Harris, Richard St John (1930–2002), stage and screen actor, was born 1 October 1930 in Limerick city, fifth child among six sons and two daughters of Ivan Harris, a prosperous flour‐mill owner, and Mildred Harris (née Harty). Reared in a comfortable, middle‐class home at Overdale, Ennis Road, Limerick, he attended the Jesuits’ Crescent College. Rebellious and lacking in academic ambition, he was frequently in trouble at school, which he left without sitting the leaving certificate, thereafter working desultorily in the family business. Highly accomplished in sport, especially rugby, he played on the first Crescent side to win the Munster schools’ cup (1947), and on the Garryowen side that won the 1952 Munster senior cup. Competing in inter‐provincial junior cup matches, he had ambitions to play senior rugby at international level. These hopes were dashed when he contracted tuberculosis, which enforced a lengthy two‐year convalescence (1953–5), largely confined to bed in the family home, passing the time by reading avidly and widely. Devouring Shakespeare and the range of modern fiction and drama, he conceived a desire to pursue a career in the theatre (having previously flirted with amateur dramatics). Moving to London in 1955 on a small legacy in Guinness shares from an aunt, he initially intended to study directing, but failed to find a suitable course. Rejected by the Central School as too old, he studied acting at London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA), one of the few London drama schools then including study of Stanislavksy, whose works had informed his self‐education.
His gifts of improvisation impressed Joan Littlewood, who cast him, in his London stage debut, in the first production (1956) of ‘The quare fellow’, the prison‐yard drama by Brendan Behan (qv); as the young prisoner Mickser, Harris intoned the play's curtain‐raising song, ‘The auld triangle’. Throughout the later 1950s he pursued an exciting stage apprenticeship as a regular member of Littlewood's path‐breaking Theatre Workshop at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, and in productions of other companies. He attracted wide notice as the anarchic scoundrel Sebastian Dangerfield in ‘The ginger man’ (1959), J. P. Donleavy's stage adaptation of his own novel. Initially intended for the main supporting role, Harris insisted that he was born to play the lead: ‘It's me. It's my life.’ He made his professional Irish stage debut when the play was brought to Dublin's Olympia theatre (October 1959) by Godfrey Quigley (qv), and delighted in the ensuing controversy: the run was cancelled after three days when author and cast refused to make cuts demanded by a management intimidated by morally outraged press reviews.
Harris's film debut came in a minor role in the comedy Alive and kicking (1958). In his early supporting film roles he was usually typecast as the impulsive young rebel, oozing machismo, and chafing under the restraints imposed by effete, cautious superiors. He appeared in two films shot at Ardmore studios, Bray, Co. Wicklow, Shake hands with the devil (1959) and A terrible beauty (1960), and made his Hollywood debut opposite Gary Cooper in The wreck of the Mary Deare (1959). He was included in the stellar cast of the international blockbuster The guns of Navarone (1961), and played the disgruntled, impetuous seaman John Mills in the lavish remake of Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), on the set of which in Tahiti he famously locked horns with Marlon Brando, once his adolescent idol.
Harris's breakthrough came in This sporting life (1963), the feature‐film directing debut of Lindsay Anderson, and one of the landmarks of early 1960s British social realist cinema. As the period's quintessential ‘angry young man’, Harris played an inarticulate, brutishly violent, but emotionally vulnerable Yorkshire coalminer turned professional rugby league player, who becomes involved with his flinty widowed landlady, played by Rachel Roberts. In an uncompromisingly authentic portrayal, Harris captured his character's fundamental masochism, both physical and emotional, disguised as hardnosed, manly stoicism. The performance won him the best actor award at the 1963 Cannes film festival, and an Academy award nomination. He obtained starring roles under two of the decade's most important film directors, Michelangelo Antonioni on The red desert (1964), and Sam Peckinpah on Major Dundee (1965).
In the mid 1960s Harris's international film career took off; a hot property, commanding hefty fees, he took a pot‐pourri of roles in largely mediocre pictures, claiming a wish to be as versatile an actor as possible. After lobbying obsessively, he landed the plum role of King Arthur in the movie version of the hit stage musical Camelot (1967). The performance having revealed an acceptable singing voice, he embarked on a parallel career as a pop singer. His recording of Jimmy Webb's enigmatic, seven‐minute single ‘MacArthur Park’ was a transatlantic chart hit in summer 1968, which he followed with two LPs, A tramp shining (1968), an album of Webb compositions, and The yard went on forever (1968). Over the next five years he recorded several more LPs, released eight singles, and performed a concert tour with the Phil Coulter orchestra (1972). He ended the 1960s with two arresting screen performances. He was a reluctant police informer opposite Sean Connery's miners’ leader in The Molly Maguires (1969). In A man called Horse (1970) – an unconventional western that proved a surprising box‐office success, and attained cult status – he played a footloose English aristocrat on an American hunting expedition in 1825 who is captured by Lakota Sioux; the performance was famous for the gruesome, but inaccurate, depiction of the Lakota sun‐dance ritual. He subsequently appeared in two execrable sequels, Return of a man called Horse (1976) and Triumphs of a man called Horse (1982). He took his only turn in the director's chair on Bloomfield (1971), in which he also starred, as a soccer player in decline. The previous year (1970) he had played Oliver Cromwell (qv) in Ken Hughes's Cromwell.
Throughout these years Harris was notorious for a hectic, drink‐fuelled, hell‐raising lifestyle, sensationally reported (and often exaggerated) in tabloid journalism. Volatile and pugnacious, he made frequent headlines with drunken brawls, scrapes with the law, marital storms, and a penchant for flamboyantly eccentric, hippie‐style attire. In the early 1970s he resided in London in Tower House, a sprawling Victorian neo‐gothic mansion, before moving in the mid 1970s to a property on Paradise Isle in the Bahamas, which he retained till his death. Warned by doctors that he had eighteen months to live if he continued drinking, after bidding farewell to alcohol in August 1981 with two bottles of Chateau Margaux 1947 (at $325 each), he remained dry for over a decade, before returning to the occasional dietary Guinness.
During the 1970s he appeared in a multitude of average to poor films, marketing his celebrity for massive pay cheques, ‘as visible as he was risible’ (Guardian obit.). In the 1980s he all but ceased film acting. He returned to the stage in a revival of ‘Camelot’, which toured America to sell‐out houses (1981–2), and played less successfully in London (1982–3). The stage show was filmed and screened by HBO in the USA (1982). Having purchased the rights to the stage production, he augmented his already considerable personal wealth into the multimillions by taking the show on an extremely lucrative world tour. For a mesmerising performance on the London West End and a British tour in ‘Henry IV’ by Luigi Pirandello, Harris won the London Evening Standard theatre award for best actor (1990–91). The role coincided with the artistic resurrection of his film career, as the ‘Bull’ McCabe in The field (1990), adapted from the play by John B. Keane (qv), and directed by Jim Sheridan. In a saga of land hunger and vengeance in Co. Kerry, Harris played an obstinate, turbulent, tragic character with a commanding performance, for which he won a second Oscar nomination. Referring to the Shakespearean roles that he had once aspired to play, he remarked that if This sporting life was the Hamlet of his career, the ‘Bull’ McCabe would be his Lear. The role inaugurated the finest sustained period of his career in cinema, as he chose exacting roles in worthy productions, performed with appropriate blends of passion and restraint, inflected with the gravitas of age. His credits included a weathered gunslinger in Clint Eastwood's iconoclastic western Unforgiven (1992), an Irish traveller patriarch in Trojan Eddie (1996), and a magisterial Marcus Aurelius in Ridley Scott's Oscar‐winning Gladiator (2000). He exuded beguiling charm as the wise and benign wizard Albus Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the sorcerer's stone (2001), reaching the largest audience of his career in the second biggest hit in cinematic history (after Titanic); after thrice turning down the role, he relented when his eleven‐year‐old granddaughter threatened never to speak to him again. He reprised the role in Harry Potter and the chamber of secrets (2002), released three weeks after his death. His last leading role was in My kingdom (2002), directed by Don Boyd, as a Lear‐like gangster chieftain in contemporary Liverpool, for which he was nominated for best actor at the British Independent Film Awards.
Through a remarkably uneven career, Harris made over seventy‐five movies. Tall, burly, and broad‐shouldered, he filled the screen as a massive, brooding physical presence, noted for a throaty vocal delivery (‘a man called hoarse’, some quipped). Ireland's first global cinema star, he was as famous for his legendary off‐screen escapades as for his performances. Revelling in his own image, he could be defiant, outspoken, and cantankerous, but also immensely entertaining as a self‐deprecating raconteur, exuding a boyish sense of fun. He dismissed criticism of career decisions more commercial than artistic with unconvincing deprecation of the actor's craft, and replied to critics who charged that he had for too long squandered his talent by asserting ‘I didn't fulfil their idea of my talent’ (quoted in Independent obit.). Remaining a passionate supporter of Irish and Munster rugby, he was a familiar face in the stands at Lansdowne Road and Thomond Park, and remarked that he would gladly swap all his acting accolades ‘for one sip of champagne from the Heineken Cup’ (quoted on IMDB).
Harris married first (1957) Elizabeth Rees‐Williams, a 20‐year‐old London acting student, only daughter of Lord Ogmore, a liberal peer; they had three sons. They divorced in 1969, some years after separating, but remained on friendly terms. He married secondly (1974) Ann Turkel, an American fashion model and aspiring actress, who later pursued a career as a photographer; they had no children, and divorced in 1981. During his last decade he lived in a luxurious suite in the Savoy hotel, London. After falling ill with Hodgkin's disease, and receiving chemotherapy, he was hospitalised with a chest infection in August 2002. He died 25 October 2002 in the University College Hospital, London. After a private family funeral, his ashes were scattered at his home in the Bahamas.