Richard Harris was born in Limerick with seven brothers and sisters, and learnt from an early age that he had to shout and ‘create’ to get attention. He said he always felt neglected by his parents.
He was well known as a fast-living, fun-loving man who loves his drink. This started in his teenage years.
He told a story of when he was 17, he had to drive a haulage truck to Dublin from Limerick. He stopped mid journey at a pub. As he was driving later, ahead of him was a low bridge (12 foot clearance). He carried on to the bridge and lifted it off its pillars. He told the police officer;
“Sorry, officer. You see, I’m just delivering this bridge to Limerick.”
Shortly after this, he went to London and went to drama school. He loved the life that London gave him – he was a womaniser and had many affairs, and his love of drink continued.
He worked in the theatre and then broke into films. His break in Hollywood came with the role of King Arthur in Camelot. He later starred in This Sporting Life and won the best actor award at the 1963 Cannes Film Festival for his role.
He married Elizabeth Rees-Williams, the daughter of a Liberal MP in 1957. His drinking became worse and often caused him to flare into terrible rages. He said he once picked up a wardrobe and threw it at Elizabeth when he was drunk. He often was taken to the local police station due to his inebriated state. They eventually divorced, but stayed friends until he died.
He also married Ann Turkel in 1974, but divorced in 1982, blaming the effects of the drink. Again, he remained friends with her until his death.
Harris said that it seemed as if he were two people – one gentle and caring who loved to read and write poetry, the other ‘a bit of a maniac’.
By the late seventies, Harris’ drinking was causing fainting fits, and he was told by doctors if he continued drinking, it would kill him. He was also taking cocaine.
On one occasion, he was admitted to hospital and put on a life support machine, and a priest was called to give the last rites. He woke up, saw the priest and is reported to have said:
“Father, if you are going to hear my confession, prepare to be here for days. By the end of it, I can guarantee you will very much regret your vow of celibacy.”
After this episode Harris said: “The crazy period of my life is over. Maybe things won’t be as exciting in the same way, but at least I’ll be able to remember them the next day.”
He stayed off the drink and drugs until the nineties, then started having a glass of Guinness every day until his death. He became calmer and more reflective.
When he reached 70 years, he rented a suite in the Savoy Hotel, London for £6,000 a week. He thought this good value – he liked to be able to order food at any time of day or night, and have it brought to him. He said:
“If you’re paying the mortgage on a home, you can’t ask the bank manager to fetch you a pint.”
Richard Harris was 71 when he was offered the role of Professor Albus Dumbledore in the first Harry Potter film in 2001. He turned it down. His 11 year old granddaughter persuaded him to take the role, threatening to have nothing to do with him if he didn’t. He took the role.
After filming the second Harry Potter film in 2002 (headmaster, Dumbledore), he returned to live at the Savoy. He didn’t contact anyone for a while and his ex-wife Elizabeth became worried and went to the Savoy, where she found him emaciated and weak. She called for an ambulance. As he was being stretchered out in the lobby of the hotel, he sat up and said:
‘It was the food! Don’t touch the food!’
He died of lymphatic cancer on 25 October 2002.
Extracts from Hellraisers: The Life And Times Of Burton, Harris, O’Toole & Reed by Robert Sellers
See the film This Sporting Life here (over 2 hours long)