A heavy drinker, quick-tempered and a passionate lover ... what hellraiser Richard Harris was really like
The acclaimed thespian who died 15 years ago this week, had a reputation as a wild man of Hollywood but he was also a hugely gifted actor, writes Jonathan deBurca Butler .
Richard Harris was 60 years old when Jim Sheridan asked him to play the role of the intimidating and short-tempered Bull McCabe in The Field. The film was shot in the beautiful but rugged Connemara; a suitable location for a star whose face was once described as “five miles of bad Irish country road.
“He was a big fella,” recalls Padraic Coyne, owner of The Carraig Bar in Leenane. “Not very muscular, but a big, tall man. Rough looking — and he acted like that in the film. Behind that, he was gentle enough. He was a down-to-earth fella and liked the funny side of everything.”
Harris would be nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal. Although he lost out to Jeremy Irons, it was the start of a career renaissance.
“It was really like he was waiting to play the role all his life,” says co-star Joan Sheehy, who played one of the tinker women in the movie. “There were so many big scenes — the fair scene or the auction — so you had interaction with him every day and he was larger than life. I think that with the white hair and the white beard and the huge coat, it was hard to separate him from the Bull.
“We shot some scenes in some pretty inclement weather, and my big memories of him are of when we might be up on the cliff and he’d be sitting on this single chair waiting for his scene. It was almost like God in the Catechism; this man on the side of a hill sitting there overseeing everything.”
After The Field, Harris was offered roles in Unforgiven (1992), Gladiator (2000) and, most bizarrely, as Albus Dumbledore in Harry Potter, a role he initially turned down but then accepted because his 11-year-old granddaughter told him she would never speak to him again if he didn’t.
There is a sweet irony in the thought of a man noted for his bloody-mindedness paying heed to an ultimatum delivered to him by an 11-year-old girl.
Harris loved acting, but quite often did not get along with actors. Not long before his death, 15 years ago on October 25, 2002, he told a reporter from the Daily Mirror he had “no friends in this business”.
“I don’t go to their clubs, don’t go to their hangouts and don’t mix at all,” Richard added. “I am part of the business, but I am apart from it.”
When he reached what he saw as the unexpected milestone of 70, he took delight in being old enough that he could “be eccentric and get away with it”. His residence at The Savoy Hotel in London was costing him a fortune but, as he quite rightly pointed out, there were people paying mortgages who couldn’t call someone at four in the morning for a sandwich. He could and did.
Not that he let the apparently excellent service get in the way of a good joke. “It was the food!” he bellowed as he was wheeled out of the hotel for the last time. It wasn’t. It was in fact Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Richard Harris had been getting away with it for a long time both on-stage and off. Even as a young actor, he could be challenging to work with — not that it was always his fault.
Charlton Heston, with whom Harris co-starred in the 1965 western Major Dundee, recalled that he was “very much the professional Irishman and an occasional pain in the posterior”. Harris, meanwhile, thought Heston “square”.
On day one of shooting for the 1965 classic The Heroes of Telemark, Kirk Douglas and Harris squared up to one another.
“Are you going to be as difficult as they say you are?” asked Douglas. “Are you going to be as big a bastard as they say you are?” came the Irishman’s response.
It didn’t end there, according to David Weston, who had a bit part in the movie.
Seeing the arrival of a ship to be featured in the movie, Douglas, who had served for four years in the US Navy, gazed at it scornfully.
“What kind of ship do you call that?” he asked. “A f****** aircraft carrier,” Harris replied. “In America they’re twice that size because they have to carry twice the amount of s***.”
There were petty squabbles over who had bigger and better cars to courier them to the set and, according to Weston, at one point it came to blows. Eventually, however, Harris and Douglas would become firm friends.
Douglas was instrumental in getting Harris the lead part in the 1967 musical Camelot opposite Vanessa Redgrave. Harris also did all he could to land the role. According to one story, he even hired a man to walk up and down The Strand in London carrying a sign which read: ‘Harris Better than [Richard] Burton, Only Harris for Camelot’.
“At one point, he sent a note to producer Jack Warner, just to inform him that Vanessa Redgrave was 5’10”, the same height as Burton while he, Harris, was a towering 6’2”.
He got the part and went on to win a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy.
Harris was cheeky, irreverent, funny. According to him, he had to be — to be noticed. He was born into a family of seven siblings in Limerick. From day one, he was battling for attention.
“I was lost in the middle of the Harris brigade,” he told journalist Joe Jackson in 1987. “But this makes you fight for the affection of your parents, fight for their attention.
“You don’t get it for free. You get it from the age of one day to two years, then have to fight for it. You had to put up a flag and say, ‘Hey, I’m here, too, don’t miss me’, or you were passed over.”
His family were well off. His father owned flour mills in the city where Harris would later work as a rat catcher. In a 1973 interview, he informed Michael Parkinson that he didn’t last that long because he organised a strike for the workers “against my own father”.
By his own admission, he was never good at school, but he was always interested in sports, especially rugby, a game he had to quit in late adolescence when he contracted tuberculosis.
Consumption confined him to bed for three years, he claimed, but during this period he started to read. As people stopped coming to visit, he had to make up friends to keep him occupied and thus he started acting in his sick bed.
“I used to invent people out of light bulbs,” he said. “I’d come up with hundreds of conversations with people in light bulbs, and these hundreds of people would come in and I’d be the king of England or the Pope and that’s how it started.”
After recovering from his illness, he went to London and entered the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, to study acting. It was, he said, a “period of starvation” during which he spent six weeks sleeping in a coal cellar. In 1956, then aged 26, he joined the Theatre Workshop, which was run by Joan Littlewood.
“Everything I know or everything I’m supposed to know about acting,” he later said, “I learnt from this marvellous lady.”
Harris appeared in a production of Brendan Behan’s The Quare Fellow at the Theatre Royal in Stratford. He was seen there by Lee Strasberg, then the director of the Actors’ Studio, who found him impressive.
A small part in the 1961 war classic The Guns of Navarone, starring Gregory Peck, was followed by a strong supporting role as mutineer John Mills in Mutiny on the Bounty, which starred the superb but supremely difficult Marlon Brando. Harris was a fan but by the end of filming that had changed.
In one scene, Brando’s character, Fletcher Christian, strikes Mills. On the first take, Brando’s attempt was a damp squib. Harris responded with a mock curtsy, but Brando didn’t get the joke. After a similar effort on the second take, Harris thrust his chin forward and said: “Come on, big boy, why don’t you f****** kiss me and be done with it!” Harris kissed Brando on the cheek, hugged him, and asked him to dance. The lead man’s ego had been dealt a blow and he stormed off the set.
A year later the Limerick man was nominated for an Academy Award and won the best actor award at the Cannes Film Festival for his gritty portrayal of rugby league professional Frank Machin in This Sporting Life.
By now, Harris had been married to Elizabeth Rees-Williams for six years. They had met as student actors and fallen in love. Nine days before accepting what turned out to be his greatest accolade at Cannes, the couple’s third son, Jamie, had been born.
He and his brothers, Jared and Damian, would go on to have successful careers in the movie industry themselves, but Harris’ career, with all of its associated indulgences, took its toll on the marriage and eventually the couple divorced in 1969.
“Elizabeth says in her book that I beat her once or twice,” Harris told Joe Jackson in 1987. “I probably did give her a smack across the face. I remember once I did. This was unjustified. It was horrendous. I once asked Elizabeth, ‘What was I really like to be married to?’ She said, ‘It was absolute magic, a magic carpet ride, but then one day you’d get that look in your eyes, one drink too many, and in the end I couldn’t take it. The good moments weren’t balancing out the bad’.”
While Harris was away filming Camelot in Los Angeles, she filed for divorce. Years later, he married Ann Turkel, but that too ended in divorce. He remained good friends with both women.
Tales of Harris’ nights out are, of course, legendary. Along with his great friend Peter O’Toole, as well as Oliver Reed, Albert Finney and Richard Burton, he raised hell in the bars of London and the town he referred to as the glue pot, Dublin — “once you get in it you can never get out”.
One night during a theatre run with Peter O’Toole in The Old Vic in Bristol, the pair were late for their cue due to an impromptu break taken in a bar across the road from the theatre. Having dodged traffic and made it back to the auditorium, the pair rushed to get on stage.
“(There was) a pause on stage,” Harris later told Conan O’Brien. “I dashed on, tripped over a wire, slid right across the stage, right down on to the footlights and hung over on to the lap of two or three Bristolian old women. This woman looked at me in shock as my head was in her lap and she said out loud, ‘Good God, Harris is drunk’. And I said to her, ‘Madam, if you think I’m drunk, wait until O’Toole makes his entrance’.”
On one occasion, during a newspaper interview with a reporter in the US, he boasted that whenever he landed in New York he headed straight for a bar on Third Avenue where Vinny, the barman, would line up six double vodkas the moment he walked in. When challenged on the veracity of the story, Harris called a taxi to drive the pair to Third Avenue and the bar in question. As soon as Harris walked in through the door, he caught the barman’s eye. Seconds later, six double vodkas appeared on the bar.
There were long weekends and fights, and some nights were spent in cells.
By 1981, he had had enough of what he called his “Bacchanalian” lifestyle and he took the decision to quit.
But to focus solely on Richard Harris as a hell-raiser would be to do him a disservice.
As well as his acting, Harris wrote poetry. His first wife, Elizabeth, remembers hearing it on their first date and recalled how he used to write poems on cigarette boxes and ask her to keep them. Harris was also a useful singer, more soulful than technical. In 1968, he released the album A Tramp Shining, which included the song MacArthur Park, a top 10 hit in the UK and US.
But he will and should always be remembered as one the finest actors Ireland ever produced.