BRIAN BRENNAN: BRIEF ENCOUNTERS
There was no booze in the star’s dressing room when Richard Harris came to Canada to star as the the once and future King Arthur in a touring production of Camelot. The one-time roaring boy from Limerick, Ireland – former drinking buddy of Peter O’Toole, Richard Burton and Dylan Thomas – told me he hadn’t touched a drink in more than four years.
“It makes my life extremely boring and probably very dull,” he said. The cultured singsong accent still betrayed Harris’s Irish upbringing. “I can’t even drink a thimbleful of wine nowadays. I’d go into shock because of the sugar in it.”
He suffered from hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar), a condition that in severe cases caused the sufferer to lapse into a coma. Harris still remembered the day, even the hour, when the condition forced him to quit drinking.
“It was August 11, 1981, at twenty past eleven at night. I remember the date with great pain and anguish. Oh God, do I remember it. It was in the Jockey Club in Washington and I had ordered a couple of bottles of Château Margaux. They cost $300 a bottle, you know. I was supposed to take over from Burton in Camelot, and I thought, ‘Well, it’s about time I stopped this, then.’ And I haven’t had a drink since.”
Would he like to have a drink now, I wondered? A glass of champagne on opening night, perhaps?
“Oh God, I wish. They told me if I went on a certain diet and took certain things, I’d be cured in three years. But here it is, going into my fifth year, and I still can’t have a jar. It’s terribly boring.” He was then 55.
“It’s especially difficult for me when I go back to Ireland,” he said. “Going back to Ireland and not having a drink is like going to church and not saying a prayer. It becomes very tiresome, after a while, having to explain that I’m ill and that I can’t have a drink. Particularly when I’m over there for a rugby match.”
Rugby was Harris’s passion. Before he became an actor, his greatest ambition was to captain the Irish national team against England at Twickenham. He won two cup medals as a schoolboy in his native Limerick, was capped twice for the provincial schools team, picked up a senior cup medal with Limerick’s formidable Garryowen team, and was well on his way toward a tryout with the Irish Triple Crown-winning team in 1949 when a bout of tuberculosis downed him at age 19. The illness put Harris out of circulation for almost three years.
But if he didn’t get to play rugby for Ireland, at least he got to play a rugby player in his first major film, Lindsay Anderson’s This Sporting Life in 1963. That brought Harris, at age 33, a best actor award at Cannes and an Academy Award nomination for best actor.
It was while recovering from tuberculosis that Harris had decided to become an actor. Initially, he failed to show any promise as a performer. He was turned down by two major acting schools in London before a third, the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA), agreed reluctantly to accept him.
“They wanted to turn me down, too, but I wouldn’t let them. I didn’t want to go home a failure, empty-handed. When you leave Ireland, you want to be successful. So I barnstormed LAMDA and sort of bullied and threatened the principal into accepting me. He told me afterwards that my audition pieces were so bad, so outrageously bad, that he figured there had to be something there. He couldn’t believe anyone that bad would want to be an actor.”
It was that kind of determination that subsequently landed Harris the coveted role of King Arthur in the 1967 film Camelot when it looked as if the part would go to Richard Burton, the star of the 1960 Broadway production. Harris sent telegrams to the film’s director, Joshua Logan, for months before the movie was cast, but the director had his heart set on hiring Burton. “Finally, Logan came to London to do some testing. I knew he was staying at Claridge’s so I went there and barged my way into his suite. He had me removed. Then I followed him to a party. I dressed as a waiter and brought him his vodka and tonic. He recognized me and said, ‘For God’s sake, why don’t you leave me alone?’ I said, ‘I won’t leave you alone until you at least agree to test me.’ So finally he agreed. He tested me and I got the part.” Harris was then 37.
The film was universally panned, but it established Harris as a movie actor of bankable proportions. It also set the pattern for a series of similar critical disasters, prompting one critic to remark, “Harris seems to be at his best in terrible films.” Another critic, reviewing Harris’s performance in the 1970 movie Cromwell, wrote, “He’s so bad even his horse upstages him.”
Harris acknowledged that the movies he made in the 1970s were “terrible, really dreadful.” For that reason, he was going to spend the rest of his acting career on the stage. Touring in Camelot had “made me realize what a mistake I made in staying away too long from the theatre.”
He had been asked to do the Camelot tour in 1981 after Burton fell ill, and Harris didn’t want to do it initially because “it meant having the same critics coming to see me after they had already seen him.” It also meant taking the show back to New York. “God, was I courting death, because Burton had just done the show on Broadway the year before.” But Harris managed to show audiences and some of the critics that he was a credible successor to Burton. He then toured the show intermittently for the next four years across North America and over to London.
The Camelot tour ended in December 1985. Harris never got much happening for himself on stage after that, so he returned to screen work. He also returned to drinking, though only occasionally with friends in pubs. He received an Academy Award nomination for his starring role as Bull McCabe in 1990’s The Field, but most of his other film and television work was forgettable until he accepted the role of Professor Albus Dumbledore in the first Harry Potter movie in 2001. Harris said he only accepted the part because his 11-year-old niece said she would never speak to him again if he didn’t.
Harris had just completed work on a Harry Potter sequel when he died in 2002, of lymphatic cancer at age 72. According to The New York Times, he told friends he found it remarkable he had lived long enough to develop the disease and still be working, “given the nature of the life I’ve led.” The Times of London suggested his epitaph should be a comment he once made about actors who didn’t share his passion for boisterous living: “There are too many prima donnas in this business and not enough action.”
Copyright © Brian Brennan 2014
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