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About Richard St John Harris
Richard St John Harris (1 October 1930 – 25 October 2002) was an Irish actor, singer-songwriter, theatrical producer, film director and writer.
He appeared on stage and in many films, and is perhaps best known for his roles as King Arthur in Camelot (1967), as Oliver Cromwell in Cromwell (1970) and as Albus Dumbledore in the first two films in the Harry Potter series, his final works. He played a British aristocrat and prisoner in A Man Called Horse (1970), Emperor Marcus Aurelius in Gladiator (2000), Saint John in Apocalypse Revelation (2002), and the gunfighter English Bob in Clint Eastwood's Western film Unforgiven (1992).
Harris had a top ten hit in Britain and the US with his 1968 recording of Jimmy Webb's song "MacArthur Park".
Early life and career
Harris, the fifth of nine children, was born in Limerick city, Ireland (then known as the Irish Free State) into a middle-class, staunchly Roman Catholic family. His parents were Ivan John Harris (b. 1896, son of Richard Harris, b. 1854, son of James Harris of St. Michael's, Limerick) and Mildred Josephine Harty Harris (b. 1898, daughter of James Harty, St. John's, Limerick, who owned a flour mill.) Harris' siblings include Patrick Ivan (born 1929), Noel William Michael (born 1932), Diarmid (Dermot, born 1939), and William George Harris (born 1942).] He was schooled by the Jesuits at Crescent College. A talented rugby player, he was on several Munster Junior and Senior Cup teams for Crescent, and played for Garryowen. Harris' athletic career was cut short when he caught tuberculosis in his teens. He remained an ardent fan of the Munster Rugby and Young Munster teams then until his death, and attending many of its matches, and there are numerous stories of japes at rugby matches with the actors and fellow rugby fans Peter O'Toole and Richard Burton.
After recovering from tuberculosis, Harris moved to England, wanting to become a director. He could not find any suitable training courses, and he enrolled in the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA) to learn acting. He had failed an audition at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA), and had been rejected by the Central School of Speech and Drama because they felt he was too old at 24. While still a student, Harris rented the tiny "off-West End" Irving Theatre, and there directed his own production of Clifford Odets's play Winter Journey (The Country Girl). This show was a critical success, but it was a financial failure, and Harris lost all his savings in this venture.
As a result, Harris ended up temporarily homeless, sleeping in a coal cellar for six weeks. Accounts of Harris' contemporaries from his hometown of Limerick, however, indicate that Harris may have exaggerated these stories somewhat and that he actually stayed with a few aunts, sleeping on their living room sofas. After completing his studies at the Academy, Harris joined Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop. He began getting roles in West End theatre productions, starting with The Quare Fellow in 1956, a transfer from the Theatre Workshop. Harris spent nearly a decade in obscurity, learning his profession on stages throughout the UK.
Harris made his film debut in 1958 in the film Alive and Kicking, and played the lead role in The Ginger Man in the West End in 1959. He hated filming The Wreck of the Mary Deare so much that he refused to return to Hollywood for several years, turning down the role of Commodus in The Fall of the Roman Empire. He had a memorable bit part in the movie The Guns of Navarone as a Royal Australian Air Force pilot who reports that blowing up the "bloody guns" of the island of Navarone is impossible by an air raid.
For his role in the film Mutiny on the Bounty, despite being virtually unknown to film audiences, Harris reportedly insisted on third billing, behind Trevor Howard and Marlon Brando. He did not get along with Brando at all during filming.
Harris' first starring role was in the movie This Sporting Life in 1963, as a bitter young coal miner, Frank Machin, who becomes an acclaimed rugby league football player. For his role, Harris won Best Actor in 1963 at the Cannes Film Festival and an Academy Award nomination. Harris followed this with a leading role in the Italian film, Michelangelo Antonioni's Il deserto rosso (1964), and he also won notice for his role in Sam Peckinpah's Major Dundee (1965), as an Irish immigrant who became a Confederate cavalryman during the Civil War; he did not get along with co-star Charlton Heston at all.
Harris next performed the role of King Arthur in the film adaptation of the musical play Camelot. Harris continued to appear on stage in this role for years, including a successful Broadway run in 1981–82. In 1966, Harris starred as Cain in John Huston's film The Bible: In the Beginning.
Harris recorded several albums of music, one of which, (A Tramp Shining), included the seven-minute hit song "MacArthur Park" (Harris insisted on singing the lyric as "MacArthur's Park"). This song had been written by Jimmy Webb, and it reached #2 on the American Billboard Hot 100 chart. It also topped several music sales charts in Europe during the summer of 1968. "MacArthur Park" sold over one million copies, and was awarded a gold disc. A second album, with music mostly composed by Webb, The Yard Went on Forever, was published in 1969.
Some memorable movie performances followed this, among them a role as a reluctant police informant in the coal-mining tale The Molly Maguires (1970), starring with Sean Connery. Harris starred in the Man in the Wilderness in 1971, the Juggernaut in 1974 (a British suspense movie about the hijacking of an ocean liner), in 1976 in The Cassandra Crossing, along with the actresses Sophia Loren and Ava Gardner, and in a B-movie, Orca, in 1977. Harris achieved a form of cult status for his role as the mercenary tactician Rafer Janders in the movie The Wild Geese (1978).
In 1973, Harris published a widely-acclaimed book of poetry, I, In The Membership Of My Days, which was later re-published as an audio recording of his reading his own poems. In 1989, Harris played the beggar King J.J. Peachum in Mack the Knife, the third screen adaptation of The Threepenny Opera.
By the end of the 1980s, Harris had gone for an extended time without a significant movie role. He was familiar with the stage plays of fellow Irishman John B. Keane, and had heard that one of them, The Field, was being adapted for film by director Jim Sheridan. Sheridan was working with actor Ray McAnally on the adaptation, intending to feature McAnally in the lead role of Bull McCabe. When McAnally died suddenly during initial preparations, Harris began a concerted campaign to be cast as McCabe. The campaign succeeded, and the movie version of The Field was released in 1990. For his performance, Harris earned his second Academy Award nomination for Best Actor but lost to Jeremy Irons for Reversal of Fortune. In 1992, Harris had a supporting role in the film Patriot Games, as an Irish-American radical.
In November 1987, Harris began a brief tenure as a visiting professor at the University of Scranton, a Jesuit university in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Harris had previously visited Scranton in October 1986 to perform Camelot with his younger brother, Dermot Harris, who died of a heart attack that same year. He soon established friendships with members of the University's faculty, notably Scranton President J.A. Panuska. Harris agreed to return to the University of Scranton as a visiting professor in 1987 to raise funds for a scholarship for Irish students, which he established and named in honor of his brother. Harris was welcomed to the city with a limo escorted by five police motorcycles and proclamation from the mayor. He cast the actors for the University of Scranton's production of Julius Caesar in November. He then returned to the university in January and February 1988 for the production.
Harris appeared in two films which won the Academy Award for Best Picture. First, as the gunfighter "English Bob" in the 1992 Western, Unforgiven; second, as the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius in Ridley Scott's Gladiator (2000). He also played a lead role alongside James Earl Jones in the 1995 Darrell Roodt film adaptation of Cry, the Beloved Country. In 1999, Harris starred in the film To Walk With Lions. After Gladiator, Harris gained further fame playing the supporting role of Albus Dumbledore in the first two of the Harry Potter films, and as Abbé Faria in Kevin Reynolds' 2002 film adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo. The film Kaena: The Prophecy (released in 2003) was dedicated to him posthumously as he had voiced the character Opaz before his death.
Concerning his role as Dumbledore, Harris had stated that he did not intend to take the part at first, since he knew that his own health was in decline, but he relented and accepted it because his 10-year-old granddaughter threatened never to speak to him again if he did not take it. In an interview with the Toronto Star in 2001, Harris expressed his concern that his association with the Harry Potter movies would outshine the rest of his career. He explained by saying: "Because, you see, I don't just want to be remembered for being in those bloody films, and I'm afraid that's what's going to happen to me."
Personal life and death
In 1957, he married Elizabeth Rees-Williams, the daughter of David Rees-Williams, 1st Baron Ogmore. Their three children are the actor Jared Harris, once married to Emilia Fox, the actor Jamie Harris, and the director Damian Harris, once married to Annabel Brooks and now partner of Peta Wilson. Harris and Rees-Williams divorced in 1969, after which Elizabeth married Sir Rex Harrison. His maternal niece is actress Annabelle Wallis.
Harris's second marriage was to the American actress Ann Turkel, who was 16 years younger than he. This marriage also ended in a divorce.
Despite his divorces, Harris was a member of the Roman Catholic Knights of Malta, and was also dubbed a knight by the Queen of Denmark in 1985.
Harris often told stories about his haunted London home, The Tower House, which was sold later to the musician Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin. According to Harris, the tower was haunted by an eight-year-old boy who had been buried in the tower. The boy often kept Harris awake at night until he one day built a nursery for the boy to play in, which calmed the disturbances to some extent.
Harris was a vocal supporter of the IRA from the early 1970s until they carried out the Harrods bombing in 1983, after which he disavowed them.
Harris was a longtime alcoholic until he became a teetotaler in 1981, although he did resume drinking Guinness a decade later. He gave up drugs after almost dying from a cocaine overdose in 1978. A memorable incident concerning his massive alcohol consumption was an appearance on The Late Late Show where he recounted to host Gay Byrne how he had just polished off two bottles of fine wine in a restaurant and decided that he would then be going on the wagon: "And I looked at my watch and it was... Well isn't that spooky! It was the same time it is now: 11:20!"
Harris is also attributed with an anecdote in which he was found lying drunk in a street in London. A passing policeman asked him what he was doing, and he replied that the world was spinning. The policeman inquired as to how lying in the street was going to help, and he said, "I'm waiting for my house to go by." In a 1994 appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman, Harris said he had his driver's licence permanently suspended for knocking over a double-decker bus in Dublin, Ireland.
Harris died of Hodgkin's Lymphoma on 25 October 2002, aged 72, two and a half weeks before the American premiere of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Harris was a lifelong friend of actor Peter O'Toole, and his family reportedly hoped that O'Toole would replace Harris as Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. There were, however, worries of insuring O'Toole for the five remaining films in the series, and he was ultimately replaced as Dumbledore by the Irish-born actor Sir Michael Gambon.
For years, whenever he was in London, Harris resided at the Savoy Hotel. According to the hotel archivist Susan Scott, as Harris was being taken from the hotel on a stretcher, shortly before his death, he warned the diners, "It was the food!"
Harris's remains were cremated, and his ashes were scattered in The Bahamas, where he had owned a home.
On 30 September 2006, Manuel Di Lucia, of Kilkee, County Clare, a long-time friend, organized a bronze life-size statue of Richard Harris, at the age of eighteen, playing racquetball. The sculptor was Seamus Connolly and the sculpture (unveiled by Russell Crowe) stands in Kilkee, Ireland.
Another life-size statue of Richard Harris, as King Arthur from his film, Camelot, has been erected in Bedford Row, in the center of his home town of Limerick. The sculptor of this statue was the Irish sculptor Jim Connolly, a graduate of the Limerick School of Art and Design.
At the 2009 BAFTAs, Mickey Rourke dedicated his Best Actor award to Harris, calling him a "good friend, and great actor."
Awards and nominations