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Awesome Men Throughout History: Richard Harris
This week’s Awesome Men Throughout History takes a look at an actor who did as much for the enterprise of drunken Irish hooliganism as he did for the stage and the screen.
We’ll discuss the screen first; Harris is best known among modern audiences for playing Dumbledore in some of the Harry Potter movies. Don’t think for a second, by the way, that you can trick me into thinking you’ve never read any of the books or seen any of the movies. I don’t care how much of a jock bro-dude you may be – Harry Potter is a multi-billion dollar global phenomenon, so just by the law of averages you’ve been involved in it somehow.
But Harris had a great career beforehand, getting plum roles in films throughout the 1960s and 70s, including the hugely successful 1968 film version of Camelot. He can also be seen in other, less-famous films like The Molly Macguires and Cry, The Beloved Country.
And if you’re still too proud to admit that you’re one of the legions of sad Harry Potter nerds out there, Harris was also in Unforgiven and Gladiator, two of the most bracing shots of epic manliness ever put on film.
Really, only one thing can eclipse Harris’ reputation as an actor, and that’s his reputation as a coked-up alcoholic maniac. He drunkenly knocked a bridge off its pillars with a truck when he was 17, and nearly missed his drama school audition by falling asleep in the park; he showed up late, covered in dirt and leaves, and still got in.
His exploits only got more insane, and hilarious, with time. When he won Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival in 1963, Harris didn’t think cufflinks were a good enough prize and, having sampled the bar by this point in the ceremony, stole a giant trophy that might have been part of the set and took it home. The gendarmes called in to retrieve it were unsuccessful.
And then there’s the fighting. Malachy McCourt (whose late brother Frank wrote Angela’s Ashes) has many stories of getting kicked out of bars – often literally – alongside Harris in their younger hell-raising years, and Harris split Camelot co-star David Hemmings’ lip at a party both men attended; Hemmings would later talk the unhappy, and most likely intoxicated, Harris out of jumping from a balcony into an empty swimming pool, saving his life in the process.
But Harris had mostly calmed down by the time he played Dumbledore. Granted, even in his seventies he could keep Alan Rickman and Kenneth Branagh out until four in the morning, but he’d learned from the mistakes he could remember and managed to make amends with his children and ex-wives by the time he died in October 2002.
What makes Richard Harris’ story so fun isn’t just the wild instability of his youth, adulthood, and middle age. That’s only about 60% of it. What’s cool about Harris is that he did reach a point where he could actually be happy, that he did have a moment where he looked back on the parts of his life that weren’t obscured in a cocaine-and-whiskey fog and realized that things had to change.
Some celebrities, Hulk Hogan for example, live in a hell of their own devising, but Richard Harris eventually grew out of being interesting at everyone else’s expense and aged into an awesome old man with lots of great stories.
Now then, Dumbledore doesn’t seem so dorky now, does he?