LONDON — What do you give the man who’s gotten three Lifetime Achievement Awards in 10 days? In the case of “Gladiator” and “Harry Potter” co-star Richard Harris, I opted to provide a willing audience. Here’s why:
Harris and I wound up as tablemates Feb. 26 when the Irish World awards, sponsored by the Irish World newspaper, were handed out in Cricklewood, a largely Irish nabe of North London. Harris was getting his third “hail hail,” following his Lifetime Achievement kudos at the London Film Critics bash 10 days earlier and the same honors courtesy of Empire magazine the night before.
I had decided to skip Eminem’s chain-saw recital at the Brit awards the same night and head over to the less-hyped IW’s for a simple reason: After eight months in Europe, I still haven’t made it over to Dublin. Cricklewood is 15 minutes on the tube.
Lore of the land
The night proved to be a great crash course in what makes Ireland special. I was regaled with repartee and showbiz insights by mega-sports agent Eric “Monster” Hall; casting pro Ros Hubbard, who was the Irish World award winner for her contribution to film; winning artist Graham Knutel; top agents Rosemary Reed, Noel Kelly and Caroline DeWolf; and scriptwriter Terence Doyle, who’s penned “Neurotica,” a biopic about Beat-generation legend Jay Landesman.
But Harris was the star of the evening. One assumes that’s a regular occurrence for him.
His reputation as something of a real-life showbiz gladiator precedes him. He’s weathered the slings and arrows of the biz for 40 years, going from Cannes Fest winner in the early ’60s to pop recording star to international leading man to Richard Who? and back with a best Oscar nom in the ’90s for Jim Sheridan’s “The Field.”
But brilliant thesp credits aside, Harris also carries a big slice of local lore and legend on his brawny shoulders. In my celebrity cosmology, anyone who has invoked the wrath of both Charlton Heston (who labeled him a “fuck-up”) andPauline Kael (who fantasized Harris’ dismemberment and death) is certainly worth sharing a pint with.
Our first bit of repartee set the tone for an evening of unrestrained conversation: I’m not sure how we got on the subject, but thankfully Harris’ query “If I want to kill myself by not wearing a fucking seat belt, what business is it of the government?” was left unanswered and we moved on to more highbrow topics.
Once I showed an interest in knowing more about Irish culture, the talk pleasantly morphed into a more free-wheeling discussion. Stay with me here, because when we’re talking about an evening of Irish banter, we’re not following an American or English straight line.
On the Irish culture front, thanks to Harris I am now hip to Pat Jennings, Patrick Kavanagh and the town of Doolin, which Harris describes as “a beautiful place by the sea with the finest Irish music in every pub you go into.”
During the awards ceremony, Harris opined of Tottenham Hotspurs legend Jennings: “That man is a giant — probably the greatest goalkeeper who ever lived.”
“And you must read Kavanagh,” said Harris with the kind of conviction that seemed foolish — hell, dangerous — to question. “He’s up there,” said Harris, “with Seamus Heaney as the greatest of Irish poets.”
To make sure I didn’t leave without understanding Kavanagh’s importance, Harris recited the poem “Sanctity” — in its entirety. “To be a poet and not know the trade, To be a lover and repel all women; Twin ironies by which great saints are made, The agonizing pincer-jaws of Heaven.”
Though Harris has earned a reputation over the decades as a rebel, when the talk turns to nuts-and-bolts showbiz matters, he’s all business, albeit with his customary passion and energy. Harris says it’s taken him “years and years and years” to secure the novel rights for a “dream project” he’s developing with his son, director Damian Harris.
Based on “The Cost of Living Like This” by the late James Kennaway, who penned the classic “Tunes of Glory,” it’s called “Julian’s Last Dance” and tells the story of a man turning 40 who’s caught between two formidable women while facing two major dilemmas: He’s dying of cancer, and he’s torn between his high-society wife and a free-living young woman who brings out his true nature.
“I’m too old to play Julian, but Jeremy Irons would be perfect” says Harris.
Before the evening was done and the awards all claimed, our talk crisscrossed continents, covering topics from literary lion Gore Vidal, who Harris deems “the most brilliant essayist of our time,” to Luchino Visconti, whose “Death in Venice” he feels “the critics got completely wrong. It wasn’t about love for a boy, but about time and loss. And (Dirk) Bogarde! Christ, he was never recognized as he should have been.”
Bogarde was one of many exceptions to Harris’s egalitarian view (“I fucking hate them all”) of his fellow thesps. Another actor not on the “hate” list was Jonathan Pryce, who Harris saw do a “Macbeth” that was “extraordinary.
He also likes “Gladiator” Oscar-nominee Russell Crowe, who, he says, “has Hollywood totally confused. They can’t figure him out, because he’s not a phony.”
In Harris’ celebrity cosmology (should he have one) that’s the ultimate lifetime achievement.