Six Damn Fine Degrees #42: Embracing darkness: Richard Harris

Harris in the studio recording an LP in 1971 (Image: Jack Kay / Daily Express / Getty Images)

“There, I gave you the stuff about Harry Potter”, Richard Harris pointedly remarks to his interviewer at the Toronto Film Festival in September 2001, just before the world would change. “But try to use the rest of what I said as well. Because, you see, I don’t just want to be remembered for being in those bloody films, and I’m afraid that’s what’s going to happen to me.”

Harris never was one to mince words. Though in the same interview he is magnanimous about his then 12-year-old co-star Daniel Radcliffe, and complementary about Rowling’s writing, it’s no secret he never wanted to play Dumbledore. It may seem a rather ungenerous of him to grumble about a role which made the actor known to – and much loved by – an entire new generation. Then again, for an actor known for his bloody-mindedness, who feels he pissed away his gift, I suppose we can expect little more than a certain gruff affection. “I had a gift of gold once, and I threw it all away for a handful of silver. I took the talent God gave me and pissed it into a river called Hollywood,” he grouses.

He has a point, though. Much diminished as he was, though obviously no less curmudgeonly, by the time this interview was published , he remained a much lauded actor. Maybe one of the finest actors Ireland ever produced, and that is saying something. Despite his many gifts, however, he was possibly even more famous for his hard living. Along with friends such as Peter O’Toole, Albert Finney and Richard Burton, tales of his “raising hell” are legend. “There were long weekends and fights, and some nights were spent in cells”, states the Irish Independent in its tribute to Harris after his death in 2002. But in 1981 he managed to sober up apart from the occasional glass of Guinness, and embarked on a different sort of life. “You know cocaine nearly killed me? My heart stopped, and they had to bring me back to life again,” he confides in the Toronto interview. “I’d like to say I changed my life overnight, but that wouldn’t be the case. I tried though, and I got better… even if my acting didn’t.”

Harris came from a modest background, son to a Limerick farmer. He wanted to be a rugby player, but a bout of tuberculosis ended that dream. So he became an actor instead, back then he certainly had the looks for it and was blessed with the “gift of the gab”, as he called it. He remained a huge rugby fan for the rest of his life though, regardless of his dashed hopes.

After early successes on stage and in British films, in 1964 he landed the role of Frank Machin, fittingly also a rugby player, in This Sporting Life which led to his first Oscar nomination and the award for best actor at Cannes. After working with the likes of Antonioni, he made his way to Hollywood, initially to support Charlton Heston in Sam Peckinpah’s Major Dundee.

In the 70’s Harris also had successes as a poet and a singer. His single “MacArthur Park”, released on the album A Tramp Shining unexpectedly made hit lists in 1968. I, In the Membership of my Days, his book of poetry, was released in 1973. Rather fetchingly, that same year, he recorded the audiobook of Jonathan Livingstone Seagull, for which he won a Grammy. But the ’70s also represented his decline into drug use and some of his worst films, the nadir of which is perhaps the 1977 stinker Orca. The Cassandra Crossing, the subpar though star-studded disaster thriller about which Sam wrote his affectionate entry last week, was also made during this time.

Harris in Orca

Perhaps most significant for Harris’ career was 1967’s Camelot. “Camelot,” writes Ebert, “is exactly what we were promised: ornate, visually beautiful, romantic and staged as the most lavish production in the history of the Hollywood musical. If that’s what you like, you’ll like it.” Though it seems more than a bit silly nowadays, and was not well-received critically at the time, it was a huge commercial success, grossing 31.5 million. Harris speaks of the film with great affection. “Don’t ask me why I still love that story so much” he muses in 2001. Small wonder: Camelot made Harris a superstar. Though he would earn accolades with films like A Man Called Horse after 1967, as his lifestyle and behaviour got more and more out of control, his work suffered. When he got sober, Camelot would come to his rescue once again, on Broadway this time around. Harris had acquired the rights to the play, and its revival rebuilt his career as well as his finances. It was this success, undoubtedly aided by his newfound sobriety, that would lead to films like The Field (1990), which earned him another Oscar nomination as well as a place on a commemorative Irish postage stamp. “It was really like he was waiting to play the role all his life,” says co-star Joan Sheehy of Harris. His portrayal of the ill-tempered Bull McCabe would relaunch his film career. And that would not be the last prestigious project he would act in. Modern audiences may also remember him as English Bob in the stunning revisionist western Unforgiven, or as Marcus Aurelius in Ridley Scott’s epic Gladiator.

Harris in Camelot

And then of course, improbably, there is his Dumbledore in the first two Harry Potter films. “Newspapers, radio, television all had a go at me. The world wanted into this film and this cantankerous fucker called Richard Harris said no.” Famously he relented to his granddaughter’s demand that he take the part. And with that, whether he liked it or not, he became a legend to a generation who may have never even heard of Camelot. And even he has to grudgingly admit it was a pretty good fit and he rather enjoyed himself making it. Harris: “Albus Dumbledore, means ‘a white Dorset bumblebee’, and that’s certainly what I look like nowadays.”

So, perhaps, it is understandable that he would kick off the 2001 interview with: “Don’t ask me about that damned stupid Harry Potter movie.” It is, after all, a huge disservice to a richly talented, though undoubtedly complicated man, to view him as a saintly elderly wizard. He was was never that tame, nor – it must be said – that benign. He is at his most admirable when he is unvarnished, with a face that was once described as “five miles of bad Irish country road”. A man who liked to see the funny side of everything, even as he aged and became ill with the disease that would eventually kill him. It is a massive shame that we may never get to see his My Kingdom in which he plays a Lear-like character, who unflinchingly faces the darkness, rather like Harris himself was forced to, with foul-mouthed humour and a grand turn of phrase. “I like this movie” Harris explains, “because it’s not afraid to embrace the darkness. Most films run around lighting tiny candles and think they make a damn bit of difference. Don Boyd has a pretty good idea of how black the universe can be and so do I.” There. Wouldn’t it be an injustice to remember him only for saccharine banalities such as “Happiness can be found even in the darkest of times, when one only remembers to turn on the light”? Dorset Bumblebee, my foot!

*Please also read the complete interview by Richard Ouzounian which serves as one of the sources of this piece. It can be found here, and it is beyond fabulous.

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