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Richard Harris

Richard Harris in the early 1960s
Born Richard St. John Francis Harris
1 October 1930(1930-10-01)
Limerick City, County Limerick, Munster, Ireland
Died 25 October 2002 (aged 72)
London, England, UK
Occupation Actor, singer, producer, director, writer
Years active 1958–2002
Spouse(s) Elizabeth Rees-Williams (1957–1969)
Ann Turkel (1974–1982)

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 Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (2001) and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002), his last film. He also played a British aristocrat and prisoner in A Man Called Horse (1970) and a gunfighter in Clint Eastwood's Western film Unforgiven (1992).

As a singer, Harris is probably best remembered for his recording of Jimmy Webb's song "MacArthur Park", which reached the top ten in sales on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean in 1968.


Early life and career

Harris, the fifth of eight children, was born in Limerick City, County Limerick, Munster, Ireland, the son of Ivan John Harris (b. 1896, son of Richard Harris, b. 1854, son of James Harris, St. Michael's, Limerick) and Mildred Josephine Harty Harris (b. 1898, daughter of James Harty, St. John's, Limerick who owned a flour mill.)[1][2] 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.[3] Harris might have become a provincial or international-standard rugby player, but his 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. 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. Though accounts from contemporaries from his hometown of Limerick claim that these stories had been somewhat garnished, 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 made his movie debut in 1958 in the film Alive and Kicking. 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 Navaronne is impossible by an air raid.

For Harris's role in the film Mutiny on the Bounty, despite being virtually unknown, Harris reportedly insisted on third billing, behind Trevor Howard and Marlon Brando. He famously did not get along with Brando at all during filming.

Harris first starring role was in the movie This Sporting Life in 1963, as the bitter young coal miner, Frank Machin, who becomes an acclaimed rugby league football player. For his role, Harris won the award for best actor in 1963 at the Cannes Film Festival. Harris followed this with a leading role in the Italian film, Antonioni's Il deserto rosso (1964), and he also won notice for his role (acting with Charlton Heston) in Sam Peckinpah's "lost masterpiece" Major Dundee (1965), as an Irish immigrant who became a Confederate cavalryman during the Civil War.

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 Adam's son "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" (in which Harris mispronounced the name as "MacArthur's Park"). This song had been written by Jimmy Webb, and it reached #2 on the American Billboard magazine Hot 100 pop song chart. It also topping several music sales charts in Europe during the summer of 1968. A second album, with music mostly composed by Webb, "The Yard Went on Forever", was published in 1969. Harris also wrote one of the songs, There are Too Many Saviours on My Cross, considered widely to be a criticism of the sectarian violence in Northern Ireland.

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 actrsses 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 and best 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 (Bull McCabe). When McAnally died suddenly during initial preparations, Harris began a concerted campaign to be cast as McCabe. This campaign did succeed, and the movie version of The Field (which also starred Tom Berenger) was published in 1990. Harris earned an American Academy Award nomination for his acting in this one. In 1992, Harris had a supporting but memorable role in the film Patriot Games, as an Irish-American radical.

Later career

Abbé Faria as portrayed by Richard Harris in The Count of Monte Cristo (2002 film)

Harris has appeared in two Oscar-winning films 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. After Gladiator, Harris gained further notoriety 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. In 2003, Harris voiced the character Opaz in the animated film, Kaena: The Prophecy, which was dedicated to him posthumously.

Dumbledore as portrayed by Richard Harris in Philosopher's Stone

Concerning his role as Dumbledore, Harris has 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.[4] 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 going to happen to me."[5]

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, the actor Jamie Harris, and the director Damian Harris. Harris and Rees-Willams divorced in 1969, and then Elizabeth married another well-known actor, Sir Rex Harrison.

Harris' second marriage was to the American actress Ann Turkel, who was 16 years younger than he, and 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 was a life long friend of actor Peter O'Toole.[6] His family reportedly hoped that O'Toole would replace Harris as Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.[6] The role went to Sir Michael Gambon however due to worries of insuring O'Toole for the 5 remaining films. Another contender for the role had been Harris' eldest son Jared Harris .

Harris often told stories about his haunted English Mansion, 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.[7]

Harris died of Hodgkin's disease on 25 October 2002, aged 72, two and a half weeks before the American premiere of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. He was replaced as Dumbledore by the Irish-born actor Sir Michael Gambon. Harris was a longtime alcoholic, but then he became a teetotaler. 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."

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!"[8]

Harris's remains were cremated, and his ashes were scattered in The Bahamas Islands, where he had owned a home.


Richard Harris was a Knight of Malta and a member of the nobility of the country of Denmark. He was also a member of the Screen Actors Guild in the United States of America. He was a vocal supporter of the IRA from the early 1970s until the Harrod's bombing at Christmas 1983.


A statue in Kilkee, Republic of Ireland, of the young Richard Harris playing rackets

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 rackets. The sculptor was Seamus Connolly and the sculpture stands in Kilkee.[9]

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. Unfortunately, this statue has been vandalized numerous times by the hoodlums of the Limerick areas, and its sword has been damaged.[10] The sculptor of this statue was the noted 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."

Academy Award Nominations

Golden Glode Award Nominations

Grammy nominations and wins


  • Album of the Year for A Tramp Shining - 1968
  • Contemporary Pop Male Vocalist for MacArthur Park- 1968
  • Best Spoken Word, Documentary or Drama Recording for The Prophet - 1975





  • Camelot (Motion Picture Soundtrack) (1967)
  • A Tramp Shining (Spring 1968)
  • The Yard Went on Forever (Fall 1968)
  • My Boy (1971)
  • The Richard Harris Love Album (1972)
  • Slides (1972)
  • His Greatest Performances (1973)
  • Jonathan Livingston Seagull (1973)
  • The Prophet (1974)
  • I, in the Membership of My Days (1974)
  • Camelot (Original 1982 London Cast recording) (1982)


  • "Here in My Heart (Theme from This Sporting Life)" (1963)
  • "MacArthur Park" (1968)
  • "One of the Nicer Things" (1969)
  • "What a Lot of Flowers" (1969)
  • "Fill the World With Love" (1969)
  • "Ballad of A Man Called Horse" (1970)
  • "Morning of the Mourning for Another Kennedy" (1970)
  • "Go to the Mirror" (1971)
  • "My Boy" (1971)
  • "Turning Back the Pages" (1972)
  • "Half of Every Dream" (1972)
  • "Trilogy (Love, Marriage, Children)" (1974)
  • "The Last Castle (Theme from Echoes of a Summer)" (1976)
  • "Lilliput (Theme from Gulliver's Travels)" (1977)

Compact disc releases & compilations

  • Camelot (Original 1982 London Cast Recording) (1988)
  • Mack the Knife (Motion Picture Soundtrack) (1989)
  • Tommy (studio recording) (1990)
  • Camelot (Motion Picture Soundtrack) (1993)
  • A Tramp Shining (1993)
  • The Prophet (1995)
  • The Webb Sessions 1968-1969 (1996)
  • MacArthur Park (1997)
  • Slides/My Boy (2 CD Set) (2005)
  • My Boy (2006)

See also


External links

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