Entertainment Music

Friday 24 January 2020

Noel Harrison

Singer, actor and Olympic skier who had a hit with The Windmills of Your Mind, and was the son of Rex Harrison

NOEL Harrison, who died last Tuesday aged 79, starred in the Sixties spy spoof The Girl From UNCLE and had a Top 10 hit with The Windmills of Your Mind, the ballad from Norman Jewison's 1968 heist movie The Thomas Crown Affair, starring Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway.

The song, with music by Michel Legrand and lyrics by Marilyn and Alan Bergman, won an Oscar for Best Original Song and reached No 8 in the British charts.

Yet Harrison, the son of the actor Rex Harrison, did not think much of it at the time, describing the recording session (for which he was paid $500) as "just another job". At the Oscars' ceremony, the song was performed by another singer.

As it turned out, however, The Windmills of Your Mind was the highlight of his career. For the good times did not last, and at one point Harrison was reduced to working as a newspaper seller at a roadside stand in Los Angeles.

Noel Harrison was born in London on January 29, 1934 to Rex Harrison and Collette Thomas, the first of his father's six wives. His parents divorced when he was six and he went to live with his mother's parents in Bude, north Cornwall, seeing his father only by appointment. "I went to California when I was 12, did the Hollywood thing," he recalled. "I only wanted to meet Abbott and Costello. Sadly, Dad didn't mix in those circles."

Noel was educated at Radley – but not for long. When he was 15, his mother, by now living in Switzerland with a ski instructor, offered him a simple choice: "She said, 'Would you like to stay at Radley and try and get a scholarship to Oxbridge, or would you like to come and live with me and try and get into the British ski team?'"

He went on to become a British ski champion, competing in the 1952 Oslo Winter Olympics, when he finished 56th in the slalom, and in the 1956 Winter Olympics in Cortina d'Ampezzo, when he finished 20th.

After national service in the Army, Noel toyed with the idea of becoming a journalist, and his father secured an interview for him with Lord Rothermere. Instead he joined the folk music scene, strumming a guitar for Edmundo Ros at the Stork Rooms. In the early Sixties, he won a regular slot on the BBC's current affairs programme Tonight, appearing alongside the black British folk singer Cy Grant. In 1965, the American producers Bob Chardoff and Irwin Winkler spotted him and booked him to appear in New York. Good reviews resulted in an appearance on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show.

Before long, Harrison had become a fixture in LA, where his father's fame gave him instant access to Hollywood circles. In Britain he had appeared opposite David Niven in a couple of early Sixties pictures; in America, his suave athleticism landed him a lead role in a television spin-off, The Girl From UNCLE (1966), opposite Stefanie Powers. He had two Top 40 hits, with the Leonard Cohen song Suzanne and Charles Aznavour's A Young Girl; toured with the Beach Boys and Sonny and Cher, and had his own parking space on the MGM lot next to that of Natalie Wood. For the cover of his 1966 debut album, Noel Harrison, he was photographed sitting inside a fridge, reading Jean-Paul Sartre.

One pop magazine hailed Harrison as "America's brightest new star", and he took full advantage of his celebrity. "I was good toyboy material," he recalled. He bought a large house with swimming pool and stables in Brentwood and hung out with Steve McQueen and James Coburn: "We used to race down Mulholland Drive. I had the first Mini Cooper 1275S in LA, and I'd burn off the Porsches."

For a while it looked as if Noel might emulate his father's celebrity. But after The Windmills of Your Mind his career began to crumble. His first wife, Sara, returned to England with their three children and, after disastrous sales of his fourth album, The Great Electric Experiment Is Over (1969), Harrison turned his back on all the "ego-inflating bullshit" and took off across America in a Chevy station wagon. Then, in the Seventies, he decamped to Nova Scotia with his girlfriend Maggie (who became his second wife), grew a beard, and, inspired by the "Good Life" pioneers Scott and Helen Nearing, built a house with no electricity, grew vegetables and all but vanished from view.

For a time, Harrison eked a meagre living singing in bars and at bluegrass festivals. Later, he began performing in touring musicals, often in roles made famous by his father, and attending autograph-signing conventions for faded celebrities.

After his second marriage broke down in the mid-Eighties, Harrison returned to LA where, in between the occasional bit parts, he worked at a news-stand and ran an apartment block for impoverished Armenians. In the late Eighties, he performed in a one-man show about the life and music of Jacques Brel, winning favourable reviews.

In the Nineties, Harrison returned to Britain with his third wife, Lori, and settled in Devon, where, for a time, he helped run a cyber cafe on the edge of Exmoor. He continued to sing, putting on occasional gigs and financing his own CDs. In 2011, he performed on the "Spirit of '71" stage at Glastonbury.

Noel Harrison, who died of a heart attack, is survived by Lori, and by two sons and three daughters of his earlier marriages, one of whom is the actress Cathryn Harrison.

Sunday Independent

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