Thomas Myler looks back on the life and career of the Limerick-born actor and renowned hell-raiser, who would have been 90 this month.
When Richard Harris told his wife, Ann, at their London home one day in 1970 that he was nipping out to the corner shop for a packet of cigarettes, he did not come back for a week.
On his return, in the days before mobile phones, she asked him where on earth he had been? “Ah,” he explained, “I read in a newspaper that there was a senior cup rugby match in Limerick and I just popped over to see it.”
That was Harris, as unpredictable as the summer weather, who died of cancer and related illnesses on October 25th, 2002. He would have been 90 on October 1st.
One of the four most famous, or infamous if you like, hell-raisers of the 1960s along with Peter O’Toole, Richard Burton and Oliver Reed, he once said, “You know, if I had drank and caroused as much as the press boys claim I did, I’d be long since dead.”
Chat show host Michael Parkinson interviewed Harris three times, devoting a full show to him on one occasion. “No doubt he was one of the most famous hell-raisers of all time,” recalled Parky.
“It’s a cliché to be sure but that’s what Richard Harris was. He was from the old school of movie stars, a modern-day Errol Flynn, one of those people who loved life and lived it to the full. Besides all that, he was a very wonderful person to be with, and one of the greatest actors.”
Shortly before falling ill, Harris had just completed work on the second Harry Potter movie, Chamber of Secrets, in which he played Professor Albus Dumbledore. He had previously starred in in the first one, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.
“I always tried to do interesting movies but sometimes it doesn’t happen like that,” he once said.
“There comes a time when you are faced with obligations, like if you have a wife and children to support, and you want them to have what you yourself didn’t have. You can’t support them on art movies.
“I remember the day I made a choice. I’m not making excuses. These are the realities. I had children and we were living in a tiny flat in London, all sleeping together, all of us, in two rooms. And while there was no pressure from my wife, I sat down and said, ‘Look, I’ve a choice here. I can do The Luck of Ginger Coffee here.
“‘It’s a fantastic piece but the money isn’t great. Or I can get a fortune doing Major Dundee in Hollywood. The latter is the choice I made. The choice was the right choice, I still believe.”