Richard Harris obituary in “The Guardian” in 2002.
The career of Richard Harris has been mile-stoned by a series of noisy headlines – nightclub squabbles, on-set brawls with actors he does not like. It would be tempting to assume that he takes seriously his usual on-screen role as rebel. Oddly, the industry has tolerated his peccadilloes without being compensated with either great reviews or a stampede to the box-office. That Harris was larger-than-life, ‘a character’ was evident, but it was not so immediately obvious on film . In a way he crept up on is in stealth, like the great stars of the 30s, getting better and better, more authoritative, more interesting, more varied”. – David Shipman in “The Great Movie Stars – The International years”. (1972).
Richard Harris was born in Limerick in 1930. He studied acting at the London Academy of Dramatic Art. He made his film debut in 1958 in “Alive and Kicking” with Kathleen Harrison. He made an impression against stiff acting competition from James Cagney, Don Murray, Glynis Johns and Dana Wynter in “Shake Hands with the Devil” in 1959. He was third billed after Marlon Brando and Trevor Howard in “Munity on the Bounty” and then went on to star in the British sink dra ma “This Sporing Life” as a North of England rugby player. Next he went to Mexico to star with Charlton Heston and Senta Berger in “Major Dundee”. His Hollywood films include “Caprice” with Doris Day and “Camelot”. In 1990 he was nominated for an Oscar for his performance as the Bull McCabe in “The Field”. He was also associated with the Harry Potter movies as Dumbledore. One of his last roles was in “Gladiator”. Richard Harris died in 2002 aged 72.
Ronald Bergan’s “Guardian” obituary:
There was a time when writers could hardly mention the name of the actor Richard Harris, who has died aged 72, without using the dread epithet “hellraiser”. He was lumbered with this reputation for even longer than his drinking buddies and fellow Celts, Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole – with whom had much in common. They all started off on both stage and screen with great promise, but much of their talent was dissipated by appearances in vehicles unworthy of them, with some intermittent flashes of genius.
Not that the rumbustious, well-built and fair-haired Harris tried to discourage the public persona of a hard-drinking, hard-living Irishman, hitting the headlines with nightclub brawls and noisy on-set disputes. “There are too many primadonnas in this business and not enough action,” he once remarked.
Harris’s careers fell into three phases: the hot-headed, working-class young rebel (This Sporting Life, 1963); the macho masochist (A Man Called Horse, 1970) or fiery action hero (The Wild Geese, 1978); and, finally, the grey-bearded sage.
After the less than glorious middle period of the 1970s and 1980s, during which time he had become self-parodic, he won renewed respect for his Oscar-nominated performance as “Bull” McCabe, an irascible farmer fighting to save his land in The Field (1990), and for imposing appearances as the Emperor Marcus Aurelius in Gladiator (2000) and as Albus Dumbledore (also Oscar-nominated) in Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone (2001), a role he repeated in the new Harry Potter And The Chamber of Secrets (2002).
The youngest of nine children born to a Limerick flour-mill owner, Harris studied at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art – Rada turned him down – before joining Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop company, with whom he made his first professional appearance, in Brendan Behan’s The Quare Fellow at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East.
At 26, he made a considerable West End impact in The Ginger Man, adapted by JP Donleavy from his novel, turning the incorrigible louse Sebastian Dangerfield, living in a bedsitter and up to his neck in debt, into a loveable scoundrel.
His film career began at around the same time, initially as the local Lothario in Alive And Kicking (1958), an Irish comedy, although his true strength was not yet fully called upon, even though he played a villain trying to harpoon Gary Cooper in The Wreck Of The Mary Deare (1961), a doughty corporal in The Long And The Short And The Tall (1961) and a leading mutineer in Mutiny On The Bounty (1962).
Then Lindsay Anderson, making his first feature, perceptively cast him in This Sporting Life. Harris, whose ambition to become a rugby league professional had been ended by a bout of tuberculosis, was given free rein to display his animalism as Frank Machin, an aggressive and inarticulate rugby player who develops an amour fou for his dowdy and bitter landlady – a relationship as violent as the game he plays.
When she dies, Harris, who provided an emotional power rarely attained in British films, sinks to his knees in mental pain. Pain pervades the film, on the rugby field and in the dentist’s chair, where Machin is having his broken teeth ruggedly extracted. Seven years later, Harris endured worse agony in A Man Called Horse.
The 1960s saw him becoming an international star. At a time when it was fashionable to cast British actors in Italian films, Michelangelo Antonioni got him to play Monica Vitti’s lover in The Red Desert (1964). Harris, dubbed and adrift in one of his rare introspective roles, hated making the film.
More to his liking was Captain Tyreen, a flamboyant and ambivalent confederate prisoner in Sam Peckinpah’s Major Dundee (1964), clashing – on and off screen – with Charlton Heston. Heston recalled that Harris was “very much the professional Irishman, and an occasional pain in the posterior”; Harris thought his co-star “so square”.
9There followed a mixed bag of parts: a fervent Norwegian resistance fighter in The Heroes Of Telemark (1965); Julie Andrews’s former lover in Hawaii (1966); Cain, in The Bible (1966); and, woefully miscast and seeming to be wearing blue eye shadow as an industrial spy, in Caprice (1967), opposite Doris Day.
But, in the same year, Harris took one of the most significant roles in his career, which was eventually to make him a multi-millionaire. Although the Lerner-Loewe musical Camelot (1967), in which he portrayed King Arthur with touching sincerity and an acceptable singing voice, was an expensive flop, he would later play the role – created by Richard Burton – many times on stage, both on Broadway and in London in the 1980s, and buy its rights. He also released a hit single – Jim Webb’s MacArthur Park (1968).
Divorced from his first wife, Elizabeth Rees-Williams, after a 12-year marriage that produced three sons, in 1970 Harris provided a warts-and-all impersonation in the title role of Cromwell, and was A Man Called Horse. The latter was a blond, 19th-century English aristocrat, who, captured by the Sioux, rises from being a beast of burden to espousing their cause. The somewhat pretentious film, and its sequel The Return Of A Man Called Horse (1976), contained a sadistic sun-vow ritual with the hero suspended by clamps from his pectoral muscles.
For the rest of the decade, Harris was as visible as he was risible. “I consider a great part of my career a total failure,” he said. “I went after the wrong things – got caught in the 60s. I picked pictures that were way below my talent. Just to have fun.”
Among these pictures were Echoes Of A Summer (1976) as the father of 12-year-old Jodie Foster, dying of a terminal disease; The Cassandra Crossing (1977), a disaster movie in which he tried to counteract a plague on a train; and Orca (1977), where he was a shark hunter incurring the wrath of a killer whale and Charlotte Rampling, to whom he says, “I resent it when a pretty and intelligent woman tells me I’m dumber than a fish.”
There were also two films shot in South Africa at the height of the apartheid era: The Wild Geese (1979), about mercenaries, and A Game For Vultures (1980) ostensibly about political strife in Rhodesia. Then, in the ludicrous Tarzan The Ape Man (1981), Harris struggled to maintain some dignity as the father of Bo Derek’s scantily-clad Jane.
For a while in the 1980s, after divorcing his second wife, Ann Turkel, Harris went into semi-retirement on Paradise Island, in the Bahamas, where he kicked his drinking habit and embraced a healthier lifestyle. It had a beneficial effect. Powerful in the West End run of Piradello’s Henry IV, he made an indelible impression as the dandified killer English Bob in Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992).
Because his granddaughter said she would never speak to him again if he turned down the role of Albus Dumbledore in the Harry Potter series, Harris committed himself to all seven of the films based on JK Rowling’s books. “I’ll keep doing it as long as I enjoy it, my health holds out and they still want me, but the chances of all three of those factors remaining constant are pretty slim,” he remarked.
Despite enjoying his renaissance as one of cinema’s grand old men, Harris, who is survived by his sons Jared, Jamie and Damian, also reflected: “I’m not interested in reputation or immortality, or things like that. I don’t care if I’m remembered. I don’t care if I’m not remembered. I don’t care why I’m remembered. I genuinely don’t care.”
· Richard Harris, actor, born October 1 1930; died October 25 2002The above “Guardian” obituary can also be accessed online here.