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Friday, 25 October, 2002, 23:28 GMT 00:28 UK
Obituary: Richard Harris
Richard Harris
Richard Harris: Wild and passionate actor
Despite a career which spanned six decades, the Irish actor, Richard Harris was as renowned for his hell-raising lifestyle as for his ability as a performer.

He was everything a bad-boy Hollywood star should be: a handsome, boozing, brawling, womanising, jet-setter whose moody magnificence brought glamour to even his weakest movies.

But, beyond his headline-grabbing lifestyle, he was an actor of real emotional depth, able to thrill theatre or cinema audiences alike.

Richard Harris was born in Limerick in 1930. One of eight children of a wealthy flour-miller, he was brought up surrounded by servants and governesses.

But the collapse of the family firm meant that much of his childhood was spent in poverty, his mother taking in other people's washing to earn some money.

Richard Harris
Harris: boozer brawler, brilliant actor

Harris the child was every bit as rebellious as Harris the man. He ran away from home, was expelled from school, but found his true passion on the rugby pitch.

A noted second-row forward, he ran out for Garryowen, and was tipped to be picked for Ireland, before a bout of tuberculosis landed him in bed for two years, and put a premature end to his playing career.

Rugby also accounted for some of Harris's nine broken noses.

Hollywood star

During his convalescence, Harris took the opportunity to read prodigiously to complete his education.

He raced through the likes of Joyce, Beckett, D H Lawrence, Dylan Thomas and Yeats and his imagination took off.

"Really, catching TB was the luckiest thing that ever happened to me," he said.

"It was then I decided to become an actor. If I hadn't started to read I would probably be selling insurance now."

His love of acting led Harris, in 1954, to move to London, where he studied at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art - Lamda, and learned that Irishmen were then second-class citizens in much of England.

After graduating, Harris spent nearly a decade in obscurity, learning his profession on stages throughout the UK.

This is how it might have ended, in a long and worthy career, at the fringe of the limelight.

But, in 1962, after a number of well-received bit parts, Richard Harris hit the big time, when he starred as Frank Machin, the spiky coal-miner turned rugby league star, in the film This Sporting Life.

Nominated for an Oscar, he rapidly became a major Hollywood name, commanding huge fees, and playing opposite stars like Kirk Douglas, Charlton Heston and Julie Andrews.

Sir Michael Caine
Sir Michael Caine feuded with Harris
During the later 1960s Harris branched out into music, playing King Arthur in the big-screen adaptation of the Broadway hit, Camelot.

He also sang the Jimmy Webb-written hit single, Macarthur Park, which sold five million copies worldwide.

Wise investor

And, although he continued to star in blockbusters like A Man Called Horse and the heroes of Telemark, as well as in numerous low-budget flops, his excessive drinking and lavish lifestyle made Harris a bankrupt on two occasions.

Given the last rites by a priest after one drunken binge, Harris gave up the booze in the 1980s. Latterly, though, he did enjoy the odd beer.

Wise property investments, especially in the Bahamas - where he once won an estate in a bet - mean that he was eventually financially secure. Indeed, he kept a suite at the Savoy hotel in London.

With his glory days seemingly behind him, Harris was still able to put in an impressive performance. His performance, as Bull McCabe in the 1990 film, the Field, brought him an Oscar nomination as Best Actor.

Richard Harris as Albus Dumbledore
Richard Harris as Albus Dumbledore

And he continued to impress, as English Bob in the Clint Eastwood-directed Unforgiven, two years later.

More recently, his film portrayal of Professor Albus Dumbledore, headmaster of Hogwart's School, brought Harris to millions of Harry Potter fans.

Richard Harris always wore his heart on his sleeve. A passionate believer in truthful acting, he may have wasted much of his career through his excessive lifestyle.

But, beyond this, this larger-than-life figure continued to light up the screen and stage right up to the end of his life.


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