Richard Harris Biography

Born Richard St. John Harris, October 1, 1930, in Limerick, Ireland; died of Hodgkin's disease, October 25, 2002, in London, England. Actor. To a generation of filmgoers, Anglo–Irish star Richard Harris was the leading man of his generation: vigorous, eloquent, and fiercely independent. To their grandchildren, however, he personified the kindly Albus Dumbledore, headmaster of the Hogwarts School in the first two Harry Potter movies. Harris had an erratic career, with several stage successes but some notable screen flops, and enjoyed a degree of infamy for his hard–living ways and witty, barb–laden television talk–show appearances. "Although the critics generally had high praise for his acting," declared his New York Times obituary writer Richard Severo, "some seemed to suggest that Richard Harris the man—noted for his interest in pub crawling, strong spirits, and strong, spirited women—was far more intriguing than most of the scripts he got."

Born in the city of Limerick as one of eight children in his family, Harris was the son of a local flour–mill owner whose business later fell on hard times. In his youth, he was a talented rugby player, but at age 22 was struck down by tuberculosis. He read voraciously during his convalescence, and decided that he would like to become a theater director. Unable to find a course in the field, he studied acting at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art instead, and struggled to survive there financially. For a time, he even slept in a coal cellar, the room where coal delivery trucks once dumped fuel briquettes for residential heating. His first successes came on the London stage in the late 1950s, and he soon came to be considered one of Britain's new "Angry Young Men," along with Albert Finney, Peter O'Toole, and other rising young actors making a name for themselves in gritty, realist stage and film dramas.

In the early 1960s, Harris won parts in Hollywood films such as The Guns of Navarone and Mutiny on the Bounty, which gave him a chance to work—and trade taunts—with his longtime idol, Marlon Brando. In 1963, he was nominated for an Academy Award for his lead role in This Sporting Life, about a loutish rugby player, but within a few years would become indelibly associated with Camelot, the hit stage musical. He reprised his role as the mythical King Arthur in the film version, though the finished product was generally deemed a travesty by most critics. In a savvy move, however, Harris acquired the performance rights to it, which allowed him to live off royalty income for many years.

Fans of Harris consider his role as an English toff seized by the Sioux in the 1970 film A Man Called Horse as one of his best, and his career nadir to be Orca, Killer Whale, a 1977 ocean thriller that cast him alongside Charlotte Rampling and a poorly disguised animatronic cetacean. As the decade progressed, Harris earned a reputation as a heavy drinker, and it was said that shooting schedules for his films usually had to be extended by at least a week to account for the days Harris would be unable to work. He later admitted to cocaine abuse as well, and claimed to have once tossed thousands of dollars' worth of it down the toilet in an attempt to break the habit. Twice he had almost died and been given last rites, the Roman Catholic sacrament for those near death, but he eventually curbed his substance–abuse habits to an occasional pint of Guinness.

Television interviews with Harris usually contained a colorful story or two, and he was frank about his disdain for acting as a profession. "If anyone ever asks my advice, I tell them, 'Don't take yourself too seriously,'" the New York Times 's Severo quoted him as saying in an interview that appeared in London's Mirror newspaper a few months before his death. Harris also enjoyed a riposte–laden, years–long war of words with actor Michael Caine. "He makes films you wouldn't rent on video," Harris once said of the Blame It On Rio star, according to Severo, while Caine liked to assert that Harris and Richard Burton had squandered their own thespian talents in the bottle.

Later in his career Harris enjoyed a bit of a revival, taking parts that cast him in the wise, elder–statesman role. He appeared in Ridley Scott's Gladiator as Marcus Aurelius, and played the benevolent headmaster in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone in 2001 and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets in 2002. A few months prior to the sequel's release, Harris was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer, and was under treatment in London for it. He lived in the city—at a Savoy Hotel suite for many years that he liked to reach by freight elevator—as well as in the Bahamas. In 1957 he wed Elizabeth Rees–Williams, the daughter of a lord, with whom he had three sons, and there was also a seven–year marriage to actress Ann Turkel in the 1970s. "I have made 72 movies in my life," quoted him as saying, "and been miscast twice—as a husband." Harris died on October 25, 2002, in London, England, of Hodgkin's disease; he was 72. He is survived by his sons from his first marriage: Damien, Jared, and Jamie.


Chicago Tribune, October 27, 2002, sec. 4, p. 9; , (October 28, 2002); Independent (London, England), October 28, 2002, p. 14; Los Angeles Times, October 26, 2002, p. B20; New York Times, October 26, 2002, p. B8; People, November 11, 2002, pp. 77-78; Washington Post, October 26, 2002, p. B7.

Carol Brennan

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