'Camelot' Star Richard Harris Dies
By SUE LEEMAN, Associated Press Writer
LONDON (AP) - Irish actor Richard Harris, who gained fame as the roistering star of such 1960s films as "This Sporting Life" and "Camelot" and reached a new generation of fans years later as the wise old wizard in two Harry Potter movies, died Friday night at a London hospital. He was 72.
"With great sadness, Damian, Jared and Jamie Harris announced the death of their beloved father, Richard Harris," his family said.
"He died peacefully at University College Hospital," where he was receiving treatment for Hodgkin's Disease after falling ill earlier this year.
In an interview last year, Harris told The Associated Press it was his young granddaughter, Ella, who persuaded him to play Professor Albus Dumbledore in last year's "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone." He returns in the role in "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets," which opens Nov. 15.
"She called me and said, `If you don't do it, papa, I'll never speak to you again,' and I thought, I can't afford that. I have to do it."
The filmmakers asked Harris to sign on for adaptations of all seven of author J.K. Rowling's books, which he said he did reluctantly.
"I hate that kind of commitment. I hate the idea that my life in any way is sort of restricted."
Twice divorced, he added, "That's why my marriages broke up. I hate commitment, and I'm totally unreliable anyway."
A tall, sturdy figure with a reputation as a hellraiser and a lived-in face that he once described as looking like "five miles of bad country road," Harris was never cut out to join contemporaries as a smooth matinee idol.
The critic Clive Barnes called him one of a new breed of British actors, who are "rougher, tougher, fiercer, angrier and more passionately articulate than their well-groomed predecessors ... roaring boys, sometimes with highly colored private lives and lurid public images."
He caught the eye of critic Kenneth Tynan who once bracketed him with Albert Finney and Peter O'Toole as one of the three best young actors on the British stage.
Harris was nominated twice for best-actor Academy Awards, for his role as a violent, inarticulate Yorkshire miner in Lindsay Anderson's 1963 "This Sporting Life," and then as a thundering Irish peasant in director Jim Sheridan's little-seen 1990 film "The Field." Harris also was nominated for an Emmy for 1971's "The Snow Goose."
Within the last decade, he appeared in two winners of the best-picture Oscar — "Unforgiven" in 1992 and 2000's "Gladiator," in which he played the war-weary Emperor Marcus Aurelius.
"Richard was wonderful to work with — a slightly mad Irishman and a truly gifted performer," Clint Eastwood, director and star of "Unforgiven," said Friday.
"His presence on the set during the filming of 'Unforgiven' always gave all of us a much needed lift during the many hours of difficult work on that film. We've lost a wonderful actor and a man with a great deal of courage."
Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern said he was deeply saddened by the death of "one of Ireland's most outstanding artists."
One of Harris' biggest successes was "A Man Called Horse," in 1970. Other films over the years included "Major Dundee," "Hawaii," "The Molly Maguires" and "Cromwell."
He trilled semi-tunefully as King Arthur opposite Vanessa Redgrave in 1967's "Camelot." The next year, he had a hit record with the long, melodramatic song "MacArthur Park," part of a short-lived singing career that also included an appearance in the stage production of the rock opera "Tommy."
Born Oct. 1, 1930, in Limerick, Ireland, Harris suffered a bout of tuberculosis in adolescence, which friends say fostered the brooding, introspective quality of his acting.
Inspired by the writings of the Russian director Konstantin Stanislavsky, he initially set his heart on directing. He moved to London to study, but when he couldn't find a suitable directing course he joined an acting course at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, in 1956.
He also joined the Theatre Workshop, which helped lead the advance toward realism and experiment in British theater. His first professional appearance was as Mickser in the workshop's 1956 production of Brendan Behan's "The Quare Fellow" in Stratford. It was a small part, but Lee Strasburg, director of the New York Actors Studio, said it had the "sharpest impact" of any performance he had seen by an actor in Britain.
A variety of roles followed, and to earn extra income, Harris turned to bit parts in television and film. His first lead role in London's West End came in 1959, as Sebastian Dangerfield in J.P. Donleavy's "The Ginger Man," a study of the life of a drunken Dublin student.
In 1962, Harris played a mutinous sailor in the movie remake of "Mutiny on the Bounty," with Marlon Brando.
That led to "This Sporting Life," which established him as a star. William Peper in the New York World-Telegram wrote that Harris "reminds one fleetingly of Marlon Brando. He also has his own kind of raging power and startling sensitivity."
Harris turned next to a financially unrewarding but artistically acclaimed presentation of "The Diary of a Madman," which he and Lindsay Anderson adapted from Gogol's short story. Barnes said Harris' performance as the clerk, Aksenti Ivanovitch, "struck me as one of the greatest things I have ever seen in the theater."
In the 1980s, after a series of bombs — "Orca," "The Ravagers," "Game for Vultures," "Your Ticket is No Longer Valid" — Harris decided to quit films entirely.
"I made a decision that half was made for me by the motion picture business," he recalled. "Around 1980, I decided that was it, that my career was really finished. I was doing a series of movies that I wasn't happy doing. The standard of the movies was very low. Because of what I was offered, I was unhappy."
He toured in "Camelot" from 1986 to 1989, and said he was content to do nothing. To "finish my career on a high note," he embarked on Pirandello's difficult "Henry IV," winning plaudits.
Possessed of a sharp temper, Harris was no stranger to arguments and was known to cancel interviews and miss appearances if he felt indisposed. After decades of heavy boozing, he gave up drinking in 1982 — typically, after drinking two last bottles of expensive wine at one sitting.
Harris lived in the Bahamas in recent years, and voiced ambivalence toward acting. (His three sons are all in the business — Jared and Jamie as actors; Damian as a director.)
"Look," Harris said last year, "when I commit to a movie, they drag me on to the plane screaming to location, and there I am thinking, `Why am I doing it? I don't need the money.'"
Then, "I get on the set, and I want to be no place else. Once I get there and start to work, I want to be doing nothing else."
But when he's done with a film, he's done.
"When we finish, I always say to the actors around me, `We had a wonderful time, we had great weekends and some great boozy nights (but) the movie's over. Don't call me, because I will never return your calls.'"
He is survived by his three sons from his first marriage, to Elizabeth Rees-Williams.