Chameleon-like British actor Ben Kingsley has proven he can play just about anyone, from Nazi war criminals to Jewish Holocaust survivors to quiet British bookshop owners. For many viewers, however, he will always be inextricably linked with his title role in Gandhi, a film that won him an Oscar and the undying respect of critics and filmgoers alike.
Of English, East Indian, and South African descent, Kingsley was born Krishna Bhanji on December 31, 1943 in Snaiton, Yorkshire, England. The son of a general practitioner, Kingsley started out in amateur theatricals in Manchester before making his professional debut at age 23. In 1967 he made his first London appearance at the Aldwych theater and then joined the Royal Shakespeare Company, devoting himself almost exclusively to stage work for the next 15 years (with the exception of two obscure films, Fear Is the Key  and Hard Labour ). When asked about his favorite stage roles, he listed Hamlet, The Tempest's Ariel, and Volpone's Mosca.
American audiences first saw Kingsley in 1971, when he made his Broadway debut with the Royal Shakespeare Company. In 1982, actor and director Richard Attenborough selected Kingsley for the demanding title role in the epic Gandhi. The film swept the international awards that year, earning the 39-year-old actor overnight success. Among the several awards he was honored with, Kingsley won a Best Actor Oscar. Adamantly refusing to recycle the same roles, Kingsley spent the next decade playing a wide spectrum of characters. Among his more notable parts were an Arab potentate in Harem (1985), an introverted bibliophile and "social rebel" in Turtle Diary (also 1985), a spy of little import in Pascali's Island (1988), an incorruptible American vice president in Dave (1992), New York gangster Meyer Lansky in Bugsy (1992), a Jewish bookkeeper in Schindler's List (1993), and a suspected Nazi war criminal in Death and the Maiden (1994). So many of his characters have been either taciturn or downright villainous that, upon being cast in a good-guy role in the escapist sci-fier Species (1995), Kingsley publicly expressed his relief in several widely circulated magazine articles.
In the latter half of the 1990s, Kingsley continued to embrace a variety of eclectic roles, with turns as the Fool in Trevor Nunn's 1996 film adaptation of Twelfth Night, a media mogul in the 1997 made-for-HBO satire Weapons of Mass Distraction, and the barbarous barber Sweeney Todd in John Schlesinger's 1998 The Tale of Sweeney Todd. Kingsley also took Broadway by storm with his one-man show Edward Kean (later taped for cable), which was directed by his wife, Alison Sutcliffe.
Though Kingsley had retained the variety in his career that he had so diligently pursued, the ever-sharp actor remained as focused as ever heading into the new millennium. For his role as a manipulative criminal with a strong power for persuasion in Sexy Beast (2001), Kingsley earned both a Golden Globe nomination and a third Oscar nomination. His fourth Academy nod would come just 2 years later with his role as a proud Arab-American patriarch in The House of Sand and Fog. Along with the Best Actor Oscar nomination, the role also netted Kingsley Golden Globe and Screen Actor's Guild nominations. Kingsley lost his Oscar bid for House to Sean Penn, who collected the statue for his contribution to Clint Eastwood's Mystic River.
Over the next several years, Sir Ben Kingsley's acting choices often demonstrated the degree of difficulty that A-listers may encounter when seeking multilayered roles in respectable films, with solid scripts and direction; like many of his contemporaries, the magnificent thespian Kingsley turned up in more than one schlocky Hollywood stinker after House of Sand and Fog -- from Jonathan Frakes's ugly Thunderbirds revamp (2004) to Uwe Boll's horrendous, gothic fx-extravaganza BloodRayne (2006) (as evil ruler Lord Kagan). If anyone could ferret out the creme-de-la-creme of roles, however, Kingsley could, and he simultaneously proved it with contributions to the interesting 2005 biopic Mrs. Harris (as the ill-fated Scarsdale Diet Doctor) and the wondrous documentary I Have Never Forgotten You: The Life and Legacy of Simon Rosenthal (2007).
2007 marked a banner year for Kingsley - his most active in quite some time, with contributions to no less than seven key pictures. In the most prominent, the John Dahl-directed crime comedy You Kill Me, Kingsley plays Frank Falenczyk, an alcoholic hit man who travels to Los Angeles to dry out, takes a job in a morgue, and strikes up a relationship with a relative of one of his victims. That same year, Kingsley re-projected his innate ability to essay ethnic roles convincingly, with his turn as one of two Russian police offers investigating an espionage case on a train, in Brad Anderson's thriller Trans-Siberian.
Later that same year, Kingsley appeared opposite lead Dan Fogler in English director Chase Palmer's Number Thirteen - a period drama about Alfred Hitchcock's ill-fated attempt to realize one of his first movie projects. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi