"People think if you play a man like Gandhi, somehow it rubs off on you," said Ben Kingsley of his Oscar-winning role. "They were convinced I must have evolved spiritually when I did that film. I didn't. I worked my socks off, learned my lines, lost a lot a lot of weight and acquired probably the most eccentric set of mannerisms ever seen on screen. I had no time to evolve spiritually."
Obviously not. His next two Oscar nominations came for portrayals of psychopathic gangsters in 1991's Bugsy and, a decade later, Sexy Beast. But then, probably because of his eclectic Russian-Jewish/Indian background, Ben has always been something of a chameleon. Apart from playing prophets and gangsters he's taken on, among others, the composer Shostokovitch, Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, Russian revolutionary Lenin, and the fictional demon-barber Sweeney Todd.
Born Krishna Bhanji in Snaiton, northern England, in 1943, the boy who would become Ben Kingsley was raised in Salford by his physician father Rahimtulla Harji Bhanji and his fashion model mother Anna Lyna Mary. After being turned down by the prestigious London acting school RADA in 1965, Ben spent two years plying his trade in the English provinces before returning to London in 1967 on being invited to join the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC).
Over the next two decades, he would go on to perform at both the Royal Court and the National Theatre. Highlights include a 1967 Peter Brook staging of A Midsummer Night's Dream with the RSC in which he played Demetrius, and the one-man show, Edmund Kean. Based on the life of the great English thespian, the latter was the vehicle for Ben's Broadway debut in 1984.
Despite his glittering stage career, however, Ben's passage into films was a slow one. While he had a small part in the 1972 thriller Fear Is The Key, it took another ten years before he landed a starring role. But what a role it was. Veteran actor-director Richard Attenborough had spent months looking for the right man for his biopic of Indian independence leader Gandhi and when a friend approached him with Ben's name he had no idea what to expect. As soon as Richard saw the actor perform, he knew he had found his man. Within a year of Gandhi wrapping, Ben had nabbed a best actor Oscar and gone from relative anonymity to international prominence.
Despite the promise of immediate celebrity, Ben chose to concentrate on the theatre and European cinema. He had a starring role in a 1983 film version of the Harold Pinter play Betrayal and did a turn in James Ivory's 1987 adaptation of the EM Forster novel Maurice. Never one to turn his nose up at TV work, he also popped up in the title role of Silas Marner for the BBC in 1985.
By 1988, Hollywood could wait no longer, however, and he made his Tinseltown debut opposite Michael Caine in the Sherlock Holmes comedy Without A Clue. Three years later Ben was nominated Best Supporting Actor for Bugsy and in 1993 gave a scene-stealing performance in Steven Spielberg's magnum opus Schindler's List. Hollywood's most successful director was obviously impressed because he approached Ben to provide the narration to 2000's Artificial Intelligence: AI.
As the film roles poured in, the actor still managed to balance a film career with a range of work on TV. He played real-life Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal in the 1989 US TV production Murderers Among Us acclaimed at the time as some of his best work since Gandhi and popped up as Major Caterpillar in NBC's Alice In Wonderland 1999.
Then, in 2001, came Sexy Beast. His showy, explosive supporting turn as a spring-loaded gangster was the kind of role of which most 50-something actors can only dream; and it won him a deserved third Oscar nomination. Typically he was not fazed. A week prior to the LA award ceremony, Ben was awarded a knighthood at Buckingham Palace. "I told the Queen that winning an Oscar pales into insignificance," he said at the time. "This is insurmountable. I've been nominated for an Academy Award but I will be sitting there in Los Angeles thinking I'm a knight bachelor."
Ben lives with his partner Kate Townsend and has three sons by his two previous marriages.