HOLLYWOOD — Iconic Irish actor Richard Harris, whose brilliant stage and screen career included “Camelot” then hit rock bottom for nearly two decades before an amazing renaissance in the 1990s, died Friday night at University College Hospital in London. He was 72.
Cause of death was not released but family members said he had been receiving treatment for Hodgkin’s disease, a form of lymphatic cancer, since becoming ill earlier this year.
His acting career skyrocketed in the early 1960s on the thrust of explosive performances on the British stage and in films such as 1963’s “This Sporting Life.” His image as a hard-drinker in the mold of Errol Flynn mirrored his contemporaries Peter O’Toole, Robert Newton and Richard Burton in talent and excess. Harris appeared to have the Midas touch from his role as King Arthur in “Camelot” to the chart-topping record hit, “MacArthur Park.”
Then came the letdown years of the 1970s and ’80s, when his drinking took its toll amid poor film choices. The result was star turns in a succession of box office disappointments that took him out of the film business completely by the late 1980s. He then toured for three years in “Camelot.”
Harris’ story took a dramatic and amazing turn as he roared back into the limelight in 1990 essaying the role of thundering Irish peasant Bull McCabe in “The Field.” His full-throttle performance drew a mixed critical reaction but garnered him an actor Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe Award. Harris then co-starred in “Unforgiven,” which took the picture Oscar in 1992, and he graced the screen in “Gladiator,” which won the Academy Award for picture in 2000.
Featured as the wizard headmaster Albus Dumbledore in Warner Bros.’ “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” Harris reprised the role in “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,” which will open Nov. 15.
Barry Meyer, Warner Bros. chairman and CEO, and Alan Horn, president and chief operating officer, said in a joint statement: “Warner Bros. extends our deep and heartfelt condolences to the family of Richard Harris, who has made so many unforgettable contributions to the world of motion pictures, most recently in the role of Professor Dumbledore in the first two Harry Potter movies. We will miss his presence and will treasure our memories of him.”
A tall, sturdy, ruggedly handsome lead with a lived-in face and a reputation as a hellraiser, Harris trained at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. He made his stage debut in 1956 with Joan Littlewood’s pioneering Theater Workshop.
He caught the eye of critic Kenneth Tynan, who once included him with Albert Finney and O’Toole as one of the three best young actors on the British stage.
In 1963 he broke through to stardom with his powerful performance as a rough rugby player in “This Sporting Life” He won the actor award at that year’s Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for an Oscar.
Success followed in 1967 when he essayed the role of King Arthur in the film version of “Camelot.”
Harris’ notable screen work also included “Mutiny on the Bounty,” “Major Dundee,” “Hawaii,” “The Molly Maguires,” “A Man Called Horse” and “Cromwell.”
Born Oct. 1, 1930, in Limerick, southern Ireland, Harris suffered tuberculosis in childhood, which friends say fostered the brooding, introspective quality of his acting.
Harris moved to London to study, but when he couldn’t find a suitable directing course, he joined an acting track at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art in 1956.
While still a student, he hired the tiny “off-West End” Irving Theater and directed his own production of Clifford Odets’ “Winter Journey (The Country Girl).”
Harris left LAMDA in the summer of 1956 to join the Theater Workshop, which helped lead the advance toward realism and experimentation in British theater. His first professional appearance came July 24, 1956, as Mickser in the Littlewood production of Brendan Behan’s “The Quare Fellow” at the Theater Royal, Stratford.
Although it was a small part, Lee Strasberg, director of the New York Actors Studio, said it had the “sharpest impact” of any performance he had seen in Britain.
Numerous roles followed, including Arthur Miller’s “A View From the Bridge” and Pirandello’s “Man, Beast and Virtue.” Harris also toured Russia and Eastern Europe with a Theater Workshop production of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.”
To boost his income, Harris turned to television and performed in a 1958 TV play called “The Iron Harp,” which led to a contract with Associated British Picture Corp.
His first film part was a cameo in a comedy called “Alive and Kicking,” about three elderly women who escape from a home for seniors.
Harris’ next commitment took him back to Ireland to shoot the James Cagney starrer “Shake Hands With the Devil,” an ambitious production about the Irish Rebellion.
A role followed as the villainous Higgins in the MGM production of “The Wreck of the Mary Deare,” starring Gary Cooper and Charlton Heston.
In 1959, Harris returned to Ireland to make “A Terrible Beauty” about sectarian strife in Northern Ireland, in which he played the roistering buddy of a disenchanted Irish Republican Army member played by Robert Mitchum.
Harris’ first lead role in London’s West End came later that year when he opened “The Ginger Man” at the Fortune Theater, a study of the life of a drunken Dublin student.
But after a series of bombs beginning in the late 1970s — “Orca,” “The Ravagers,” “Game for Vultures,” “Your Ticket is No Longer Valid” — Harris’ film career foundered.
The actor possessed a legendary temper, could be difficult during productions and was known to cancel interviews and miss appearances if he felt indisposed.
Harris gave up his heavy drinking in 1982 — after downing two last bottles of expensive wine at one sitting.
He is survived by his sons Damien, Jared and Jamie Harris from his first marriage to Elizabeth Rees-Williams.