Richard Harris, 72; Irish Actor Described as an Icon and a Giant of the Old School

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Times Staff Writers

Richard Harris, the irascible, craggy-faced, Irish-born actor perhaps best known as King Arthur in the 1967 film musical “Camelot” and more recently as the wise old wizard headmaster Albus Dumbledore in the first two “Harry Potter” films, died Friday in a London hospital. He was 72.

Harris, who in earlier years forged an image as a hard-drinking hell-raiser in the style of fellow actors Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole, died at University College of London Hospital. He reportedly suffered from Hodgkin’s disease, although a cause of death was not immediately released.

“With great sadness, Damien, Jared and Jamie Harris announce the death of their beloved father, Richard Harris,” read a statement from his family that was released by the hospital. The statement said Harris died “peacefully.”


On Friday, “Harry Potter” director Chris Columbus and producer David Heyman said at a news conference that they had recently visited Harris in the hospital and he appeared to be fighting back. The second adaptation of the J.K. Rowling series of fantasy children’s books, “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,” in which Harris also played Dumbledore, opens Nov. 15, and the third is scheduled to start filming next year.

Harris “did threaten to kill me if I recast [Dumbledore],” said Columbus. As of late Friday, Warner Bros. had made no decisions on who would replace him.

In a recent interview, Heyman said one of the best things about “The Chamber of Secrets” was that Harris was able to have more fun with his character.

“In the first film, we didn’t get as much of that glint in Dumbledore’s eye,” Heyman said. “In the second one, you get a sense of just how deep a character he is, that he knows exactly what’s going on. And Richard Harris is, of course, just perfect in the role.”

The news of Harris’ death was greeted with sadness among his friends and colleagues in the entertainment industry.

“Richard was wonderful to work with,” said Clint Eastwood, who directed Harris in Eastwood’s 1992 Academy Award-winning film, “Unforgiven.” “A slightly mad Irishman and a truly gifted performer. His presence on the set during the filming of ‘Unforgiven’ always gave us a much-needed lift during the many hours of difficult work.”


Ridley Scott, who directed Harris in the Oscar-winning 2000 epic “Gladiator,” said Harris “was one of the giants of the old school.” The actor played Emperor Marcus Aurelius.

Scott said Harris and cast mate Oliver Reed, who died while filming “Gladiator,” “came out of a generation that worked hard and played hard.” He called Harris, O’Toole and Burton “icons” and added, “There aren’t a lot of icons left.”

Randa Haines, who directed Harris in the 1993 drama “Wrestling Ernest Hemingway,” described him “as just one of those forces of nature. Every moment of debauchery was in his face, and every moment of his lust for life was written into his face. But that kind of person, you can’t imagine the world without them. You feel they will go on forever.”

Harris himself once said that “a great actor walks on the stage and he fills it from the right proscenium all the way to the back, but some people get on and they are invisible.” No one would have dared call Harris invisible.

With his auburn hair, blue eyes and a distinctive face that he once described as looking like five miles of bad Irish road, Harris became an international star on the strength of such performances as his Oscar-nominated role as a crude, rough-and-tumble rugby player in 1963’s “This Sporting Life,” a strong but sensitive King Arthur in “Camelot” and a wealthy Briton kidnapped and tortured by Sioux Indians who eventually is embraced by the tribe in 1970’s “A Man Called Horse.”

He also had a parallel career as a singer in the 1960s. He scored a huge hit with Jimmy Webb’s “MacArthur Park,” in which he crooned, “Someone’s left my cake out in the rain.”


Kevin Reynolds, who directed him in “The Count of Monte Cristo,” which was released this year, recalled Harris as “just a master of subtlety and nuance. He knew just the right turn of phrase, and he could do it in just one or two takes.”

He was one of a new breed of British actors who were born out of the renaissance of London theater in the 1950s, including Burton, O’Toole, Reed, Albert Finney and Alan Bates -- actors who embodied England’s postwar angry young men. All of them went on to star in films, and many of them were more known for their offstage antics than for their screen roles.

Stories abounded for years about Harris and his churlish behavior to others on film sets and in the theater. Don Gregory, who co-produced the tour of the stage musical “Camelot,” in which Harris performed intermittently from 1981 to 1985, recalled getting into a scuffle on the sidewalk outside the Winter Garden Theater in New York, where the production was being filmed for HBO.

Gregory recalled Friday that Harris showed up three hours late and “I got aggravated,” after which Harris stormed out of the theater. Gregory followed him and fell into a fight that was literally “in the gutter.”

Six months later, Gregory went to Harris’ dressing room in London to make amends, and “he threw his arms around me and said, ‘Let’s have dinner.’ ”

Meg Bussert, who played Guenevere opposite Harris in “Camelot” in the early ‘80s on Broadway, noted that “he could be difficult,” but added that “he really knew what he wanted on stage [and] was as kind as he could be to the ensemble and the entire company.”


Early in his movie career, he refused to take a fall when Marlon Brando punched him weakly in the 1962 remake of “Mutiny on the Bounty,” and he had a publicized falling out with director Michelangelo Antonioni in the 1965 drama “Red Desert.”

“I was called an angry young man, but I had women camped out in my garden,” Harris said earlier this year. “I couldn’t have been happier.”

Uli Edel, who directed him this past summer in the upcoming TNT miniseries “Caesar,” saw the milder side of the aging lion.

“He was very well-prepared, and he never showed any signs of frailty,” Edel said. “He was full of humor.”

But Harris retained his very public disdain for Hollywood to the end. He was invited to join fellow actors Ian McKellen and Judi Dench as presenters at this year’s Academy Awards but turned it down, saying, “Fourteen hours to get there, 10 hours talking ... and 14 hours back. I would rather spend that time in the pub talking to my mates,” according to the Times of London.

Born Richard St. John Harris on Oct. 1, 1930, in Limerick, he was the youngest son of a flour mill owner, Ivan Harris, and his wife, Mildred.


Harris excelled in sports in school and twice broke his nose playing rugby. He was out of action for 2 1/2 years when he was stricken in late adolescence with tuberculosis. While recuperating, he began to read and write poetry.

It was upon reading the books by Russian director Konstantin Stanislavsky that Harris decided on pursuing a career on the stage, though initially he wanted to direct.

After training at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts and Joan Littlewood’s International Theatre Workshop, he made his first professional appearance in 1956 in the Littlewood production of Brendan Behan’s “The Quare Fellow” at the Theatre Royal in Stratford.

His first film role was a small part in a comedy titled “Alive and Kicking.” Far more memorable were his next two films in 1959, “Shake Hands With the Devil” with James Cagney and “The Wreck of the Mary Deare” with Gary Cooper and Charlton Heston.

Harris’ first starring role was in Lindsay Anderson’s “This Sporting Life,” in which he electrified critics as Frank Machin, a Yorkshire miner who becomes a rugby star. Besides receiving his first Oscar nomination for the film, he won the best actor award at the Cannes Film Festival.

In subsequent years, he would star in such films as “The Bible,” “Hawaii,” “The Molly Maguires,” “Robin and Marian” and “The Field,” for which he received his second Oscar nomination.


But Harris was brutally honest about the quality of most of his films.

In the 1970s, his movie choices were appalling. “I drifted from one piece of crap to another,” he told The Times in 1990. These included “Orca, the Killer Whale,” “Tarzan the Ape Man,” “The Wild Geese” and “Return of a Man Called Horse.”

“If I was ever miscast in my life, it was in the role of husband,” he recalled with a tinge of melancholy in his voice two years ago. Both of his marriages were turbulent and ended in divorce, with both wives complaining about his heavy drinking and weeks-long disappearances.

His first marriage, to Joan Elizabeth Rees Williams, daughter of a Liberal peer in the House of Lords, lasted 12 years and produced three sons. All three are in the movie industry: Two are actors and one is a director. His second marriage, to actress-model Ann Turkel, spanned seven years.

Harris, a self-described “millionaire tramp,” learned recently that he was so rich he owned a Rolls-Royce he hadn’t seen in nearly three decades. Although he constantly asserted his Irishness, he lived in his native country for only 90 days a year -- to minimize his taxes. The rest of the time, he would travel among London’s Savoy Hotel, the U.S. and his beach home in the Bahamas.

In a 1990 interview with The Times, Harris reflected on what it was like becoming a star in the 1960s.

“There was a feeling none of us would last -- that it was just a fine madness, an explosion of talented people who would probably burn out.


“But take a look -- Rod Stewart is still around, the Rolling Stones, the fragmented Beatles. David Bailey. And the actors. O’Toole is still there, Finney, Alan Bates. And me.... That’s because we were men of steel! We decided our own destinies.”


Times staff writers Mary McNamara and Don Shirley and correspondent David Gritten contributed to this report.