You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Thesp Harris dies at 72

Irish icon, 'Potter' prof had been treated for Hodgkin's

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.

Popular on Variety

More Film

  • Fiddlin'

    Film Review: 'Fiddlin''

    Not many forms of music have “old-” actually built into their name as a prefix. So it’s a given that the practitioners of the 200-year-old genre known as “old-time music” will wear their antiquity proudly in “Fiddlin’,” a documentary set in and around the 80th annual Old Fiddler’s Convention in Galax, Va. What may not [...]

  • Jonah Hill attends the press conference

    Jonah Hill Passes on Role in 'The Batman'

    After being offered a role in “The Batman,” Jonah Hill has moved on from the project. Why exactly Hill is passing is currently unknown, and insiders tell Variety that when the news was initially reported, it was very early in the negotiations and that a deal was far from closing. The news comes after Zoe [...]

  • Daniel Kaluuya Elizabeth Moss

    SCAD Savannah Film Festival Honorees Include Daniel Kaluuya, Elisabeth Moss

    Daniel Kaluuya, Elisabeth Moss, Danielle Macdonald, Aldis Hodge, Valerie Pachner, Samantha Morton, Alan Silvestri and Olivia Wilde are set to be honored at the 22nd Annual SCAD Savannah Film Festival. Breakout Award honorees include Beanie Feldstein, Kaitlyn Dever, Jharrel Jerome, Mena Massoud and Camila Morrone. Macdonald, who appears on Netflix in “Unbelievable” and the upcoming [...]

  • Alexander Skarsgard, Nicole Kidman. Alexander Skarsgard,

    Nicole Kidman, Alexander Skarsgard to Reunite for Robert Eggers' 'The Northman'

    With his latest film “The Lighthouse” set to bow this weekend, Robert Eggers’ next film has cast two leads, “Big Little Lies” alums Nicole Kidman and Alexander Skarsgård. The pic, titled “The Northman,” is described as a Viking revenge saga set in Iceland at the turn of the 10th century. In talks to join Kidman [...]

  • Jessica Henwick

    'Matrix 4' Taps 'Iron Fist' Star Jessica Henwick

    Jessica Henwick is in final negotiations to star in the upcoming fourth installment of the “Matrix” franchise. She joins Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss, who will be reprising their roles in the film, as well as Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, who was tapped as one of the leads last week. Neil Patrick Harris also just joined [...]

  • Frozen 2

    Record 32 Animated Feature Films Submitted for Oscars

    “The Addams Family,” “Frozen II,” “Toy Story 4,” “Abominable” and “The Secret Life of Pets 2” are among the record 32 movies submitted for the animated feature film category at the 2020 Oscars. Last year’s Academy Awards race boasted 25 entries, while 2017 had 26 and 2016 had 27 (a then-record). The list of contenders [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content