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
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."
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
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
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."
"I wonder how you look undressed?"
"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
"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.
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'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."