How Richard Harris assessed his own career
Richard Harris, who died at 72 on Oct. 25 from complications of Hodgkin’s disease, is still very much on the minds of film fans. On Oct. 30, he earned a career achievement award at the British Independent Film Awards in London. The day before, according to the Hollywood Reporter, First Look Pictures announced it would release one of his last completed films, ”My Kingdom,” in which Harris played a King Lear-like gangster (the U.S. date is Dec. 6, in time for Oscar consideration). And of course, he’ll be seen on Nov. 15 in his second outing as Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore in ”Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.”
In life, Harris was irrepressible, as famous for his pub crawling and storytelling as for his larger-than-life movie roles in such films as ”This Sporting Life,” ”Camelot,” ”Gladiator,” and the Potter pictures. Before ”Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” opened last November, he met with reporters. Speaking with characteristic bluntness, he complained that he would never have agreed to play Dumbledore — until his granddaughter insisted that she wouldn’t speak to him again if he turned down the role. He also summed up his life and his career better than anyone else could. Here are excerpts from that interview:
Is it true that you said Dumbledore was your most difficult role?
Not true. I was misquoted. I said, ”It was probably the easiest role I ever played, under the most difficult circumstances.” It was difficult because of the time restrictions on the kids — they were only allowed to work 45 minutes every hour, with so many hours off, and so many hours of school. When I came to do my big scenes in the hall, they couldn’t afford to have the children there. So I was doing all those speeches to empty houses.
Is it difficult to separate your real life and screen life while making a movie?
For me, once it’s over, it’s over. I always say to the cast, ”Look, we’ve had a marvelous time. It’s been a great community for the 10 weeks we were shooting. I love you all. Don’t call me because I won’t return your calls.” I have a different life. I am a part of the acting profession, but I am apart from it. I don’t associate with actors or anyone in my profession at all.
My two or three friends have nothing to do with the business. We have an absolute law: Don’t talk about the profession. I go to pubs. I love pubs. I love hanging around with ordinary people. I really hate the elitism that has suddenly crept into our business. I think it’s so stupid. Ten bodyguards, their own private chef, their own hairdressers, their own dieticians. It’s a joke. I’m sorry.
Was it always this way?
I’ll tell you, my very first movie [”Shake Hands With the Devil,” 1959] was with Jimmy Cagney. Wasn’t he a major star? Arrived in Dublin by himself, no fuss whatsoever. Second picture [”A Terrible Beauty,” 1960], Bob Mitchum, same. By himself. His wife Dorothy arrived after. Nobody, no fuss. Third picture [”The Wreck of the Mary Deare,” 1959], Gary Cooper, no fuss. These [new] guys? Private jets, flying over humanity, when they’re supposed to be indulging in humanity. The plane opens up, 99 bodyguards get off, and they’re all 6’10”. The star gets off, and he’s 5’4,” but they make him look even smaller.
What about Marlon Brando, who starred opposite you in 1962’s ”Mutiny on the Bounty”?
Marlon? Marlon didn’t have an entourage. He had an attitude, but he didn’t have an entourage.
If you could do magic like Dumbledore, what would you do?
I’ve always had one ambition in my life that I’ve never done. If God or whoever said, ”You can do anything you want for just one day,” I would stand in the middle of the opera house in Covent Garden and sing all the great arias. It’s got to be the greatest thrill to have a voice like Pavarotti or Placido Domingo. Just to stand there for two hours and sing. And then go back to the pub.
Do you mind that Dumbledore may be the role people remember you for, the way Alec Guinness objected to being remembered primarily for Obi-Wan Kenobi?
I really don’t care. I’m not interested in reputation or immortality. I don’t care if I’m remembered. I don’t care if I’m not remembered. I don’t care why I’m remembered.
If you looked in the mirror of Erised, the mirror at Hogwarts that shows its viewer’s deepest desire, what wish would you see?
I don’t want anything. This sounds very self-satisfied, but I don’t mean to give that impression. I had tuberculosis when I was 19. I wanted to play rugby for Ireland, but I got tuberculosis. [So] I became an actor by mistake. I hitchhiked to Dublin. From Dublin to England, I went steerage, which was with cows. In Liverpool, I had no money. I hitchhiked to London. I auditioned for various academies, was turned down, and bullied my way into one. Now look at me: I’m a multimillionaire, I’m pretty well world-famous. What more would I want? What else would I need? Wouldn’t I be very ungracious to look in and say, ”I want more. I want something else”?