for Best Picture. His most recent films as director and producer include Grey Owl, and the acclaimed drama Shadowlands, based on the relationship between C.S. Lewis and Joy Gresham.
Lord Attenborough has been in Belfast, Northern Ireland filming his latest film, Closing the Ring, set in Belfast in the Second World War.
Also Lord Attenborough is President of RADA, Chairman of Capital Radio, President of BAFTA, President of the Gandhi Foundation, Chancellor of the University of Sussex and President of the British National Film and Television School.
He was elected to the post of Chancellor of the University of Sussex on 20 March 1998, replacing the Duke of Richmond and Gordon. He is also Life Vice-President of Chelsea Football Club. Furthermore, he is a Patron for the United World Colleges movement.
He is actively involved in the project to develop a film industry in Wales, commonly referred to as "Valleywood".
Attenborough is rumored to be reprising his role as John Hammond in the film Jurassic Park IV which is set for release in summer 2008
In 1967, he was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE). He was knighted in 1976 and in 1993 he was made a life peer as Baron Attenborough, of Richmond upon Thames in the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames.
On 13 July 2006, Attenborough, along with his brother David, were awarded the titles of Distinguished Honorary Fellows of the University of Leicester "in recognition of a record of continuing distinguished service to the University."  & .
He has been married to British actress Sheila Sim since 1945. They had three children. In December 2004, his elder daughter, Jane Holland, as well as her daughter, Lucy, and her mother-in-law, also named Jane, were killed in the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake.  A memorial service was held on 8 March 2005, and Attenborough read a lesson at the national memorial service on 11 May 2005. His grandson Samuel Holland and granddaughter Alice Holland also read in the sevice.
Attenborough's father, Frederick Attenborough, was principal of University College, Leicester, now the city's university. This has resulted in a long association with the university, with Lord Attenborough a patron. The university's Richard Attenborough Centre for Disability and the Arts, which opened in 1997, is named in his honour.
He has two younger brothers, the famous naturalist Sir David Attenborough; and John Attenborough, who has made a career in the motor trade.