He was born in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, England. After studying law at Cambridge University, Apted promptly turned his attention to film, directing the popular English soap opera Coronation Street by the age of 22.
In 1963, he collaborated with Paul Almond on 7 Up, a documentary film for television that interviewed 14 seven-year-olds, drawn from every social class in London, about their lives, innermost thoughts and aspirations. On his own, Apted followed-up with his subjects every seven years, to create 7 Plus 7, 21 Up, 28 Up, 35 Up and, most recently, Forty Two Up in 1998.
Though his style holds true to his documentarian roots, Apted has also earned acclaim for his dramatic features. Early films included Triple Echo (1973) and Stardust (1975); more mainstream fare followed in 1980 with the Loretta Lynn biopic Coal Miner's Daughter and the story of Native American activist Leonard Peltier in 1992's Thunderheart. His 1994 feature Nell starred Jodie Foster as a childlike forest dweller forced into society, and his thrillers Extreme Measures (1996) and The World is Not Enough (1999) pushed his work even further into the mainstream.
In 2001, the tireless director received winning reviews for the wartime thriller Enigma followed by the Jennifer Lopez revenge flick Enough in 2002.