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Sunday 21 September 2014

Harris was one of the most outstanding film stars of his time

Published 27/10/2002 | 00:11

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THE Limerick-born actor, Richard Harris, relished his reputation as a "hell-raiser": a boozer, a womaniser, sometimes a brawler occasionally in the company of his hell-raising fellow Celts, Peter O'Toole and Richard Burton. Harris boasted that he once went out for a bottle of m

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And he died with his boots on, writes Mary Kenny

THE Limerick-born actor, Richard Harris, relished his reputation as a "hell-raiser": a boozer, a womaniser, sometimes a brawler occasionally in the company of his hell-raising fellow Celts, Peter O'Toole and Richard Burton. Harris boasted that he once went out for a bottle of milk and stayed out on a five-day bender. He had a competitive relationship with the late Oliver Reed, and each used to bad mouth the another in interviews. Harris dubbed himself "Mr Ireland" and Reed "Mr England". Harris once sent Reed a book of his own poems with the inscription: "To Oliver, Mr England since you have not yet attained Superstar status and salary and therefore cannot afford to buy this book, here is a copy free. P.S. You are the only person I know who would go out of his way to claim an affinity with a bankrupt nation."

In response, "Mr England" arranged to meet "Mr Ireland" for a mammoth square-up at the Wilshire Beverley Hills hotel: Reed was carrying a shillelagh and a tam-o-shanter boxed up in Union Jack packaging. Harris got so drunk in preparing for the rendez-vous that he never turned up, and Reed got so drunk while waiting that he passed out.

These stories were recounted with a certain amount of hilarity by some, but Dickie Harris's wild, wild ways were not appreciated by all his colleagues. Charlton Heston memorably once called him "something of a f**k-up".

Yet Harris did eventually quit boozing, in August 1981, after being told by his doctor that he had only 18 months to live if he continued to imbibe alcohol. And he said goodbye to the drink in a typically stylish manner. He purchased two bottles of Chateau Margaux 1947, costing stg£325 each, drank them both, and then never drank again.

And his new-found sobriety brought a renaissance to his career: he will be remembered as one of the outstanding actors and screen performers of his time.

Richard Harris was born in Limerick on October 1, 1930, the fifth of eight children of Ivan Harris and his wife Mildred (nee Harty). His father had a flour-milling business, and Richard was educated by the Jesuits at the Sacred Heart College. He distinguished himself as a rugby player and hoped to become a full-time sportsman when he was struck down by tuberculosis in his teens. Later in life he said that having TB was "the luckiest thing that ever happened to me": he was confined to bed rest for an extended period, and read voluminously. This developed in him a love of poetry which he always retained: he wrote verse, and, of course, his own poignant lyrics to "MacArthur Park". And he decided to become an actor.

But he always retained his interest in rugby, and with Peter O'Toole, took a special interest in the Munster teams, which have latterly done so well.

Richard Harris's big break in movies came with the portrayal of a rugby league player in This Sporting Life, directed by Lindsay Anderson in 1963, and for which he was nominated for an Oscar. His first stage appearance on the London stage (after having trained at the London Academy of Dramatic Art) was as Mickser in Brendan Behan's The Quare Fellow in 1956. He had an extensive theatrical career, working at the Old Vic and the Royal Court and with Joan Littlewood before breaking into movies.

This Sporting Life (in which he co-starred with Rachel Roberts) was a significant career break and later became a cult movie, as part of the neo-realist wave of the early Sixties. For Harris, this was quickly followed by a series of films in which he nearly always distinguished himself: The Bible, The Heroes of Telemark, The Guns of Navarone, Mutiny on the Bounty (where he quarrelled with Marlon Brando) Camelot, The Molly Maguires, A Man Called Horse, and as the title role in Cromwell an unusual role for an Irishman, and yet, a powerful and memorable performance from Harris.

HARRIS had married the alluring Elizabeth Rees-Williams, daughter of the Welsh peer Lord Ogmore, and the marriage was passionate, but stormy. They had three sons, and finally, there was a divorce, although they never quite got disentangled from one another. Elizabeth subsequently married Rex Harrison, and is now stepping out with Jonathan Aitken, the Tory MP who went to jail (and found God).

Richard Harris subsequently married New York model Ann Turkel in 1974: they hoped very much to have children, but it never happened. That marriage too was dissolved, although they stayed on good terms.

He went through lean times when he was bankrupted (twice, in fact), though he made a recovery from this by purchasing the stage rights to Camelot, which was to yield continuous revenue. And latterly, his film career had undergone an astonishing late spring: he was nominated again for an Oscar for his performance as Bull McCabe in John B Keane's The Field, in 1990, and appeared in Gladiator, Wild Geese, The Unforgiven, The Count of Monte Cristo, and with amazing success as Professor Dumbledore in the Harry Potter films. He died still working: his latest and last movie is as a Merseyside gangland boss in My Kingdom, a contemporary version of King Lear.

Harris was suffering from the form of cancer known as Hodgkin's disease, and vowed, only recently, to beat it. Last week, his agent had said he was "absolutely fine". But he was taken ill very suddenly and died on Friday last at University College Hospital, London.

Richard Harris always felt fiercely protective towards Limerick, and excoriated Frank McCourt for his portrayal of his native city in Angela's Ashes. He was a lax but believing Catholic, and said in recent years that he would rather the Church stood by its principles than it should accommodate itself to his sins.

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