In normal times, the idea of a Richard Harris Intl. Film Festival (which runs Oct. 20-26; richardharrisfilmfestival.com) seems entirely appropriate to the legions of fans of the late legendary Irish stage and screen actor, but since Oct. 1 marked Harris’ 90th birthday, it feels absolutely essential. Oscar-nominated twice, first for Lindsey Anderson’s “This Sporting Life” in 1964 and then for Jim Sheridan’s “The Field” in 1991, Harris is perhaps best-known today for creating the character of Albus Dumbledore on film in “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” (2001) or co-starring in Oscar best pictures such as Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven” (1992) and Ridley Scott’s (2000) “Gladiator.” But while there’s no disputing the lasting quality of those performances, there’s so much more to the Harris legacy, which begins on West End stages back in the mid-’50s.
To commemorate Harris’ birthday, Variety reached out to his sons, director Damian and actors Jared and Jamie. Their plans include “Brave the Dark,” the first film outing to bring them all together with Damian directing and Jared and Jamie co-starring. They’re also at work on the production of a documentary about their father’s life and work.
Here are their memories of Richard Harris as an engaged father, brilliant actor, often-irascible raconteur and all-around unforgettable personality.
Jared Harris on:
Richard Harris, the Original Bad Boy
Damian once said, “He sort of did it to himself.”
He understood the outrageous stories and behavior, not playing by the rules, fed an image that the press would print. At the detriment of him being taken seriously as an actor.
This comes to a head in the ’90s when he’s not that interested in the stuff that he’s being offered. Then he does Pirandello’s “Henry IV” on stage. It’s going to stand alongside Peter O’Toole’s “Macbeth,” but at the time, after he’d gone through two directors and was on his third leading lady, word was drifting through the West End: “It’s going to be a disaster.”
I remember I was having dinner, and there were some new people at the table. One asked about the current theater scene. “What’s good to see?” And someone said, “You’ve got to see Richard Harris in the Pirandello “Henry IV.” An Australian woman at the table asked, “Does anyone take him seriously anymore?”
King Richard’s Return
My father’s power as a screen actor was clear to everyone in the ’60s and ’70s, but he had to renew that gift and the way he did it was onstage. And I saw exactly how he worked in the Pirandello.
I saw that play 20 or 30 times on the road and believe me, it was electric.
Here’s what he did: The play opens with a long preamble. It seems like forever before he comes on in the last 10 minutes of the first act. He comes in from a door where no one’s expecting him, and he’s over-made up. And he’s outrageous.
There’s the intermission. I hear a couple discussing what they’ve seen.
One of them says “Oh, dear. What happened to him? He’s terrible. He was so great when he was younger.” The other says, “If it’s just as bad in the next act, we’ll leave.”
Then halfway through the second act there’s a big turn in the play. The court is discussing what’s happened so far. Then Henry comes back from behind a pillar, pulls the cloth off and the wig and the makeup is gone. He says, in essence, “I’m so fucking bored with all of this.” The character in the play has been pretending to be crazy. And he has this amazing speech in the play. “Are you laughing at me? You! I’m talking to you!”
I will never forget the courage of that performance and the risk he took with the audience. It was fucking ballsy, but what happens there in that Pirandello is impossible without doing “Camelot” for 10 years.
King Arthur’s Royalties
Back in the early ’80s, when Richard Burton was touring with “Camelot,” he started to have this terrible pain in his shoulder. He had to stop halfway through, and put the understudy on. Which meant that four-fifths of the audience walked out. So the producers reached out to Richard and he said, “I’m best friends with Richard. I’m not replacing him unless he calls me.” And Burton called him up and said, “I’m in agony.”
Four days later, Richard was in and he owned a piece of the show and all the merchandise. He toured all around the United States, Australia, Canada. It flopped in the U.K. but everywhere else it consistently broke box-office records. But most importantly, he got his discipline back. Then “The Field” came his way and he was Oscar-nominated and suddenly people were remembering that Richard Harris was a very talented actor.
The Other King Richard
Richard Burton had quit drinking.
He’d been on and off the wagon. But it’s a birthday party and my father tells him “Come on! Everyone will be having a good time.” But Burton says “No, I don’t drink.” Now Burton was a bit of a loner, but everyone loved him and wanted to get to know him.
So dad says, “Come on come on, it will be fine.” And Burton comes to the party and he’s drinking tea all evening, which amazes my dad, until he check out the tea cup and realizes that Richard’s been knocking back whiskey all night. And Burton turns to my father and says, “Look at you. Don’t you realize what you’ve done. If I start to drink again, all
of Africa will burn!”
Jamie Harris On:
Dad was the power, the center force of our family. My parents divorced when I was 4, split up when I was 2, but he was always incredibly loving and protective of our mother, and her well-being was fundamental to dad.
Evenings with my father were so memorable. We used to spend so many nights around the dinner table in the Bahamas, talking about religion and everything except acting. This was back when I was determined to NOT to be an actor. He always saw me as the joker and the guitar player and he knew I was determined not to follow in his footsteps.
I went to live in Dublin for a few years and I joined a band and struggled to play the guitar and I was the singer in those days. We’d hang around the table there and chat and he was in a sense imposing. He was Richard Harris! But he always took his time and told us silly stories about himself and bloopers that happened. He was a very warm man and any friend of mine became a friend of his. He would talk to me and my friends as worthy characters and would listen to our opinions.
He would always bring himself down, so he was not being a film star, but a fun-loving father. I didn’t realize at the time why he was doing that, but now I see he wanted me to see him as just a guy.
Ireland was everything. Start with the poetry. Dad digested all of the poetry from Ireland.
His passion came from his upbringing in Limerick. And that includes his political feelings. Without those he wouldn’t have been Richard Harris. He held strong opinions, but everything he said came from his heart and was backed with facts and historical accuracy.
I remember, many years ago now, my godfather died and I went over to Limerick and dad took us to the Harris Mill, which his father owned, and to the bars he went to. Wherever we went, of course, we were immediately loved.
He took us to the house where he grew up. We knocked on the door and a nun answered the door.
He said, “My name’s Richard Harris and this is the house where I grew up.” And the nun looked at him and said, “I know who you are, Dickie Harris. We’ve been exorcising those demons from the house for years!” When he asked again to see the house, the nun said, “Evil shall not pass this threshold! You shall not come in!” But she was laughing.
Damian Harris on:
Harris in the Wilderness
When I was 18 or 19, I was visiting my father when he was making “The Cassandra Crossing.”
It was an Italian production, a big disaster film directed by George Pan Cosmatos, and he did a pretty good job. Director Michael Anderson, who wound up directing “Orca” with [my dad], visited dad in his hotel room and I was there while they started talking about the film they were going to make. My father told Anderson he saw it as “Moby Dick,” the story of a man obsessed with a creature. And then he said, “I’ll tell you what this isn’t. It isn’t ‘Jaws.’ ” And I saw Michael Anderson’s face drop. That’s why the film didn’t work. The actor saw it one way and the director saw it another way. I visited him on the set in Malta. They had big water tank. Then they had a screening of the film and he was devastated.
Passing the O’Toole Test
Dad was great friends with Peter O’Toole. I remember one year, it was late summer and cricket was on the telly and my father said to Peter, “How the hell could you like cricket?” He was rugby man, you know. But on this day, he was a captive audience. The test match was on and my father sat and reluctantly watched it for a while. Then he turned to Peter and said, “I’ve judged you wrongly.”
Richard’s Motherland: Take Two
A few years before he passed, Christine Amanpour arranged to do an interview with him. I believe it was for his birthday.
She told him, “For us to film the interview, you have to be in Limerick. We want you to take us on a tour of your homelife.” So it’s all arranged and they get on a bus and he directs them to an empty field and says, “I’m so sorry, this is where my house was. It must have been demolished.” And Amanpour says to him, “Richard, you should know we are journalists and we do our research. Your house was not in this field.” And so she directed the bus driver and they went to the actual house. There was a part of my father that was very private and he tried to keep parts of his life separate or to himself.
How the Actor Prepared
I was young, but over time I learned from my father how much work goes into wanting to get something. You don’t take no for answer and you just stay at it. You prepare for the race and train and train.
At first, I couldn’t understand what he was doing. I was little boy and we would go out for a walk and he was always singing these songs. He’d be singing “How to Handle a Woman” and I didn’t know what it was.
I learned that the songs were from “Camelot” and he really wanted that part and that film. So he was understanding the lyrics, being comfortable singing, because he knew that once the cameras started rolling, he had to be comfortable. It was a musical and at a point in time, as part of the narrative, as an actor you have to understand and go over your lines. So he was singing and singing and getting it right.
Years later, I was having dinner with Nic Roeg, who started as a cinematographer, and he told me my dad had hired him to shoot a screen test for “Camelot.” He wanted to be taken seriously by
Warner Bros. and it worked.
two years after going for those walks when he would be singing, I saw him up on the big screen and he was King Arthur in “Camelot.”
RICHARD HARRIS FILMS TO WATCH
Per Jared Harris:
I have a soft spot in my heart for “To Walk With Lions.” There’s a particular moment where he’s sitting on a rock with lions. And he starts to imitate the roar of the lions.
He’s fucking brilliant in “Trojan Eddie.”
He’s quite good in “Wrestling Ernest Hemingway” and obviously “The Field” is a must-see.
“The Wild Geese” still holds up. And that’s when he met Richard Burton and they became friends.
“Robin and Marian” is a must because he has a huge performance as Richard the Lion-Hearted.
“Echoes of a Summer” with Jodie Foster is good and it’s not a violent film, so that’s nice to show his range.
“Man in the Wilderness” and “A Man Called Horse” shook me up because you see him hung up by his tits.
And I really got upset seeing Gene Hackman beat the shit out of him in “Unforgiven.”
“Molly Maguires” wasn’t a success. Maybe there were too many elemental forces going up against each other, but I still find it pretty fucking entertaining.