The first, which appeared when he received the first of his two Academy Award nominations, for his performance in “The Sporting Life” in 1963, read “English Actor gets Oscar Nomination.” The second followed one of the unfortunate incidents that dotted certain periods in his life. It read “Irish Actor Arrested in Pub Brawl.”
The 72-year-old Limerick native died last Friday in a London hospital, succumbing to Hodgkin’s Disease, which had been diagnosed earlier this year.
Harris was one of four children born to a Limerick flour-milling family, and after being educated at Sacred Heart Jesuit College, he went to London, thinking he would become a theater director. Instead, he enrolled at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, where his talent for acting soon became apparent. He made his London stage debut in 1956 and first appeared in British movies in 1958, in an inconsequential film, “Alive and Kicking,” in which he had a small part.
In 1956, he had become associated with Joan Littlewood’s pioneering Theater Workshop, appearing in, among other things, a production of Brendan Behan’s prison drama, “The Quare Fellow,” at Stratford’s Theater Royal.
The play that put Harris on the theatrical map, however, was produced in Dublin, not London. It was novelist J.P. Donleavy’s stage adaptation of his novel “The Ginger Man,” in which Harris created the role of the aging American student, Sebastian Balfe Dangerfield, supposedly doing graduate work at Dublin’s Trinity College, meanwhile engaged in an uneasy marriage to a British woman, Marion, whom he bullies relentlessly and with whom he has produced a daughter, Felicity.
In 1963, having made eight films, he got the role that would make him an international star, playing a Yorkshire coal miner who becomes a celebrated professional rugby player. The film was “This Sporting Life,” directed by Lindsay Anderson, who had previously been known for several acclaimed short documentaries. The strong script was by David Storey, and the movie earned him a Best Actor Award at the Cannes Film Festival and, more important, an Oscar nomination.
Harris told a reporter not long ago that he thought he had made five admirable films, naming “This Sporting Life,” “The Molly Maguires,” about Irish coal miners in Pennsylvania, a TV film version of Paul Gallico’s Dunkirk classic, “The Snow Goose,” “A Man Called Horse,” because “everybody else had turned it down,” and, of course, “The Field,” Jim Sheridan’s version of the late John B. Keane’s play.
It was “The Field” that got Harris his second Oscar nomination, in 1991, but again he didn’t win.
Other films he respected were the little-seen “Hemingway,” and, surprisingly, “Camelot,” because, he said, “I suppose it was fun.” Consciously or not, he probably added that 1967 film to his list because it gave him a chance to sing onscreen for the first time. He went to the top of the pop music charts in the summer of 1968 with an enigmatic Jim Webb song, “MacArthur Park,” and released two LPs as a singer.
Harris appeared on the New York stage only once, with a somewhat shabby touring company of “Camelot,” with Harris repeating his movie role of King Arthur. They showed for a few rather dreary weeks at Broadway’s Winter Garden.
Harris was hounded all his life by his “bad boy” reputation, sometimes loathing it, and, at other times, seeming to encourage it.
Filming “The Field” was not a pleasant experience for the actor, who warred with director Sheridan and felt generally disliked by the company. “It wasn’t me they hated,” he later told a journalist, “it was the Bull McCabe, the old farmer I played that they hated, because I stayed in character a lot of the time.”
Harris, who had at least once spoken of himself as a “multimillionaire,” and had lived, for a time, as a tax exile in the Caribbean, made some serious attempts to alter his image. In 1982, probably in response to intimations of mortality, he cut down on his legendary drinking and stopped using cocaine completely.
The actor married twice. His first wife, Joan Elizabeth Reese-Williams, was the daughter of a Welsh peer, Lord Ogmore. The couple had three sons: Damien Harris, now a Los Angeles based film director, then Jared and Jamie, both actors living and working in New York.
Jared Harris played the title role in the indie film “I Shot Andy Warhol.” Last year, when he did “Hamlet” for the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival, his father played the ghost.
Harris later married Ann Turkel. The couple divorced in 1981.
In 2000, he played Marcus Aurelius in “Gladiator” in support of Russell Crowe, and, more recently, played Albus Dumbledore in the first Harry Potter movie and in its soon-to-be-released sequel.
As recently as two weeks ago, Harris vowed he would be well enough to appear again as the gentle headmaster of the Hogwarts School in “The Prisoner of Azkaban,” the third Potter film, scheduled to begin production in March of 2003.
Fate however, had other plans for him.