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Obituaries

From the Archives: Rex Harrison, Urbane Star of ‘My Fair Lady,’ Dies at 82

Rex Harrison
Rex Harrison and Margaret Lockwood in “Night Train to Munich.”
(Kino Video)

Rex Harrison, the sophisticated veteran of Noel Coward’s drawing-room comedies of the 1930s, but known best to millions around the world as Prof. Henry Higgins in “My Fair Lady,” died Saturday. He was 82.

Harrison died in his sleep of pancreatic cancer at his Manhattan apartment, three weeks after dropping out of the hit Broadway show, “The Circle,” said his attorney, Harold Schiff. Harrison left the play a week before its scheduled closing because he thought he had a gall bladder inflammation, Schiff said.

“He just thought he was not well. He didn’t want to know” (that he had cancer), Schiff said.

With Harrison when he died were his sixth wife, the former Mercia Tinker, and his two sons by previous marriages, Noel and Carey Harrison.

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“To watch him and to work with him was a joyful experience,” said Julie Andrews, who played the bawdy but lovable Cockney Eliza Dolittle to Harrison’s proper pedant Higgins for three years on Broadway. “The theater has lost an extraordinary one of a kind.”

“He was the essence of a great actor, a fabulous technician. He had a wonderful sense of humor, fabulous diction,” said Audrey Hepburn, who played Eliza in the film version. “He was the personification of a superb actor, the quintessential actor.”

Witty, urbane and outwardly relaxed, Harrison was for three generations of audiences the very personification of the polished upper-class Englishman.

But he never really believed himself in the role.

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“So annoying,” he told a 1981 interviewer, “to find oneself referred to as the ‘unflappable’ Rex Harrison. ‘Unflappable,’ my arse! I’m an actor and if the indicated public attitude is one of relaxed self-control in the midst of crisis, I can play it as well as the next.

“But don’t mistake performance for reality. No one--I say again-- no one with an ounce of talent was ever truly relaxed before an audience.”

Yet he did play the part so well: from the nonplussed husband of Coward’s “Blithe Spirit” to the leather-cased steeliness of Julius Caesar in “Cleopatra” to a medieval Pope or the King of Siam. (“People usually forget that I was Mongkut, with hair, before Yul Brynner was, without.”) Harrison projected a cool, good-humored refinement that made charming reality of even the occasional villain (the murderous husband of “Midnight Lace,” for example) that came his way.

“The trouble with ‘The Ghost and Mrs. Muir,’ ” a critic wrote, in reviewing the 1947 motion picture that solidified his box-office appeal in America, “is that Rex Harrison is all too believable--and romantically compelling--as the deceased but undeparted sea captain. When the author is forced to get rid of him toward the end of the story, you can actually feel the waves of disappointment washing over the audience. The whole thing goes dead, there and then.”

Such was his impact on audiences ever after.

Last year, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in his native England and described the event as a “marvelous moment.”

His other honors--an Academy Award and New York Film Critics Award for motion pictures, two Antoinette Perry awards for stage performances, the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic, a Golden Globe, and a special Tony for life achievement, among others--would have filled the average trophy case to overflowing, but he seldom displayed them and hated to talk about the work they represented.

“That’s all very well, of course,” he said in an interview late in his life. “But (the awards) are yesterday, you know. The past. Can’t go back there. Wouldn’t care to. It’s all done and gone. Tomorrow’s the thing; what’s coming up, what’s new. If I seem to hurry on, it’s because there are still things I’d like to do . . . before I get too old to remember lines.”

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But he had always been in a bit of a hurry: Reginald Carey Harrison was born March 5, 1908, in Huyton, Lancashire, England, and told interviewers in later years that he could not remember a time when he did not expect to become an actor.

“It was as natural as hair,” he said. “Or having fingers on my hands. Looking back, I can see that it was absolutely frightful arrogance on my part, assuming that I would--and could--act simply because it was what I wished to do. But I was blessed with understanding parents who encouraged me once they realized that I was serious.

“They even helped with the name.

“And that must have been hard to stick--especially for my father.”

The name “Reginald,” he explained, was a family heirloom, passed on to him by his father. But by the time he was 5 years old, the actor-to-be had decided it simply wouldn’t do.

“It was out of date before I was born, you see,” he said. “The family name, Harrison, was all right. Rather fancied it, in fact. But ‘Reginald’ was out, and I tried being ‘Reggie’ for a while, but that was wrong, too. So finally I tried ‘Rex,’ and it seemed to fit.”

He was 16 years old when he skipped classes one day to read for the part of the husband in a Liverpool Repertory Theater production of “Thirty Minutes in a Street.” To his surprise, he was hired--and spent the next three years learning the craft he felt he had been born to follow.

“Liverpool was a wonderful place to learn one’s job,” he recalled. “Not so small that the company would suffer from amateurism, and not so large that one’s early stumblings would rise to haunt one in later years. Marvelous!”

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Continuing his professional education, Harrison left the Liverpool company in 1927 to tour the provinces in a number of plays including “Charley’s Aunt,” “Potiphar’s Wife,” “Alibi,” “The Chinese Bungalow” and “A Cup of Kindness.”

“And then,” he said. “I decided I was ready--fully professional and artistically qualified--to knock ‘em dead in London. What cheek! What absolute, ruddy cheek!”

Nonetheless, critics were both kind and welcoming to the newcomer from the hinterland. “Casual charm” and “considerable presence” were phrases that set the tone of reviews when London first-night audiences got their initial glimpse of Harrison in 1931, as the Honourable Freddy Thrippleton in “Getting George Married,” at the Everyman Theater, followed by the part of Rankin in “The Ninth Man” at the Prince of Wales.

That same year, he returned to repertory at Cardiff, spent 1932 on tour again and returned briefly to London for an appearance in “Another Language.” He finished the 1933-34 year on tour and divided the next two years between London engagements and repertory.

“Things were going well,” he recalled. “I mean, one could hardly complain of unemployment or the difficulty of getting that all-important first break. I’d got it, right enough, and then some. Indeed, I was somewhat in demand for a certain kind of role--the kind that call for the sophisticated manner and the flippant phrase.

“I had a lot to learn, and I knew it. But 1936 was a year that taught me a lot: In that 12 months I had one enjoyable and instructive failure, one enjoyable and instructive success, and found myself starting a whole new kind of career in a whole new medium.”

The failure was his first venture in the United States.

Harrison opened March 2, 1936, at the Booth Theater in “Sweet Aloes,” playing the role of Tubbs Barrow. The play’s reviews were mixed and it closed after only a few days, but the role remained one of his favorites--as did the leading part of Alan Howard in “French Without Tears,” which opened in London seven months later and ran for nearly two years.

“But I wasn’t exactly idle, those months between the two plays,” he recalled. “I did one other play (‘Heroes Don’t Care,’ which had only indifferent success) and was busier than ever before in my life.”

He had mastered the art, he told the New York Daily News in 1972, of emulating the “tail-coat actors (of the day) who used to wander around the stage as if it were their dressing room.”

Adding to his myriad of activities was a new career he had found: Harrison had made his first motion picture in 1929, but had paid very little attention to the medium until 1936, when he began synchronizing theater with film work, often appearing before the cameras all morning and before theater audiences at night. “Men Are Not Gods” was his first movie released in the United States.

George Bernard Shaw’s “Major Barbara,” which scored a considerable success in its American run, might have led to an immediate Hollywood career, had it not been for the timing of its release: It was 1941, and Harrison had temporarily shelved his film-acting career to join the Volunteer Reserve of the Royal Air Force.

He was released in 1944 and resumed his acting career with leading roles in the film versions of “Blithe Spirit” and “The Rake’s Progress,” both made in England--and was joyfully received (after the latter was renamed “Notorious Gentleman”) in the United States.

His first American-made film was “Anna and the King of Siam,” with Irene Dunne, in which he created the role of Mongkut (which was later revised and adapted for Brynner in the musical version, “The King and I.”)

Reviews of “Anna” were little short of ecstatic, most echoing critic Howard Barnes’ declaration that the role was “unquestionably the finest” of Harrison’s career. But it was his next screen appearance, as the spectral sea captain in “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” that nailed down his hold on the romantic imaginations of moviegoers; a hold he firmly cemented in his next film, playing the lead opposite Maureen O’Hara in “The Foxes of Harrow.”

The 1948 theater season saw him back on-stage, winning his first Tony award for his work in Maxwell Anderson’s “Anne of the Thousand Days” on Broadway, and then moving back to London for the lead in “The Cocktail Party” at the New Theater.

Meanwhile, his personal life had grown complicated.

Harrison was married in 1934 to Marjorie Noel Collette Thomas, and fathered one son, Noel. His second marriage, in 1943, was to actress Lilli Palmer and they had a son, Carey. That relationship continued until 1957, but his name seemed to become a staple item for Hollywood gossip columns--usually coupled with that of one or more of the film colony’s better-known female stars and starlets.

It was standard film-fan fare for the time, and might well have been forgotten except for the tragic circumstance of the 1948 death of actress Carole Landis, who took her life after what was said to have been an unhappy affair with Harrison.

The resultant publicity and his marriages brought Harrison a headline sobriquet he never quite lived down: “Sexy Rexy.”

Harrison’s next major hit was one in which his talents were combined with those of wife Lilli, re-creating on film the connubial roles originated on stage by Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn in “The Fourposter.”

Critics loved it as much as the public: reviewer Hardy Jones said the Harrisons’ portrayal of a happy, 40-year marriage “should allay any tales of a rift between these two; no one could bring such warmth and obvious affection to the screen without a patina of reality to build upon.”

Harrison’s career on screen and on-stage continued apace.

He was approached by librettist and lyricist Alan Jay Lerner and composer Frederick Loewe, who had transformed Shaw’s “Pygmalion” into a musical comedy they called “My Fair Lady.”

Harrison, whose vocal range extended modestly over 1 1/2 notes, was hesitant but intrigued. After Lerner-Loewe agreed to keep in several scenes from the play, Harrison consented and began work on the half-singing, half-talking patter that soon was to have much of the Western World singing “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” or “I’m an Ordinary Man.”

Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times, in a review after the March 15, 1956, opening in New York, said it for everyone:

“Mr. Harrison is perfect in the part--crisp, lean, complacent and condescending until at last a real flare of human emotions burns the egotism away.”

It ran a then-record 2,717 performances, got Harrison his second Tony, and earned him his own chapter when historians chronicle the history of the American musical theater.

It was a chapter to which will be added laudatory footnotes for his re-creation of the role on film in 1964, with Hepburn rather than Andrews as Eliza Dolittle.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences found that picture worthy of a “best actor” Oscar, and producers showered him with scripts.

Rex Harrison in “Doctor Dolittle.”
Rex Harrison in "Doctor Dolittle."
(File photo )

Before “My Fair Lady,” he played Caesar in the troubled production of the film “Cleopatra,” which brought Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton together and tore studio heads apart. The movie was viewed by critics as an exercise in excess, but Harrison’s portrayal earned him an Oscar nomination.

He had fun in “The Yellow Rolls-Royce,” suffered in “The Agony and the Ecstasy,” and talked to the animals in “Doctor Dolittle.” He returned to the British stage in “The Lionel Touch,” to the American stage in a revival of Pirandello’s “Henry IV,” and then to his acknowledged favorite playwright, Shaw.

His Caesar in the 1977 revival of “Caesar and Cleopatra” was savaged by critics but his next Shavian characterization (Capt. Shotover in “Heartbreak House”) was hailed by critic Walter Kerr as “the best work” Harrison had ever done. “Even Henry Higgins was ‘a one-note job by comparison.’ ”

After Harrison and Palmer divorced, he wed comedian Kay Kendall, a woman “whose vitality and joy in living infected me as nothing had ever done before.”

She was 28 when she died in 1959, and for the last two years of her life he had somehow kept her from knowing that she had leukemia.

He next wed and divorced Rachel Roberts and Elizabeth Rees Williams before marrying Tinker in 1978, to whom he dedicated a book of his poetry, “If Love Be Love.”

Harrison’s private life subsided into a comfortable marriage with Tinker, a Swiss he had met at Monte Carlo.

Into the ‘80s he toured in occasional revivals of “My Fair Lady,” made infrequent appearances as King Arthur in “Camelot,” and then gradually retreated into the wings.

But if the body wasn’t on stage, the spirit was.

“Acting,” he said, “is not just my profession. It’s my hobby.”

A memorial service is scheduled June 18 at the Church of the Transfiguration in New York. Funeral services will be private.

A list of Rex Harrison’s film career

1930s

“The Great Game” 1930

“The School for Scandal” 1930

“Get Your Man” 1934

“Leave it to Blanche” 1934

“All at Sea” 1936

“Men Are Not Gods” 1936

“Storm in a Teacup” 1937

“School for Husbands” 1937

“The Citadel” 1938

“Sidewalks of London” 1938

“Continental Express” 1939

“Over the Moon” 1939

1940s

“Ten Days in Paris” 1940

“Night Train to Munich” 1940

“Major Barbara” 1941

“A Yank in London” 1945

“Blithe Spirit” 1945

“Notorious Gentleman” 1945

“Journey Together” 1945

“A Yank in London” 1945

“Anna and the King of Siam” 1946

“The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” 1947

“The Foxes of Harrow” 1947

“Unfaithfully Yours” 1948

“Escape” 1948

1950s

“The Long Dark Hall” 1951

“The Four Poster” 1952

“Main Street to Broadway” 1953

“King Richard and the Crusaders” 1954

“The Constant Husband” 1955

“The Reluctant Debutante” 1958

1960s

“Midnight Lace” 1960

“The Happy Thieves” 1961

“Cleopatra” 1963

“My Fair Lady” 1964

“The Yellow Rolls-Royce” 1964

“The Agony and the Ecstasy” 1965

“The Honey Pot” 1967

“Doctor Dolittle” 1967

“A Flea in Her Ear” 1968

“Staircase” 1969

1970s & 80s

“Don Quixote” 1972 (Television)

“Crossed Swords” 1977

“Shalimar” 1978

“The Fifth Musketeer” 1979

“Ashanti” 1979

“A Time to Die” 1982

“The Kingfisher” 1983

 

news.obits@latimes.com

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