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Best known for his Academy Award-winning portrayal of "Gandhi" (1982), British-born Ben Kingsley has made a specialty of playing historical characters ranging from Shostakovich ("Testimony" 1987) to Meyer Lansky ("Bugsy" 1991), his Indian and Russian Jewish roots providing the seemingly incompatible genetic credentials for all three, as well as for other exotic roles (i.e., an Arab prince in "Harem" 1985, a Turk in "Pascali's Island" 1988). Often asked to carry the moral weight of films, he has also excelled in more atypical turns as the smarmy bad guy in "Sneakers" (1992), the physician-torturer of "Death and the Maiden" (1994), the mad scientist of "Species" (1995) and the titular "Demon Barber" of the nonmusical "The Tale of Sweeney Todd" (Showtime, 1998). Although he's offered plenty of film roles, he does not turn up his nose at TV, remarking that "there's less of a gap between quality TV and features than there used to be. Playing [Simon] Wiesenthal for HBO was some of the best work I've done."
Kingsley's acceptance by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1967 marked the real beginning of a professional acting career commenced two years earlier in the English provinces, and he later performed at both the Royal Court and the National Theatre. Highlights from his days on the boards include Peter Brook's staging of "A Midsummer Night's Dream", Buzz Goodbody's take on "Hamlet" (both with the RSC), Athol Fugard's "Statements" (at the Royal Court), Peter Hall's version of "Volpone" (at the National), and his one-person show "Edmund Kean", based on the life of the great English thespian, with which he made his Broadway debut in 1984.
The slim, intense actor made his film debut in "Fear Is the Key" (1972) and achieved international prominence in Richard Attenborough's "Gandhi,” though seven more European films would precede his US debut as Dr. Watson opposite Michael Caine's Sherlock Holmes in "Without a Clue" (1988). Among his projects in between were two pieces written by Harold Pinter, "Betrayal" (1983, as a cuckolded husband) and "Turtle Diary" (1995, playing Glenda Jackson's romantic interest), as well as James Ivory's "Maurice" (1987), in which he portrayed a hypnotist trying to cure a young man's homosexuality. Kinglsey's performance as Lansky earned him an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor, but his most impressive performance since "Gandhi" came in Steven Spielberg's Academy Award-winning Best Picture, "Schindler's List" (1993), in which he disappeared with subtlety and strength into his role as Itshak Stern, the clever Jewish accountant who was the brains behind the empire of industrialist Oskar Schindler. The businessman saved 1100 Jews, but he could not (and would not) have done so without Stern serving as his conscience. The interplay between Kingsley and Liam Neeson (as Schindler) points up the warmth of a relationship that was a point of sanity in an insane world, helping Schindler realize that the most important thing he could do was save as many lives as possible, even of it meant going broke. Kingsley was also excellent that year as an ambitious US Vice President in the Ivan Reitman comedy "Dave" and as chess coach Bruce Pandolfini in Steve Zaillian's underrated "Searching for Bobby Fisher". He was also especially potent in director Roman Polanski's 1994 atmospheric and absorbing film "Death and the Maiden," a three-character story set in an unspecified South American country after the fall of a dictator, with Sigourney Weaver plays a woman who was kidnapped and tortured during the dictatorship, who encounters Roberto Miranda (Kingsley), a doctor who gives her husband a lift home when his car breaks down and whom she insists is her torturer, though she was blindfolded throughout her captivity. She knows his voice, she knows his favorite turns of phrase and she is determined to make him confess, prompting a brutal clash of wills and psyches, as well as a master class in acting.
After his turn at sci-fi in "Species" (1995), he returned to the classics as Feste in Trevor Nunn's "Twelfth Night" (1996) and then helped train Aidan Quinn to pursue Carlos the Jackal (also played by Quinn) in Christian Duguay's "The Assignment" (1997).
The small screen has always offered a nurturing environment for the serious British performer. Kingsley debuted on American screens as Armand's crusty father in "Camille" (CBS, 1984) and followed with the acclaimed miniseries "Oxbridge Blues" (A&E, 1986) and the excellent British import "Silas Marner", airing on PBS, "Great Performances" in 1987. Outstanding as Simon Wiesenthal, the famed Nazi-hunter in "Murderers Among Us: The Simon Wiesenthal Story" (HBO, 1989), he returned twice to biblical days in TNT miniseries, exhibiting poise in the role of the Pharaoh Potiphar for "Joseph" (1995) and delivering a passionate but quiet portrayal of the titular "Moses" (1996). In addition to playing a Ted Turner-like media mogul to Gabriel Byrne's Rudolph Murdochesque tycoon in HBO's "Weapons of Mass Distraction" (1997, written by Larry Gelbart) and Magistrate Porfiry for NBC's "Dostoevsky's 'Crime and Punishment'" (1998), Kingsley turned up amidst the dazzling, hallucinatory effects of NBC's "Alice in Wonderland" (1999) as the upright Major Caterpillar and garnered an Emmy nomination for his role as Otto Frank in the powerful ABC miniseries "Anne Frank" (2001). He has also lent his mellifluous voice to such specials as "Our Finite World: India" (WTBS, 1986), "The Tiger and the Brahmin" (a 1991 children's show for Showtime), and "Survivors of the Holocaust" (TBS, 1996).
Although his performances were always admired by critics, audiences and especially his fellow actors, Kingsley career got a major short in the arm when he gave a stunning, blistering and critically-acclaimed performance as the uninhibitedly ferocious Don Logan in the British gangster feature "Sexy Beast" (2000; released in the USA in 2001), a role which lead to a plethora of award buzz, including an Oscar nomination and several nods and wins at other ceremonies; indicative of how dramatically the actor's performance elevated both the part and the film, he was named in both supporting actor and lead actor categories. That same year also received Emmy, Golden Globe and other awards nominations for his turn as patriarch Otto Frank in the acclaimed miniseries "Anne Frank: The Whole Story" (2001). Kingsley also lent his mellifluous voice to the narrator of Spielberg's "A.I. Artificial Intelligence" (2001) and co-starred as a pompous philosopher with Mira Sorvino in a stagy film version of 18th Century French playwright Pierre de Marivaux's "The Triumph of Love" (screened at film festivals in 2001 and released theatrically in 2002), before tackling the iconic role of the villainous Man in the Yellow Suit in Disney's adaptation of author Natalie Babbitt's children's classic "Tuck Everlasting" (2002).
Kingsley would deliver yet another masterful, career-defining performance in "House of Sand and Fog" (2003), playing expatriate Iranian colonel Massoud Amir Behrani, who after scrimping and saving in menial jobs manages to buy a beach home that resembles his lost estate on the Persian Sea, only to discover that the home should not have been auctioned away from its rightful owner (Jennifer Connelly) by the government. The resulting clash of wills over the ownership and the tragic twists and turns provide Kingsley with one of his most complex and nuanced film appearances, expertly essaying both the flawed and noble characteristics of his character. Kingsley received a wealth of critical acclaim and awards notice for his turn, including his second Academy Award nomination as Best Actor (and fourth Oscar nom overall) along with Golden Globe and Independent Spirit Award nominations.
Few moviegoers turned out to see Kinglsey's embarrassing 2004 follow-up, a live-action adaptation of the 1964-1966 puppet-driven British sci-fi TV series "Thunderbirds," with Sir Ben as the villainous The Hood (wisely played with light touches over scenery chewing). The actor admitted he needed a sillier role after the heaviness of "House of Sand and Fog" and had fond memories of watching hours of the cult hit TV show with his children. Next the actor essayed the titular serial killer who murders serial killers in the mostly atmospheric thriller "Suspect Zero" (2004), with Kinglsey's performance providing the lion's share of the film's few pleasures.
Kingsley was game for another over-the-top performance in “A Sound of Thunder” (2005), a futuristic thriller about the dangers of using time travel for fun and profit. He played a greedy businessman whose head of white hair is the about only thing more impressive than his successful venture, Time Safari, Inc., and who sends a team back into the past to make things right when “time waves” begin to ripple from Prehistoric days after an expedition to hunt dinosaurs goes awry. In a more serious vein, Kingsley reteamed with Roman Polanski to play the manipulative street urchin mentor Fagin in an adaptation of the Charles Dickens classic "Oliver Twist" (2005). Of note was the fact that Kingsley's Fagin was a more dimensional depiction than usual: instead of portraying him solely as an out-and-out evil exploiter of homeless children, Kingsley and Polanski delivered a Fagin that, although he was profiting off of the his band of pickpockets, he was also somewhat kind to them and offered them at least some sort of purpose and community that they would otherwise not have known.
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