The suave and elegant British stage and screen star who won a Tony in 1957 and an Oscar in 1964 for his portrayals of Professor Henry Higgins in “My Fair Lady” was, in Patrick Garland’s telling, a vain tyrant who drove two of his ex-wives to suicide, tormented directors, producers and fellow actors, and terrorized virtually every waiter, tailor and sommelier who crossed his path.
But that hasn’t dampened Garland’s affection for the man, which developed when the two collaborated on the 1980 Broadway revival of “My Fair Lady.”
The British theater director has written a diverting, though at times archly chummy, memoir of their 14-year friendship, centering on the beleaguered production, which toured the U.S. before landing on Broadway.
Garland first meets Harrison in Nice (the actor kept homes in France and Italy, but never learned either language), as Harrison pilots his Bentley absent-mindedly down the left side of the road, sending villagers running for cover.
It’s the first of many outrageous vignettes of Harrison’s raffish off-stage theatrics. A highly anecdotal book, the memoir’s power rests in what appear to be Garland’s extraordinary powers of recall that allow him to quote Harrison in long, hilarious, sentences.
We see Harrison insulting his every co-star and rival, as when he barks, “Croak your way through” at the long-suffering Cheryl Kennedy, the British actress playing Eliza Doolittle, who’s on the brink of exhaustion and suffering from a bad throat infection. Offered a role opposite Lawrence Olivier’s Zeus in “Clash of the Titans,” Harrison crows, “I’m not going to play a subordinate god to that bastard.”
Garland doesn’t pull punches in recounting Harrison’s appalling behavior toward his family. On his deathbed, his last words to his son Carey were “Drop dead!” One of his six wives, Lilli Palmer, says the happiest day of her life was the day a waiter in a posh British hotel clocked him in the face.
“I don’t have heart attacks,” Harrison says at one point. “I give them to other people.”
But Garland is easily seduced by Harrison’s debonair charm, and his grand stage presence. For Garland, Harrison’s ability to strike notes of farce and tragedy with quicksilver ease is what made him the powerhouse player that he was.
“The true comedian, like the true bullfighter, should affect to do nothing,” Harrison tells Garland. The roguish, often appalling, and extremely magnetic Rex Harrison, one concludes at the end of this book, had qualities of both vocations, in equal measure.