Richard Harris lived life at full tilt

Actor's career renewed with `Harry Potter' role

Appreciation

October 26, 2002|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

For Richard Harris, control was everything. If only because he constantly seemed on the verge of losing it.

Whether onstage as King Arthur in Camelot, onscreen as an English aristocrat turned American Indian in A Man Called Horse, or on record as the breathless crooner of Jimmy Webb's bizarre "MacArthur Park," certainly one of the most recklessly overwrought songs of the 1960s, Harris was a force of nature constantly pushing his own limits. Sometimes the results were exhilarating, sometimes they were embarrassing. But at the least, you had to give him credit for trying.

Harris, a legendary Irish hell-raiser who acted as hard as he lived before mellowing into an actor of often surprising strength and dignity, died last night at a London hospital, his family said. The 72-year-old actor, who experienced a resurgence of popularity playing Professor Dumbledore in last year's box-office smash Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone, was being treated for Hodgkin's disease.

Rarely a man to shy away from anything, Harris earned a reputation early in his career as a no-holds-barred actor whose brooding, tempestuous approach to his craft was as likely to leave audiences frustrated as thrilled. In such films as The Guns of Navarone, Major Dundee, Camelot and Hawaii, Harris was so determinedly over-the-top that the phrase lost much of its meaning; for him, excess was the norm.

There were times when the result was hard to watch; that may be one reason his career petered out. But when Harris' manner matched his material for intensity, the results could be electric - as proven by his Oscar-nominated performance as a violent Yorkshire miner in director Lindsay Anderson's 1963 This Sporting Life.

With a haggard, deeply lined face resembling a freshly plowed field, Harris was never cut out to be a matinee idol. But his on-screen ferocity made him a critical and popular favorite for much of the 1960s. His career waned considerably in the ensuing years, and he retired from the screen for much of the '80s, complaining the roles he was being offered no longer interested him.

But he soon returned to films, specializing in roles where his youthful exuberance could best serve by being held in check; Harris' best roles over the past decade or so have come when his character's conflicts have remained largely within. He was nominated for a second Oscar in 1990, as an Irish peasant in Jim Sheridan's The Field, and he was impressively conflicted as the aggrieved white father struggling to overcome the emotional constrictions of apartheid in the 1995 version of Cry, The Beloved Country.

Harris was born Oct. 1, 1930, in Limerick, Ireland, one of nine children; his father was a farmer. After studying acting at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, Harris in 1956 made his professional debut in a stage production of The Quare Fellow at the Theater Royal in Stratford. Although a small part, his interpretation impressed the legendary American acting coach Lee Strasburg, who said it had "the sharpest impact" of any performance he'd seen by a British actor.

His first lead film role was in This Sporting Life, and the reviews were fantastic; the New York Post's Archer Winston called it "a great, indelibly memorable performance," while William Peper of the New York World-Telegram compared him to Brando.

But by the mid-'70s, Harris' career had hit the skids, with such flops as The Ravagers, a truly awful film about life after the apocalypse. Abandoning the big screen, he returned to the stage, touring for three years in a revival of Camelot before taking on Pirandello's Henry IV - determined, he said, to "finish my career on a high note." His performance won raves.

Harris' persona wasn't the only thing that mellowed in his later years. A drinker and carouser of near-mythic proportions, Harris gave up booze in 1982 - but only after downing two bottles of expensive wine in one sitting.

Still, his "retirement" proved premature, and his role in Harry Potter last year brought him a new generation of fans - a notion that seemed to genuinely please him. Earlier this year, he completed work on Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, set to be released Nov. 15.

Critic Clive Barnes once referred to Harris as among a cadre 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."

Among the group were Richard Burton, Harris, Albert Finney, Peter O'Toole and, for a time, Anthony Hopkins - inheritors of an outsized British screen tradition that had begun with the likes of Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud, and is being carried on by such actors and Kenneth Branagh and Daniel Day-Lewis.

Harris is survived by three sons from his first marriage, to Elizabeth Rees-Williams: Damian, Jarid and Jamie.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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