There was a time when writers could hardly mention the name of actor richard harris, who has died at 72, without using the dreaded epithet “hellraiser”. He was credited with this reputation even longer than his fellow Celtic drinkers and fellows, Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole, with whom they had much in common. they all started out on both stage and screen with great promise, but much of his talent was dissipated by appearances in vehicles unworthy of them, with a few intermittent flashes of genius.
It’s not that the troublemaker, shapely, blond Harris was trying to dampen the public image of a hard-drinking, hard-living Irishman, grabbing headlines with nightclub brawls and rowdy on-set spats. “There are too many primadonnas in this business and not enough action,” he once commented.
Harris’s career was divided into three phases: brash young working-class rebel (This Sporting Life, 1963); the masochistic macho (A Man Called a Horse, 1970) or fiery action hero (Wild Geese, 1978); and, finally, the gray-bearded sage.
after the less-than-glorious middle period of the 1970s and 1980s, during which he became a parody of himself, he gained renewed respect for his Oscar-nominated performance as “bull” mccabe, a farmer hot-tempered man fighting to save his land in the countryside (1990), and for imposing appearances as Emperor Marcus Aurelius in Gladiator (2000) and as Albus Dumbledore (also an Oscar nominee) in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001), role that 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 Theater Workshop Company, with whom he made his first professional appearance, in brendan behan’s the quare fellow at the theater royal, stratford east.
at 26, he made a considerable impact in the west end in the redheaded man, adapted by jp donleavy from his novel, turning the incorrigible louse sebastian dangerfield, living in a room and up to his neck in debt, into a lovable scoundrel.
His film career began around the same time, initially as the local lothario in Live and Kicking (1958), an Irish comedy, although his true strength was not yet fully developed, despite the fact that he played a villain who he was trying to harpoon Gary Cooper in the Wreck of the Mary Deare (1961), a brave Corporal in The Long and the Short and the Tall (1961) and a mutinous leader in Mutiny on the Bounty (1962).
then lindsay anderson, making her first feature film, perceptively placed it in this sporting life. Harris, whose ambition to turn professional rugby league had been cut short by a bout with 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 bitter and scruffy landlady, a relationship as violent as the game she plays.
When she dies, Harris, who provided an emotional power rarely achieved in British films, sinks to his knees in mental pain. Pain permeates the film, on the rugby field and in the dentist’s chair, where Machin has his broken teeth forcefully extracted. Seven years later, Harris endured the worst agony in a man called a horse.
The 1960s saw him become an international star. At a time when it was fashionable to cast British actors in Italian films, Michelangelo Antonioni got it to play Monica Vitti’s lover in The Red Desert (1964). Harris, bent over 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), facing off, on and off screen, with Charlton Heston. Heston recalled that Harris was “very much the professional Irishman, and an occasional pain in the rear”; Harris thought his co-star was “so square”.
A mix of roles followed: a fervent Norwegian resistance fighter in Heroes of Telemark (1965); Julie Andrews’ ex-lover in Hawaii (1966); cain, in the bible (1966); and unfortunately miscast and appearing to wear blue eyeshadow as an industrial spy, in caprice (1967), alongside doris day.
But, in the same year, Harris took on one of the biggest roles of his career, which would eventually make him a billionaire. Although Lerner-Loewe’s musical Camelot (1967), in which he played King Arthur with soulful sincerity and a passable singing voice, was a costly flop, he would later perform the role—created by Richard Burton—many times in the stage, both on broadway and in london in the 1980s, and buy their 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 children, in 1970 Harris provided a warty impersonation in the title role of Cromwell, and it was a man called Horse. The latter was a blond nineteenth-century English aristocrat who, captured by the Sioux, goes from being a beast of burden to defending their cause. the somewhat pretentious film, and its sequel, The Return of a Man Called Horse (1976), contained a sadistic ritual of solar vows with the hero suspended by clamps from his pectoral muscles.
for the rest of the decade, harris was as visible as he was ridiculous. “I consider a large part of my career a total failure,” he said. “I chased the wrong things: I got caught up in the 60s. I chose images that were way below my talent. Just for fun.”
Among these images were echoes of a summer (1976) as the father of 12-year-old Jodie Foster dying of a terminal illness; Cassandra’s Journey (1977), a disaster movie in which she tried to counter a plague on a train; and orca (1977), where he was a shark hunter angering an orca and rampaling charlotte, to whom he says: “it bothers me when a pretty, 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: Wild Geese (1979), about mercenaries, and A Game for Vultures (1980), ostensibly about the political struggle in Rhodesia. Then, in the ridiculous Tarzan, the Ape Man (1981), Harris struggled to maintain some dignity as the father of Bo Derek’s scantily clad Jane.
For a time in the 1980s, after divorcing his second wife, Ann Turkel, Harris partially retired on Paradise Island in the Bahamas, where he kicked his drinking habit and embraced a healthier lifestyle. he had a beneficial effect. Powerful in Piradello’s Henry IV’s West End run, he made an indelible impression as the English dandified killer 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 to all seven films based on jk rowling’s books. “I’ll keep doing it as long as I enjoy it, my health holds up, and I’m still loved, but the chances of those three factors remaining constant are pretty slim,” he said.
Despite enjoying his renaissance as one of movie greats, Harris, who is survived by sons Jared, Jamie and Damian, also reflected: “I’m not interested in reputation or immortality or stuff 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 really don’t care .”
· richard harris, actor, born October 1, 1930; Died October 25, 2002