Krishna Banji was born on 31 December 1943, in Snainton, North Yorkshire, the son of a Kenyan-Asian doctor, Rahimtulla Harji Bhanji, and his wife, Anna, an actress. Krishna grew up in Manchester, where his father set up a practice, and he was educated at Manchester Grammar School.
His ambition was always to act, and his father supported him, even suggesting that he change his name, Anglicising it, to make it easier for the English speaking public to pronounce and remember. "Ben" was, in fact, Dr Bhanji's nickname, amongst his colleagues.
Ben started his acting career on TV, playing Ron Jenkins in Coronation Street, the longest running soap opera on British television. He married in 1965, left Coronation Street in 1966, and debuted on the London stage in 1967 at the Aldwych Theatre, in a musical, for which he wrote and sang the songs. Immediately thereafter he was accepted as a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company.
He divorced from his first wife, Angela Morant, with whom he had two children, in 1971.
Apart from an obscure film, Fear is the Key, based on the Alistair MacLean novel, in 1972, Mike Leigh's BBC Play for Today Hard Labour, in 1973, and some small TV roles, Ben devoted himself mainly to the theatre for 15 years, appearing on tour with the RSC as well as at Stratford and The Barbican. It was in Stratford where I first saw him, playing Brutus in Julius Caesar in 1979, as part of a distinguished cast which included John Woodvine, James Laurenson and Christopher Ravenscroft – and he was still the best thing in it.
He first impinged on the public consciousness however, playing the title role in Richard Attenborough' s "Gandhi". At 3 hours, this film was a mammoth event (back then, you got an interval in a film that long, to allow you to dash to the loo). Kingsley dieted hard to achieve verisimilitude as the skinny mahatma, and read 23 volumes of Gandhi's collected works – this is an actor who takes his roles seriously. He described the experience of playing the part as being like "having a layer of skin peeled off my eyeballs but one of the most joyful events I've ever been party to". The performance was superb, earning him a well-deserved Oscar, and ensuring that he would never lack for work.
After this triumphant start, his performances have proved him to be one of the most versatile actors in the world. He is simply always believable. Even in bad films, Kingsley is good – a reflection of his attitude to film work: “You learn your character so well that you don't have to do anything. All the camera does is film you - it is unbelievably hard work… When you drop your guard in films, the acting process compensates. You get lazy and you start acting. And the audience in the cinema will say: 'Who do you think you are kidding?'. If you're acting in close-up, they won't believe you. It just looks too contrived."
This total professionalism is, perhaps, his downfall. Despite an illustrious career, he has only three times received Academy Award nominations, the first, the Oscar winning Gandhi role, the second, Meyer Lansky in Bugsy, which didn't take the award, and most recently in House of Sand and Fog. These aren't the only worthy performances – take a look at him playing Itzhak Stern in Schindler's List, for instance, and tell me he didn't deserve an Oscar for it – but he never looks like he's acting; he simply is the character he plays.
Throughout his film career, he has continued to work in the theatre, including the acclaimed one-man shows Kean (directed by his then wife, Alison Sutcliffe, who he married in 1978 and divorced in 1992) and Judgement. He has since married Alexander Christmann, in 2003.
Curiously, Kingsley sees himself as an entertainer who fell into the classics by accident – he trained as a singer, and still loves to sing – and says that he isn't a classical actor. Audiences, directors and producers the world over, however, tend to disagree.
Ben Kingsley received a knighthood for services to the theatre in the 2002 New Years Honours list.
Filmography, from IMDB