In some ways, he was the Errol Flynn of his day... bewitching, charismatic, adventuresome, rowdy, womanizing, quixotic, a good friend and a better enemy and utterly full of himself. He became nearly as famous for his rows on film sets as he did for the films themselves. While he would say that he only felt really alive when working on a film, he actually had little respect for them. He even occasionally and publicly said to avoid seeing his films because they were just a bunch of s... um, they were no good. He was often asked about his colorful life away from the cameras and would say I wish I could remember it.
Richard Harris was born in 1930 in Limerick, Ireland, the sixth of nine children born into a staunchly Catholic farm family. As a youngster he developed passions for literature and rugby and throughout his life he never loosened his grip on either of them. His life on a rugby field was cut short, however, when he developed tuberculosis. After seeing a performance of Henry IV, he became enamored of the theater and moved to England, determined to be a director. He could not find any classes to study directing but he could for acting. He attended the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art and worked for 10 years or so in virtual obscurity in various West End theater productions.
When he wasn't on stage or reading or going to rugby games, he went pub-crawling, always getting rip-roaring drunk and into fights. He loved to insult people... telling them they were ugly or poofs or challenge them to drinking contests which often ended with Harris punching someone in the face. Sometimes the crowd would turn against him and sometimes they would turn against one another resulting in the throwing of chairs and breaking of mirrors. If Harris would remember anything the next day, it was usually with fondness. This behavior continued for most of his life, often with good mates and fellow drinkers Peter O'Toole and Richard Burton in tow. Harris also enjoyed a long, friendly rivalry with the alcoholic actor, Oliver Reed.
In 1957 he married Elizabeth Rees, who stayed with him for 22 years and provided him with three sons, director Damian and actors Jamie and Jared. She tired of the binge drinking, the long absences, the fighting, the disloyalty and the disrespect and she divorced him and married actor Rex Harrison.
He made the leap to the big screen in 1959 with small roles in two Irish-themed movies, the comedy Alive and Kicking and the drama Shake Hands with the Devil. That same year he made it to the States for The Wreck of the Mary Deare, an experience he loathed. He was always contemptuous of American-made films and big-headed movie stars but admitted he was lured by the money. I first noticed him in a small but crucial role in The Guns of Navarone (1961). From then on I would pay fairly good attention to what Richard Harris was doing next.
He was third-billed after Marlon Brando and Trevor Howard in 1962s Mutiny of the Bounty. It was a disastrous production for all sorts of reasons, not the least of which was a daily war between Harris and Brando, all of which made the news. The terrible thing for Harris was that he idolized the young Brando and had seen all of his movies and reveled in imitating him.
In 1963 he had arguably the best role of his career and garnered the first of two Oscar nominations for his efforts. This Sporting Life concerned an ambitious and mean-spirited rugby player who rooms in the home of a woman whose husband has just been killed in an accident. It was an audacious screenplay which caused me to gasp at times over the cruelty. Harris was on fire and matched all the way by Rachel Roberts, who, by the way, gave up her marriage to Rex Harrison so Harris' wife could marry him.
In 1965 he went to work in a western for director Sam Peckinpah called Major Dundee. It concerned a cavalry officer (Charlton Heston) who took a group of misfits into Mexico to capture or destroy a band of Apaches who has been raiding Texan army posts. I quite liked it although it rather fell apart about three-quarters of the way through. The production was another rough one for all concerned. Harris and Heston, enemies in the story, took on the roles off camera as well. Heston found Harris undisciplined and erratic and Harris thought Heston was an obnoxious, diva-like lightweight who thought he was Mr. Movie Star. The two men only became somewhat united when they battled the enigmatic Peckinpah.
Hawaii (1966) was a bit of a mess. Harris' part was large in the Michener novel but smaller in the film. It's likely he accepted it simply for the location benefits, something he often did. What is most famous to me is what Harris publicly said about his leading lady... when I worked with Julie Andrews, I think I experienced the greatest hate I ever had for any human being.
And what was Richard Harris doing in a movie with Doris Day? Talk about weird. What was weirder yet was that Day personally picked Harris for the role, thinking he was Sean Connery. When Harris showed up on the Caprice set, she didn't even know who he was. Harris said the tongue-in-cheek spy caper was the worst film he ever did. I think it was the worst film anyone ever did. Filming was halted at least twice because Harris was too drunk to work.
That was 1967, the same year Camelot was released. There certainly was some controversy attached to Harris playing King Arthur as there was to Vanessa Redgrave playing Guinevere. Neither one was exactly thought of as a musical star. It was not a great success. I did not see it for 15 years or so after its release and found it a bore. Some years after that I saw it again and quite enjoyed it. Harris made the most out of Camelot, too. He did a TV version and played it several times on the stage.
He also had a top 10 song hit in the U.K. and the States with the Jimmy Webb ditty, MacArthur Park, which Harris actually called MacArthur's Park. He always did do things his way. The lengthy song and its popularity brought a whole new group of fans to the renegade star and he would go on to make a number of albums.
The Molly Maguires (1970) was an 1876 Pennsylvania coal mining saga that deals with sabotage and murder. Harris plays a detective who infiltrates the group. He had the perfect temperament, of course, to stand up to the guy Doris Day really wanted in her cinema horribilus, Sean Connery. I don't think it quite found the audience it was looking for and that's too bad.
That same year Harris made one of the films he is most famous for and one of my favorites of his, A Man Called Horse. It is a rather glorious western and an unusual one about an aristocratic Englishman in the American west who is captured by the Sioux. At first he is treated like a mongrel dog and as trust is gained on both sides, he assumes a place of honor. There are some breathtaking sequences not to be missed.
In 1974 he made a movie as silly as its title, 99 and 44/100% Dead. The only reason for mentioning it at all is it's the film on which he met his second and last wife, Ann Turkel. In 1976 he was King Richard the Lionhearted to Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn's Robin and Marian, a film treasure just for these actors (and Robert Shaw) and an updated, loving tale of the older Robin Hood and his fair maiden. Then came The Cassandra Crossing, a thriller about a plague on a train. I'm sure Harris enjoyed two beautiful costars, Sophia Loren and Ava Gardner, although from afar, as Mrs. Harris was also on that train.
|With Ava Gardner and Sophia Loren|
He costarred with Charlotte Rampling in a Jaws ripoff, Orca (1977), and a year later joined his old boozing buddy, Richard Burton, in the high adventure saga, The Wild Geese. Despite costars Roger Moore, Hardy Kruger and Stewart Granger, it was a flop in the States but a bona fide hit in most of the world.
His personal life took on a lot more importance in the 1980s after he almost killed himself with cocaine and then quit it and booze (he took up some drinking again when the decade was over). After meeting Bo Derek on Orca, he allowed her to talk him into playing her father in her little vanity epic, Tarzan, the Ape Man (1981). I guess it was pretty bad but Miles O'Keeffe and some marauding lions held my attention. His other 80s flicks went downhill from here.
He was back on a roll in the 90s, the last full decade of his life, with at least six pictures worth mentioning. The first of those, The Field (1990), got Harris the second of his two Oscar nominations and it was as worthy as his first one. The dramatic thriller concerned a family that farmed a field for generations, their livelihood depending on the bounty. When the field's owner decides to sell it to an American, the head of the family and his son decide it won't happen and are willing to do what is necessary to prevent it. Harris, looking decidedly older now, mainly due to a career in booze, was thrumming with electricity in a role that fit him like a glove. I'm so excited writing this, I think I'll watch it again.
In 1992 he accepted smaller roles in two huge movies... the Harrison Ford-starrer Patriot Games and as English Bob in Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven. The latter remains in my mind for several reasons, one of which is the horrible way Harris died at the hands of the evil Gene Hackman. Unforgiven would go on to win Oscar's Best Picture, a feat that another of the actor's films would do eight years later.
There was some wonderful sparring with Robert Duvall in Wrestling Ernest Hemingway (1993), a undervalued gem of a little film about the Florida friendship between a Cuban barber and a hard-drinking Irish sea captain. Which one do you suppose Harris played? Cry, the Beloved Country (1995) was a stimulating new version of the Alan Paton story of a black man's (James Earl Jones) son who kills a rich landowner's (Harris) son in South Africa.
Around this time he famously told a newspaper reporter... I made films I didn't want to see, I took planes to places I didn't want to visit, I bought houses I didn't live in. I was numb and it didn't seem to matter. He also claimed he hated movie stars and I don't have a single friend in the business.
After a few poorly-received films, he came back in one of his best roles ever, as the famous African hunter and tracker, George Adamson, in To Walk with Lions (1999). Adamson and his ex-wife, Joy, were the couple responsible for the story of the lioness Elsa in Born Free. Adamson here is divorced, ancient and very crabby as he takes on a young man to help him work with more lions. It was a glorious performance in a most interesting true-life film. Catch it if you can.
The old actor got another brand-new fan base once we reached the new millennium. It started smashingly as Emperor Marcus Aurelius in 2000's Gladiator, his second outing in an Oscar-winning best picture. Apparently he and star Russell Crowe were besotted with one another. No big surprise. Wasn't the older man turning over the mantle to the younger? In 2002 he had an enticing, small role in the wonderfully well-written The Count of Monte Cristo.
For the really young ones, Harris impressed as the wise, magical and benign Professor Albus Dumbledore in both Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (2001) and Harry Potter and Chamber of Secrets (2002).
By the time the second one was released, Richard Harris was dead. The old warrior had been hospitalized due to pneumonia but it was discovered that he had Hodgkin's Disease which is what is listed as his cause of death. The world has been a lot quieter since.
Another hellion on movie sets