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Richard Harris, 72; Irish Actor Described as an Icon and a Giant of the Old School

October 26, 2002|Robert W. Welkos and Susan King | Times Staff Writers

Richard Harris, the irascible, craggy-faced, Irish-born actor perhaps best known as King Arthur in the 1967 film musical "Camelot" and more recently as the wise old wizard headmaster Albus Dumbledore in the first two "Harry Potter" films, died Friday in a London hospital. He was 72.

Harris, who in earlier years forged an image as a hard-drinking hell-raiser in the style of fellow actors Richard Burton and Peter O'Toole, died at University College of London Hospital. He reportedly suffered from Hodgkin's disease, although a cause of death was not immediately released.

"With great sadness, Damien, Jared and Jamie Harris announce the death of their beloved father, Richard Harris," read a statement from his family that was released by the hospital. The statement said Harris died "peacefully."

On Friday, "Harry Potter" director Chris Columbus and producer David Heyman said at a news conference that they had recently visited Harris in the hospital and he appeared to be fighting back. The second adaptation of the J.K. Rowling series of fantasy children's books, "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets," in which Harris also played Dumbledore, opens Nov. 15, and the third is scheduled to start filming next year.

Harris "did threaten to kill me if I recast [Dumbledore]," said Columbus. As of late Friday, Warner Bros. had made no decisions on who would replace him.

In a recent interview, Heyman said one of the best things about "The Chamber of Secrets" was that Harris was able to have more fun with his character.

"In the first film, we didn't get as much of that glint in Dumbledore's eye," Heyman said. "In the second one, you get a sense of just how deep a character he is, that he knows exactly what's going on. And Richard Harris is, of course, just perfect in the role."

The news of Harris' death was greeted with sadness among his friends and colleagues in the entertainment industry.

"Richard was wonderful to work with," said Clint Eastwood, who directed Harris in Eastwood's 1992 Academy Award-winning film, "Unforgiven." "A slightly mad Irishman and a truly gifted performer. His presence on the set during the filming of 'Unforgiven' always gave us a much-needed lift during the many hours of difficult work."

Ridley Scott, who directed Harris in the Oscar-winning 2000 epic "Gladiator," said Harris "was one of the giants of the old school." The actor played Emperor Marcus Aurelius.

Scott said Harris and cast mate Oliver Reed, who died while filming "Gladiator," "came out of a generation that worked hard and played hard." He called Harris, O'Toole and Burton "icons" and added, "There aren't a lot of icons left."

Randa Haines, who directed Harris in the 1993 drama "Wrestling Ernest Hemingway," described him "as just one of those forces of nature. Every moment of debauchery was in his face, and every moment of his lust for life was written into his face. But that kind of person, you can't imagine the world without them. You feel they will go on forever."

Harris himself once said that "a great actor walks on the stage and he fills it from the right proscenium all the way to the back, but some people get on and they are invisible." No one would have dared call Harris invisible.

With his auburn hair, blue eyes and a distinctive face that he once described as looking like five miles of bad Irish road, Harris became an international star on the strength of such performances as his Oscar-nominated role as a crude, rough-and-tumble rugby player in 1963's "This Sporting Life," a strong but sensitive King Arthur in "Camelot" and a wealthy Briton kidnapped and tortured by Sioux Indians who eventually is embraced by the tribe in 1970's "A Man Called Horse."

He also had a parallel career as a singer in the 1960s. He scored a huge hit with Jimmy Webb's "MacArthur Park," in which he crooned, "Someone's left my cake out in the rain."

Kevin Reynolds, who directed him in "The Count of Monte Cristo," which was released this year, recalled Harris as "just a master of subtlety and nuance. He knew just the right turn of phrase, and he could do it in just one or two takes."

He was one of a new breed of British actors who were born out of the renaissance of London theater in the 1950s, including Burton, O'Toole, Reed, Albert Finney and Alan Bates -- actors who embodied England's postwar angry young men. All of them went on to star in films, and many of them were more known for their offstage antics than for their screen roles.

Stories abounded for years about Harris and his churlish behavior to others on film sets and in the theater. Don Gregory, who co-produced the tour of the stage musical "Camelot," in which Harris performed intermittently from 1981 to 1985, recalled getting into a scuffle on the sidewalk outside the Winter Garden Theater in New York, where the production was being filmed for HBO.

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