Richard Harris was a giant who oozed charisma on screen. But off screen he was troubled and addicted to every pleasure life could offer. Coming from a repressed Irish Catholic background, he was forced by a teenage illness to abandon his beloved rugby, but not his macho appetites.Discovering theatre saved him. He had found his calling. Despite marrying the daughter of a peer, he never tried to fit in. He was always a hell-raiser to the core, along with legendary buddies Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole. But he was more; he was a gifted poet and singer. He was an intelligent family man who took great interest in his craft, a Renaissance man of the film world. Every time his excesses threatened to kill his career – and himself – he rose magnificently from the ashes, first with an Oscar-winning performance as Bull McCabe in The Field, then in the Harry Potter franchise.
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About the Author
Michael Sheridan is a journalist, theater producer, and writer. He has written for papers such as the Irish Independent and the Sunday Independent, and is the biggest selling nonfiction author in Ireland. As a film critic he met with Richard Harris on a number of occasions. Anthony Galvin was a staff journalist for 10 years with the Limerick Leader, the paper of Harris's hometown. He has written a number of true crime books.
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A Man Called Harris
The Life of Richard Harris
By Michael Sheridan, Anthony Galvin
The History PressCopyright © 2013 Michael Sheridan and Anthony Galvin
All rights reserved.
Richard Harris was a giant in stature, personality and presence both on and off the screen. The contradictions of his nature served only to increase his allure. A man who was pursued by the demons of drink, carousing and brawling in public in his early years, he was also an artist of great sensitivity, highly intelligent, a voracious reader and with breathtaking talents that spanned the disciplines of sport, theatre, music, film and writing. In the broad sense he was a warrior capable of plumbing the depths of human behaviour and yet he had an ability to reinvent himself all through his life and career.
Whatever the extent of his human fallibility, through the medium of hard work and vision he was capable of rising above it and defeating his demons. In spite of his achievements and the dubious mantle of fame, he possessed the common touch that endeared him not only to his peers but to ordinary people. There are few whom the authors encountered on this journey that had a bad word to say about Richard Harris.
He had a fierce sense of self-belief and ambition, but with a facility to view success and failure with equal disdain. He never forgot his roots and never neglected them. The same could be said of his family.
All his life, from an early age, he was imbued with a passion for anything he chose to do and a gargantuan appetite for the more dangerous temptations. He possessed a classic Irish artistic temperament - nothing was worth doing in small shovels, only in spades. Quite apart from his acting career, his myriad talents included singer, poet, theatre director and producer. The sport of rugby was an abiding passion all through his life. And at one time he stared a financial abyss in the face and emerged a multi-millionaire.
In any culture he would be considered a Renaissance man, the true depth of his intellect masked by the public face of a carousing clown. Doubtless he had an inclination for reaching the lower depths of behaviour, but that was a curse in his formative acting years that was shared by his contemporaries, among them Richard Burton, Peter O'Toole and Oliver Reed. For some, the impulse to success is accompanied by the urge to self-destruct - a phenomenon not exclusive to any generation of the creative world.
His early career coincided with a period in both theatre and film that saw the changing of the old guard: the onset of the Swinging Sixties and the less heady but nonetheless indulgent 1970s, in which the icons of the entertainment business were almost expected to indulge in excess of all kinds - sex, drugs, and rock and roll. A hedonistic lifestyle, in fact, may well have been a convention of the times.
Yet it is not exclusive to those times, nor is such a dubious lifestyle exclusive to the theatre and film world. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway were spectacular drunks, as was, on occasion, the genius James Joyce. History proves it is universal.
It was, however, an aspect of Harris's character that inspired neither apologies nor regrets: 'I had the happiest days of my life as a drinker. If I had my life again I'd make all the same mistakes. I would sleep with as many women and drink as much vodka. My regrets would make me seem ungrateful.'
Be that as it may, this statement likely contains disingenuous sentiment, as there are few, if any, great people in any walk of life who could stand over their worst failures. Richard Harris is possibly no different in that regard. What he was able to do with apparent ease, however, was not to dwell on the past or allow negative episodes to get him down.
'The trick is to keep moving. Don't let them get you and don't let them get you down,' he said in relation to the vicissitudes of life. He put it in more metaphorical and philosophical terms during an interview for Profile magazine in 1968:
Keep switching the lights on and off in all the rooms until you find the one where you belong. But for God's sake shake the shackles from your feet and find your pride and dignity. The world owes no one anything and all we owe it is a death.
If this view was rendered meaningless by the offering of a theory, as opposed to practice, it would amount to just another ephemeral quotation, but the evidence of the rollercoaster nature of Harris's career proves that on more than one occasion the actor and the man actually took his own advice.
The question remains to this day: who was he? What formative influences combined to make him who he was? Are the answers provided by his many statements on the subject, or the assessments by others who claimed to have known him well during his life, or by the many people who have encountered him on his relatively long journey?
The one thing that can be said of him is that in the hundreds of interviews that he gave in print and on television he was generally open and honest. He rarely tried to hide anything that would reflect badly on him in terms of behaviour or artistic shortcomings. That in itself is unusual in a profession that has traditionally - and to this day - been firmly rooted in public-relations spin: the snake-like practice of saying something that means nothing. Harris consistently outed himself without any sense of inhibition or apology, even if his memory of his excesses could at times be faulty.
To a great degree he could have been accused of underestimating, in a public sense at least, the true sum of his achievements. In the tradition of his countryman W.B. Yeats, he cast a cold eye on life, and on death. Even his large ego did not demand such obvious supplication. He was too honest at times, but then he could afford to take that position. In his youth he had been his own man, and time and success would not change him.
Harris was the quintessential Limerickman, always an icon and in death a legend. There is a story about the actor in the folklore of the town for every location, street and pub. He is as identifiable with his native place as Joyce was with Dublin. He played with his reputation. He told local reporter Gerry Hannan that he didn't want to go back to Limerick, 'because they hate me there'. When he was assured this was far from the case he went on: 'Okay, they don't hate me. They don't know what to make of me.' This was, of course, a disingenuous statement and somewhat typical of the man. He wanted to be told that he was liked, even though this was beyond argument. He could also be ambivalent about his birthplace, as was many an Irish artist who ended up in exile with a love-hate relationship with their native town and country. Long before James Joyce experienced the cosmopolitan culture of Paris, Rome and Trieste, he found Dublin suffocating and inducing a form of paralysis to a person of artistic temperament.
He had an uneasy but constant relationship with his native city, veering from love to hate and back again. This adversarial relationship with Limerick probably stemmed in part from his lifestyle. Limerick was one of the most conservative cities in Europe. Home for years of the arch-confraternity, a worldwide Catholic organisation run along almost military lines, the religion was deeply rooted in the city. Drink might be tolerated, but little else. Sexual urges were to be (preferably) sublimated in sport, or drowned in alcohol. No wonder rugby was so popular. When the Jesuit order told interviewers that they would rather not be mentioned in connection with the actor, this was what motivated them. Nonetheless, Harris had a personal charm that won over the people of Limerick. During the mid to late 1960s, as his fame grew, he threw himself heavily into a few selected public affairs, including a campaign to get a university for the city.
In 1970 Harris brought Bloomfield to Limerick for a charity première in aid of disabled children, which raised £3,500, a very big sum for the time. For some strange reason he got the impression that his home town was not satisfied with the result. In an interview he vented his ire:
I will never again appear in Ireland. The local newspaper wouldn't cover it, didn't even mention my world premiere - simply because I hadn't got down on my knees and knelt at the institutional shrine. My sin was simple: I refused to give the newspaper's proprietor the four free seats she wanted. In my book, for charity, nobody gets free seats. That is the mind-set of Limerick. It's either go the way of the pack, or no way at all. I am not and never will be, a pack animal.
Despite his disappointment, it was around this time that he told Hannan he would lecture or fundraise in Limerick if anyone asked him:
There is no understanding and no forgiveness. Ireland is changing all the time. It is merging itself with Europe and reversing from cowed emigration to proud immigration. The theocratic bullying is over. The people are becoming Europeans. There is education, money, freedom. But Limerick still wants to dwell in the nineteenth century. It is stubborn and that's its problem. It can't welcome me, it can't understand me - because it won't give in.
Shortly after this it was proposed in the city council that Harris should be made a Freeman of Limerick. Unfortunately, the proposal was narrowly defeated. One of the chief opponents was from the Fine Gael Party. Seen as the party of the farmers and the wealthy merchants, Fine Gael were staunch conservatives. In spite of Harris's great artistic achievements, he was paying the price for his hellraising image. Ironically, the councillor who spoke so vehemently in the 1970s against Harris being honoured proclaimed himself a great friend of the actor on his death, and heaped glowing praises on him!
When Harris's brother and manager Dermot died in 1986, he complained to Len Dineen about the poor funeral turnout and the absence of the Old Crescent and Garryowen players in particular. Dineen rightly put him in his place, 'Look around you. All the old faces are here. They respect and admire you. It is you who forgets them, not the other way around.'
Despite the strained relationship, Harris overcame his falling out with his native city. He returned regularly, both to see family and old friends, and to catch up with his favourite rugby team. When he was home he was never slow to lend a hand to good causes.
In October 1979, aged almost 50, he was willing to put his life in danger for a good cause, when the Limerick Variety Club persuaded him to take part in a charity horse race. This was the Madhatters Race, and each rider had to pay £100 to compete, with the proceeds going to charity. Many celebrities had been invited, including Angela Rippon, Eamonn Andrews and Terry Wogan. Harris had the guts to take up the challenge and, at a large race meeting in Greenpark, the traditional home of the sport in the county, he saddled up for the final race of the card. He finished well down the field of twenty riders, but thoroughly enjoyed the adulation of the crowd.
Whenever Limerick felt it needed to trot out a famous son, only two men were considered: Harris or Terry Wogan. Wogan was the BBC's top chat-show host and their most popular radio presenter. Like Harris, he had been educated at Crescent College. Unlike Harris, he was a clean-living man, unlikely to provoke controversy. But Harris was always considered the more quintessentially Limerick man, and he lived up to the image abroad of the hard-drinking, fighting Irish.
During the late 1980s a brief trend emerged within the tourism industry of celebrating anniversaries of dubious significance. It began in 1988, when Dublin declared itself 1,000 years old. The Dublin Millennium was a huge commercial success, and encouraged other towns to cash in on the idea. Ennis was next, with a celebration of 800 years in 1990. In 1991 Limerick jumped on the bandwagon. In 1691 the forces of William of Orange had laid siege to the city, bringing to an end the Williamite War in Ireland. The Jacobite supporters were vanquished and the war ended with a treaty, signed in Limerick. The stone on which the treaty was signed is still on prominent display on the riverbank. Limerick decided to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the treaty. The year was called Treaty 300, and everyone who was anyone was pressed to get involved. Richard Harris was an obvious target, but at that time his relationship with Limerick was rocky. Nevertheless, an approach was made.
Gerry Lowe worked for Shannon Development, a government agency tasked with promoting the mid-west region of Ireland, which included Limerick. He was put in charge of the Treaty 300 project. One of his most difficult tasks would be to bring back the irascible actor to the city. He did his best – he fired off faxes, made phone calls, left messages – but soon realised he was getting nowhere.
'It was almost impossible to track him down because he had four home bases – the Regent in New York, the Savoy in London, his residence in the Bahamas, and the Berkeley Court when he was in Ireland,' Lowe told the Limerick Leader.
After weeks of failure, Lowe decided to ambush Harris in London, where he was performing in (and directing) Pirandello's Henry IV. He waited in the Savoy Hotel for Harris to return there late in the evening. During the subsequent chat, Harris admitted that the great ambition of his life was to become a member of Young Munster Rugby Club. This gave Lowe an idea, and he persuaded the club to offer life membership to Harris in return for his involvement in the Treaty 300 project. 'Getting life membership of Young Munster was the carrot that lured him back,' Lowe confessed.
A date was fixed for the ceremony, but Lowe was taking no chances. He didn't want Harris to go off on one of his legendary skites, so he drove to Dublin and picked the actor up at the Berkeley Court Hotel. His own car was not good enough for such an important mission, so he got a top-of-the-range Toyota from local dealer Tony O'Mara. He arrived at 9 a.m.
When I arrived at the suite, Harris was with his brother-in-law Jackie Donnelly and I was invited to have breakfast while Richard had a shower. But after the shower, he told Jackie that he had no toilet bag for his toiletries. So Jackie suggested that they ring down to the hotel shop for a toilet bag. Up came a young porter with a carrier bag from the shop and in it a selection of toilet bags. Harris picked out each one and asked the prices. The porter listed off £45, £60 and £70 for the range of Gucci bags. Winking over at me and Jackie, Harris stunned the porter by taking the carrier bag and sending back the expensive toilet bags.
On the road to Limerick, conversation was stilted. But as they drove through Portlaoise, about halfway there, they spotted a young woman with her thumb out, hitchhiking.
'Pull over,' said Harris.
The woman was from Castleconnell, just outside Limerick, and once she joined the two men, the conversation flowed. They stopped in Nenagh, about 20 miles from Limerick, and Harris got out of the car. He went into a local chipper and bought three fish and chips, chicken and three Coca-Colas.
They made it to the Young Munster grounds at Greenfields with an hour to spare, and Harris was in his element. He was lionised as Young Munster welcomed him into their fold and their inner sanctums. He was presented with life membership and a club tie. Then it was on to important business – the senior team were playing Greystones, a County Wicklow club.
Harris was given a special seat for the day, a chair in the box honouring legendary player Tom Clifford. It gave him a perfect view of the game, but Harris needed the roar of the crowd and was not happy to be boxed in with the elite. He stepped out among the rugby crowd and was immediately mobbed. He emerged with a big grin on his face.
'Everything went just right, except the result of the game,' Lowe said. Young Munster suffered a shock defeat by Greystones.
In earlier years Harris would have remained until closing time at the clubhouse, drowning his sorrows. But by 1990 he was off the drink; he wasn't even taking an occasional pint. His discipline did not waver. He gave Lowe the nod, and Lowe brought the car around: it was time to retire for the evening. But instead of taking Harris back to Jurys Hotel by Sarsfield Bridge, Harris decided to take a nostalgic tour of the city. Lowe told the Limerick Leader:
He first asked to be taken to Cruise's Hotel, which was in its final year before being replaced by the Cruise's Street development. He even peeked into the hotel, where he was recognised immediately by one of the staff. It turned out that Harris knew her mother. Then he asked to go up past his old Crescent College school and when we reached there he decided to go into the Jesuit church. The church was empty, so we knelt in the front pews to say a prayer and Harris looked around the names over the confession boxes and saw the name of a priest who was his boyhood confessor.
Lowe thought they were on the last leg of the journey into the past when they headed for the Ennis Road and Jurys Hotel, but Harris again asked for a detour, this time to his old family home.
Excerpted from A Man Called Harris by Michael Sheridan, Anthony Galvin. Copyright © 2013 Michael Sheridan and Anthony Galvin. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1 The Man/Artist 11
2 Origins 27
3 Childhood 38
4 Secondary School 46
5 A Romantic Interlude 56
6 A Sporting Life 63
7 The Actor is Born 77
8 London Calling 86
9 Mutiny on the Bounty (1962) 98
10 Raging Rugby Bull 106
11 Major Dundee (1965) 114
12 Camelot(1967) 119
13 MacArthur Park' (1968) 126
14 Burning Up the Screen 133
15 A Man Called Horse (1970) 140
16 The Molly Maguires (1970) 144
17 Bloomfield and Beyond (1971) 147
18 The Weld (1990) 168
19 Indian Summer 171
20 Limerick Giants Come to Blows 175
21 Gladiator (2000) 181
22 The Ongoing Passion 184