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RICHARD HARRIS: BARE FEET & BLOODY MARYS AT THE PLAZA


Richard Harris died in London on October 25, 2002, at the age of 72. It was an age he never expected to reach, given the fierce, reckless nature of his lifestyle. A brawler, a drinker, a womanizer, Harris gave some of his greatest performances off screen, in the hours between midnight and sunrise. I won't forget the rich humor, intelligence and warmth he exhibited during the three interviews he gave me, particularly this one, published in The New York Times on March 26, 1972. --Guy Flatley



A typical movie-star entrance it's not.

"Oh, Jesus," croaks Richard Harris, opening the door of his bedroom at the Plaza and lurching toward the nearest sofa. "I'm bushed. Finished. I didn't get to bed till 3 this morning."

It's now an ungodly 8 A.M., and the brawny, bearded, barefoot Irishman is still dressed in a snazzy pop version of a medieval nightshirt. Beneath his groggy blue eyes, there seems to be a circle for each of his 42 years, and as he gives his breakfast order to an aide, he yawns and yawns and yawns.


"Two large glasses of fresh orange juice. Rye toast. Tea. Better have a couple of boiled eggs. And--now don't you get the idea I do this every morning--I'd love a Bloody Mary. Also, if there's any priority, could you please see to it that I get the Bloody Mary first? Because if I don't have a Bloody Mary immediately, I cannot live through the next 20 minutes."

Sad to say--especially for those who cried "genius" when he flashed across the screen as a passionate rugby player in the 1963 British film "This Sporting Life"--Harris's reputation for bedding and boozing has dwarfed his image as a serious actor. Pessimists predict that he will go the way of John Barrymore, without ever giving us some Hamlet to remember him by.

But his fatigue on this particular morning has been earned strictly by the sweat of his brow--and the strain of his vocal cords. "We recorded three tracks last night, and a really great new single--a far-out version of 'Bridge Over Troubled Waters.' That song has been one of the most successful in our concert, second only to 'MacArthur Park.'"

Although he had warbled the role of King Arthur in the 1967 film of "Camelot," it was not until 1968--when he recorded "MacArthur Park," Jim Webb's stream-of-sentiment song about lost love--that actor Harris became actor-singer Harris. His tear-choked but virile delivery proved so lucrative that "MacArthur Park" was included in "A Tramp Shining," the Harris LP that was released later the same year.

This year, Harris has another hot-selling album called "My Boy." Once again, the songs deal unashamedly with first love, with love turned sour, with husbands and wives thrashing about in hate, with innocent children suffering the tragedy of a broken home. In fact, Harris--who shares equal custody of his three sons with his former wife (the current Mrs. Rex Harrison)--wrote two of the more melancholy songs himself.

For Harris, "our concert" means the program in which a lush 32-piece orchestra backs him up while he moans and throbs and shouts and whispers his way through these and other songs and occasionally recites appropriate poetry, some of which has been penned by the budding poet, Richard Harris. During the past few weeks, he has been dizzily concertizing from town to town and on Friday, at Philharmonic Hall, he will perform for the people--and the critics--of New York. The prospect does not put his nerves at ease.

"Yes, I'm nervous about going into Philharmonic Hall. I'm nervous every time I go out in front of an audience. You'd think I'd be used to it by now, but it's no better than it was all those years ago when I was doing 'The Ginger Man' on the stage in London. I still get a big ball in my stomach, full of butterflies. If those butterflies ever take off all at once, God help me. Still, I'm overwhelmed by the emotional impact of this concert, the great dialogue between the audience and me. It's an incredible stimulation."


Speaking of stimulation, what ever became of room service? Harris charges across the room, opens the door and bellows one loud "Help!" Soon we are being served Bloody Marys, which he instantly makes Mary-er with a liberal lacing of straight vodka. They are by no means the final Bloody Marys of the morning.

"Drinking is only part of my personality," Harris says, "but it makes for easy reading. Like the time I got robbed. Of course, they didn't print the whole story in the papers. It was two years ago in a New York bar, and I was in one of my more expansive moods. I picked up some disreputable gentlemen and ladies, but mostly ladies, and we came back to the hotel to enjoy an evening combining booze and sex. I was in the bedroom performing to the best of my ability with one of those ladies--I'm not talking about reciting poetry, you understand. You might say that I was anointing a bird in a bedroom, dipping her into my holy water fountain. Or was she dipping me into her holy water fountain? Anyway, while we were busy anointing, the rest of them walked out the front door with my money, my maxi coats and my cuff links. And you know, she wasn't even a good..."

That old baddie booze also played a big role in Harris's divorce case. His wife's lawyer claimed that Harris "drinks too much and then goes berserk with whoever is in sight. As the wife is most often in sight, she is the victim."

Harris shrugs. "When a woman wants a divorce, she will search for any excuse. If a marriage fails, the woman feels guiltier than the man, especially when there are children involved. So she stands on a giant balcony and shouts to the world, 'It is because of my partner, this monster, that the marriage has failed.' She looks for the one thing that will make the world forgive her, the one thing that will cause the world to take her to its breast and into its womb of forgiveness. But, as my wife's second marriage proves, drink was certainly not the reason for our breakup.

"I'm not the least bitter about my divorce. I seriously believe that I cannot do the type of thing I want to do if I am emotionally attached to anyone. Love is a disease. People who claim they are in love have temperatures of l04 degrees. Anybody can fall in love; it's too common for me. I like to sing a few songs, say a few words, have a few birds, and move on."


There's a knock at the door. It's Lawrence Fried, the Times' photographer, and Harris is delighted to meet him--possibly because he is accompanied by his young and pretty assistant, Winky Donovan. After persuading both visitors to join us in a round of Bloody Marys, he makes a special plea that they not photograph his feet, which have gotten dirty in all the traipsing back and forth. Discreetly tugging at his nightshirt, Harris sits down again and begins to discuss his role as father.

"Traditionally, when there is a breakup of a marriage, you worry about having to account to your children one day. But now that I see how well they are growing up, I'm not worried. All three boys go to boarding school; we put them there when our house became a terrible place to live. And I will say this much in Elizabeth's favor: she is truly interested in our children, and she does not knock me in front of them. I believe that she has settled down since her marriage to Harrison. But Rex Harrison is not a father of my children. He will never be a father of my children."


It comes as a jolt to learn that Harris' children are receiving a Catholic education. Despite the fact that Harris is a fallen-away Catholic who totally denies the divinity of "that political agitator they crucified years ago. He said beautiful things, but He never wrote a word. The Bible is full of inaccuracies. The Red Sea? Anybody could have walked across that--it was all salt.

"My ex-wife has no religion; she was brought up in the Church of England or one of those religions that mean nothing at all. But for some reason, she insisted that a condition of our divorce be that the children be raised as Catholics. If one of them ends up a priest, that's O.K. with me, so long as he's happy. But he'll have a tough time in the parish explaining me away.

"As for me, I was born a Catholic, and you know what they say about that. If Joyce, on his deathbed, said 'I have lived only to die a bad Catholic,' how can I know what I'll say when the time comes? My great ambition is not to call for a priest, but to call for a sexy nun. One who looks rather like this lady here" he says, lifting his glass to Winky, the photographer's assistant who looks proper enough to have been brought up in a convent.

"I like the way you're dressed, Winky."

"Thank you."

"I wonder how you look undressed?"

"Better."

"I know. I've already undressed you three times, just sitting here."

Winky, blushing slightly, goes about her business and Harris switches to the serious subject of Ireland and its current troubles.


"I speak fairly about both sides. I violently disapprove of the extreme prejudice toward Catholics in Northern Ireland. On the other hand, I do think Prime Minister Lynch is remiss, talking grandly about the partition being lifted. If that happens without the proper preparation, the Protestants would be forced to live where there was no such thing as divorce or family planning. We'd soon have the Protestants throwing bombs.

"The situation is due primarily to the bungling of the British government. The English politicians are so quick to brand the Irish as bomb-throwing terrorists--but, tell me, what is the difference between the Irish guerrillas and the Hungarian freedom fighters? The British have always tended to look upon the Irish as uniquely eccentric rabble who were allowed into England to drink their beer and, indeed, to serve their beer. They have always claimed to be such civilized British gentlemen, yet they've constantly used gunboat policy. When the natives become restless, they simply bring out the battalions and shoot them down.


"Meanwhile, the Americans sit on their fat fannies because they don't want to rock the boat. They may need British advice in some other areas, so they sit passively by and watch people being shot down. If Lynch would say, 'Unless we get help from the U.S., we'll go elsewhere--to Russia--for help,' then we'd see Nixon flying to England. And Heath would stop dying his hair and pay attention."

It's Bloody Mary time and time to tackle the tough topic of Harris's disappointing career as an actor. "It's very hard to live up to 'This Sporting Life.' There just aren't that many dynamic roles being written. I could have worked in the theater, but I was too restless to settle down in the West End of England, where I would have become fat and boring and over-invited to all the best places. Besides, it's dangerous to build your career to a state of preciousness, to arrive at a point where you feel you must aspire to perfection. By not developing into one of England's greatest actors, I have been afforded the opportunity of turning down knighthood."

Instead of becoming a titled perfectionist, Harris hot-footed it to Hollywood, where he sometimes accepted the least perfect job, such as "Caprice," with Doris Day. "I knew you'd get around to that one," he says, crossing his eyes and banging his glass down on the coffee table. "I spent the entire movie hiding behind Doris's freckles. If they had ever shot us together without the magic gauze, I would have looked like her son. I was beautiful in those days. It's taken me years to achieve these wrinkles."

The teaming of Harris and Marlon Brando in "Mutiny on the Bounty" was enough to give teamwork a bad name. "Marlon is a great actor. If only he had worked out his problems on the screen, we might have had a number of brilliant performances from him. Instead, those performances are stuck into a drawer somewhere, at $50 an hour. We should never put ourselves into the hands of other people. Psychiatrists have problems enough of their own."


At one point, Harris was set to appear opposite Barbra Streisand in "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever." "But I got the message one of us would have killed the other. And Barbra is too valuable to the motion picture industry to be assassinated."

Harris has directed one film--"Bloomfield," a drama in which he stars as a rugby player who takes a bribe. Shot in Israel, it was nominated two years ago by the Foreign Press Association as the best foreign film, but was subsequently hissed off the screen at the Berlin Film Festival and has yet to surface in this country. However, there is still one other movie which Harris dreams of directing himself in.

"I've spent eight years, on and off, working out an incredible interpretation of 'Hamlet.' I had a deal with Robert Evans at Paramount once-we were to come riding in on the crest of 'Romeo and Juliet.' And we would have, too, if Faye Dunaway hadn't walked out. Evans refused to go through with the deal unless we found somebody of comparable stature to play Ophelia. He would have settled for Hermione Gingold or Mickey Rooney, so long as they were of comparable stature.

"I'm thinking now about re-doing my 'Hamlet' for the stage. I've been offered the Ahmanson Theater in Los Angeles for next February, but I have to say yes or no by May. First, though, they have to prove to me that they can bring it to Broadway afterward. Maybe it's finally time for me to do 'Hamlet' and to stop gallivanting from movie to movie and making vast fortunes."

To be or not to be, that is not the question. The question is, will Harris make it or not make it to Kennedy Airport within the next 45 minutes so that he can gallivant off to Atlanta for another concert? "Close your eyes, Winky," he commands, quickly changing into traveling clothes. Miraculously, there is time for one last Bloody Mary--and then one more for the elevator.

Downstairs, among the potted palms of the Plaza lobby, Harris pulls a policeman's whistle out of his pocket and blows it at a startled middle-aged blonde and says to her, "That was some night last night, wasn't it?" Then, outside--while the taxi driver holds open the door--Harris gently kisses Winky and caresses her hand.

"You'll come to my concert at Philharmonic Hall, won't you?"


"Send me a ticket."

"I will."

"I'll go to anything that's free."

For one brief second, Harris looks wounded, but only for a second. "Oh, I'll be free after the concert, luv," he says, waving from the taxi. "Totally, totally free."