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Richard Harris - Biography

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Richard Harris

Personal details

Name: Richard Harris
Born: 1 October 1930
Where: Limerick, Ireland
Died: 25 October 2002 (Aged: 72)
Awards: 2 Oscar, 1 BAFTA, 1 Emmy Nominations, Won 1 Golden Globe

All about this star


It's been a long time since we saw a Hollywood superstar with a reputation for raising hell. Nicolas Cage dabbled a little, so did Leonardo DiCaprio. Mickey Rourke, well, he wasn't quite a superstar, was he? No, hellraising seems to be a thing of the past, and we look back with great fondness to the Sixties and Seventies, when cinematic giants could deliver Oscar-nominated performances by day and knock back litres of hard liquor by night - giants like Richard Burton and Richard Harris. Both were immensely talented and charismatic and, though Burton topped Harris in the Nomination stakes, Harris could boast an extraordinarily successful pop career. And, of course, Harris survived those years of excess, re-scaled those Hollywood heights at the age of 60, and remained a megastar till the end of his days...

Richard St John Harris was born in Limerick on the 1st of October, 1930 and is one of the county's most famous children - other Limerick celebrities including ex-President Eamon De Valera, Angela's Ashes author Frank McCourt, and Rose Fitzgerald, mother of John F. Kennedy. Harris still calls the village of Kilkee his home, and still, when time allows, drinks in the Charlie St George on Limerick's Parnell St (which boasts a photo-plastered Dickie Harris Corner). As a lad, he studied at Crescent School (now Crescent College Comprehensive), where he excelled at both literature and rugby, then the Sacred Heart Jesuit college. His main dream was to play rugby for Ireland - as a boy he'd make his own ball from rags and rehearse glorious length-of-the-pitch tries. And he did come close, joining the legendary Garryowen club and, in 1951, winning a Munster senior cup medal. He played a rough game for a rough team - so rough that the name Garryowen has been given to the tactic of kicking the ball high in the air and descending en masse upon the poor unfortunate who tries to catch it.

Harris left school to work in the Mount Kenneth flour mill his family had run for generations. His was a famous name in Limerick. His forefather, James Harris, had been the Secretary of the Harbour Board, as well as a Market Trustee, and a shareholder in the Commodore, a (Catholic) riverboat that would regularly run against the Privateer, a Protestant-owned vessel. James had furthermore earned respect when, in 1868, he'd saved the French aeronaut Chavalier, whose balloon was holed while he attempted an ascent from a yard in Roche's Street. James offered the use of his own, bigger yard at Steamboat Quay, and Chavalier took successfully to the sky.

At the mill, Richard was required to study the ins and outs of different types of grain, and the book-keeping and administration required to run a business. Being a local character and something of a show-off, he disliked this inglorious life and, so the story goes, spent much of his time shooting rats with a pellet gun.

In his late teens, two events occurred that would change him utterly. First, he contracted tubercolosis, which eventually ended his sporting ambitions. Then came the curious pull of acting. Having gone to Dublin with three friends, to see the Ireland-Scotland rugby international, Harris intended to spend the evening at a dance-hall, pick up a girl and, along with his mates, "show Dublin girls what sexual monsters we Limerick boys are". But along the way, something unexpected seized his attention, a poster for Pirandello's Henry IV, starring Michael MacLiammoir. MacLiammoir was a mighty figure in Irish theatre, a larger-than-life character who was both exuberantly Irish and openly gay. Harris could not resist and, instead of doing his bit for the sexual reputation of Limerick boys, he saw the play, and was hooked.

Harris had always dreamed of being a Big Man, particularly a film star. As a youngster, along with his friends, he'd "mitch" school to visit one of Limerick's many picture-houses. There was the Astor, the Carlton, the Coliseum, the Tivoli, the Athenaeum, and more. The Commissionaire of the Royal cinema, Dennis Hayes - the local expert on all things cinematographic - recalled how the young Harris would pester him with questions. He also remembered one occasion when, unable to prevent unruly kids from throwing sweets and wrappers off the balcony onto the crowd below, he asked Harris to patrol the upper tiers while he went for a cigarette. Harris demanded half-price admission for the next week's show and, deal made, Hayes departed for the pub. On his return, he was shocked to hear only the murmur of the projector. Harris was rough, and respected.

With his rugby ambitions thwarted and his desire to act inflamed, Harris began to socialise with the local College Players, and attend their workshops. They recognised his charisma and innate talent immediately, when he rehearsed the part of Ellis in Strindberg's Easter. He rose quickly through the theatre ranks and in 1955, ever ambitious, he left Ireland for the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. Graduating from here, he moved on to Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop.

Throughout his theatre education and afterwards, Harris worked on the London stage, making his debut in 1956 in The Quare Fellow, and picking up film work where he could. He made his debut in 1958, in Alive And Kicking, where three old ladies escaped from a retirement home to an island off the Irish coast. Then came Shake Hands With The Devil, starring James Cagney, where the IRA fought the Black And Tans in 1921 Dublin. Next was The Wreck Of The Mary Deare, with Gary Cooper and Charlton Heston, then Night Fighters, another Irish drama, this time set in 1941, with the IRA plotting a campaign to coincide with a Nazi invasion.

In the meantime, Harris had married Elizabeth Rees, with whom he would have three children, all of whom would enter the film industry. Damian would direct Deceived and The Rachel Papers, and Jamie would become an actor (he'd be nominated as Best Actor at Cannes for Fast Food, Fast Women), as would Jared, who'd appear in Lost In Space but predominantly in art-house classics like Happiness and Dead Man.

The Sixties brought immediate and tremendous success. The Long And The Short And The Tall, where Harris fought with Laurence Harvey as their lost platoon struggled through the jungle, was followed by a meaty role in Alistair MacLean's epic The Guns Of Navarone. Then came another eye-catching performance, as Seaman John Mills in Mutiny On The Bounty, with some critics even saying that the physical and openly emotional Harris outshone Marlon Brando's angsty rebel Fletcher Christian.

Now the real breakthrough. This Sporting Life, directed by Lindsay Anderson (who go on to make the infamous If . . .), fitted easily in with the New Wave of British cinema and the likes of Look Back In Anger, Room At The Top and Saturday Night, Sunday Morning. Gritty and wholly realistic, it featured Harris as Frank Machin, a star rugby league player tempted by wealth and painfully unable to communicate with Rachel Roberts, with whom he lodges. It was an ideal role for such a physical player and won him an Oscar nomination.

He could have gone all-out for stardom but, as befits a man first inspired by Pirandello, he balanced his career well, appearing onstage, in blockbusters, and in artier efforts. Hence there was Sam Peckinpah's Major Dundee (again with Heston), war drama The Heroes Of Telemark, colourful epic Hawaii, and he was Cain in The Bible. But there was also The Red Desert, Antonioni's weird tale of loneliness, fear and sexual desperation, Joseph Mankiewitz's frightening take on A Christmas Carol, entitled Carol For Another Christmas, and more Antonioni with Three Faces Of A Woman. It's worth noting that Harris was working with Antonioni before the hip and happening Blow Up.

The late Sixties saw Harris hit unimagined heights. Camelot was an Arthurian musical popularised onstage by Richard Burton. Harris stepped into the lead role onscreen and enjoyed a huge hit. More importantly perhaps, the movie revealed him to be a singer of great feeling and, confidence raised, he stepped into the world of music. Harris had become friends with the songwriter Jimmy Webb, who'd recently scored hits with Glen Campbell's By The Time I Get to Phoenix (Webb would later provide Campbell with both Wichita Lineman and Galveston), and The Fifth Dimension's Up, Up And Away (Harris's second connection to balloons, trivia hounds). Over the next year, Webb would write and produce two albums for Harris, A Tramp Shining and The Yard Went On Forever, the first including the surreal epic Macarthur Park, later covered by Donna Summer, which went to Number 2 in America and sold millions. Harris released a string of singles from these two LPs, plus tracks from Camelot and, throughout 1968, enjoyed radio coverage that matched The Beatles'. For a while, he was the biggest actor/musician of all time, surpassing even the achievements of Frank Sinatra. Ever generous, he presented Webb with a Rolls Royce.

By 1970, despite playing The Doctor role in the orchestrated, Lou Adler-produced version of Tommy, the hits had dried up and Harris returned to acting. He was an impressively stern and puritan Cromwell beside Alec Guinness's Charles I in Cromwell, then an appropriately rough rebel, fighting the cruel mining company in 1876 Pennsylvania in The Molly Maguires. Then, stepping back a further 50 years, came perhaps his signature role in A Man Called Horse. Here he was John Morgan, an English aristocrat taken by the Sioux, who grows to understand his captors and eventually, via an absurdly painful initiation, joins them. Despite arriving in a slew of reappraisals of Native American history (including Soldier Blue and Little Big Man), A Man Called Horse was a massive hit, and an obvious precursor of Kevin Costner's Dances With Wolves.

1972 brought Bloomfield, the tale of a soccer star torn between money and integrity, which Harris co-directed (it was nominated for a Golden Bear at Berlin). He'd asked his Limerick friend Billy Whelan (who'd later write Riverdance) to provide the music, and would hold the film's premiere in Limerick's Savoy theatre. Yet, having started so brightly, the rest of the Seventies were something of a blur. There were some fine films - he was excellent as Fallon, a bomb disposal expert attempting to avert disaster on a liner, and as King Richard in the sweet and moving Robin And Marian - but most were unremarkable, and some, like the Jaws rip-off Orca, were downright wretched. Harris's health was suffering badly. He'd been divorced, then re-married to actress Ann Turkel (25 years his junior), but peace of mind eluded him. He drank heavily, later explaining how, whenever he visited New York, he'd go straight to PJ Clarke's bar, demand "my usual" from bar-keeper Vinnie and be served with 6 double vodkas. There were drugs too. In 1978, Harris suffered a near-fatal overdose of cocaine.

Harris hit creative rock-bottom in 1981 when he played Bo Derek's dad in the appalling Tarzan, The Ape Man. But, having sworn off alcohol, this rugged survivor bounced back. Once again, Richard Burton and Camelot came to the rescue. Burton, himself a mess, had revived his career in 1980 by replaying Arthur onstage and touring the US. In 1982, a sick Burton asked Harris to take over for a final eight weeks on Broadway. He ended up sticking with the show for five years, eventually starring, directing, buying out the producers and making a very respectable profit. There was a further Burton connection when Harris played Inspector Maigret on TV, a role made available by Burton's death in 1984, but it was the stage that saved him throughout the Eighties. Aside from Camelot, there were successful productions of Man Of La Mancha and, recalling his initial inspiration, Pirandello's Henry IV. Harris would also be guest professor at Scranton University, directing and starring in Julius Caesar: A Work In Progress, mostly employing actors from the college.

Despite this stage success, Harris could not break back into films. Time having betrayed him, the world's favourite angry young roustabout was young no longer. Then came a break. Irish writer and director Jim Sheridan sent Harris a script of The Field, wanting Harris to play the minor priest-role. Harris read it, liked the lead role of Bull McCabe, a farmer fighting for land his family has worked for generations and said "No, no, no. If you do a picture about King Lear, I do Lear". Request refused. The producers had their first choice actor ruled out due to illness, and STILL no call came to Harris. So, arranging a meeting with Sheridan to discuss the priest role, Harris dressed as Bull McCabe and, during the conversation, slowly changed his voice and mannerisms to become the character. Suitably impressed, Sheridan gave him the role. And he was brilliant, tormented and unforgiving, well deserving his second Oscar nomination.

Harris was back. He played a terrorist in Patriot Games, and the surly, seedy English Bob, kicked half to death by Gene Hackman in Clint Eastwood's acclaimed Unforgiven. He matched James Earl Jones in the apartheid drama Cry The Beloved Country, and was great as the mob boss persecuting Stephen Rea in Trojan Eddie. And there were more literary works, like Wrestling Ernest Hemingway, Smilla's Sense Of Snow and The Barber Of Siberia (the last two co-starring Julia Ormond). And the changing millennium saw Harris enter his fourth decade of hits, first as the murdered Emperor Marcus Aurelius in Gladiator, then as Headmaster Albus Dumbledore in the monumental Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone.

So Richard Harris got back on top and, as an (almost) reformed hellraiser, he had experience to share, in 2000 taking his modern-day counterpart Mickey Rourke under his wing. He could be kind and cantankerous, generous and ego-crazy, self-important and hugely professional.

So Richard Harris was back on top, quite literally considering his quote on Viagra: "I was taking this woman out to dinner afterwards and couldn't zip up my trousers. I couldn't get it down. I wouldn't use it again. Your heart has to be good to take it". And, as an (almost) reformed hellraiser, he had experience to share, in 2000 taking his modern-day counterpart Mickey Rourke under his wing.

2002 would see Harris at the peak of his powers and near ubiquitous. He played the Abbe Farina, teaching Guy Pearce to be a gentleman and vengeful devil while imprisoned in The Count Of Monte Cristo. He revisited Ancient Rome with both The Apocalypse and Julius Caesar. And, of course, he would return as Albus Dumbledore in Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets.

But this was to be the end. Diagnosed with Hodgkin's Disease, Harris entered London's University College Hospital in August, 2002, to undergo chemotherapy. He looked to be winning, even telling Potter director Chris Columbus that he'd kill him if he re-cast Dumbledore. But, on the 25th of October, he passed peacefully away - perhaps the only peaceful thing he ever did. Tributes came from everywhere. "He was an absolute professional who knew how to live life to the full", said his Potter co-star Alan Rickman. "(He was) a slightly mad Irishman and a truly gifted performer", added Clint Eastwood.

He could be kind and cantankerous, generous and ego-crazy, self-important and hugely professional. Even gone 70, Richard Harris was one of the most exciting men onscreen. It's hard to believe he's gone.

Dominic Wills

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