Harris, born in Ireland, gained steady work as an actor after he was forced to abandon a promising career as a rugby player due to health issues. His early films included supporting roles in 'The Guns of Navarone' and 'Mutiny on the Bounty,' the latter alongside Marlon Brandon. He hit pay dirt with 'This Sporting Life,' Lindsay Anderson's bruising 1963 drama about a rugby player whose rough-hewn personality causes problems for him both on and off the field.
Admittedly, "rough-hewn" doesn't quite capture the fullness of Frank Machin, his character in the film. Frank is a cauldron of emotion, overflowing with simmering rage that boils over constantly. Frank is an oven set on high, the temperature control broken. He can't control himself even when he wants to, which prevents him from fully connecting with a widow (Rachel Roberts) in whose home he lives. Other actors might have overplayed the more unlikable aspects of Frank's personality, yet even at his worst, we can understand Frank because Harris tempers his outbursts with equal measures of frustration and fleeting glimpses of regret. Both Harris and Roberts were nominated for Academy Awards.
The trailer for 'This Sporting Life':
Harris proved to be a suitable antagonist as an obstinate Confederate dandy in Samuel Peckinpah's 'Major Dundee,' played a ship captain trying to regain the love of Julie Andrews in 'Hawaii,' and made a memorable impression as a singing King Arthur in 'Camelot.' To get a better idea of Harris' abilities as a vocalist, give a listen, if you dare, to his hit recording of "MacArthur Park," released the following year.
Whatever you think of Harris as a singer, he was very successful at the time and took a break from acting to concentrate on his musical career. He returned to the big screen in 1970, beginning the decade in rousing fashion with 'The Molly Maguires' and 'A Man Called Horse.' 'The former allowed Harris to brood, quietly and convincingly. Critic Daniel Kasman described him as "magnetic [and] intelligently insular" as an undercover operative in an 1880's Pennsylvania coal mine, "transforming Bogart's middle-route persona for the Method acting of the '60s." Sent to spy on a group that was sabotaging mining operations, his character comes to question which side he should be supporting.
He was an English nobleman captured by the Sioux in 'A Man Called Horse,' initially reduced to the status of an animal. When he can no longer stand the indignities heaped upon him, he stands up for himself and eventually gains the begrudging trust of the tribe. Yet he is unwilling to forget the way he was treated, even as he is about to undergo a painful ceremony to prove himself worthy to marry the sister of the tribe's chief; he first insists on unleashing a stream of invective that gets everyone in an uproar. Satisfied that he's been heard, he goes through with the ceremony and is accepted fully for his bravery. Harris is, once again, magnetic; you can't take your eyes off him throughout the picture.
Harris' best performances tapped into a grounded reality that lent a gritty feel to the material. In 1978's 'The Wild Geese,' an enjoyable if routine action picture, he was believable as a retired mercenary who is gentle and loving with his young son, intensely loyal to his fighting comrades Richard Burton and Roger Moore, and merciless as a commander in the field.
Those type of roles became fewer and far between as the decade progressed. Harris had developed serious addictions to drinking and drugs -- reportedly, he was drinking buddies with Richard Burton and Peter O'Toole -- and his legendary off-screen hell-raising took its toll. The quality of his movies veered dangerously; for every halfway decent 'Robin and Marian' or 'Juggernaut,' there was an 'Orca' or 'Tarzan, the Ape Man' waiting in the wings.
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As the actor aged into his 50s, the roles began to evaporate. He took to the stage, reprising his starring turn in 'Camelot' for several years, until he talked his way into the leading role in Jim Sheridan's 'The Field,' which earned him his second Academy Award nomination.
Harris played Bull McCabe, a farmer who has cultivated a field for many years, transforming it from rocks and dirt into a beautiful, valuable piece of property. After the owner dies, he learns it will be sold at auction -- possibly to outsider. Here's his reaction, which electrifies the local pub:
'The Field' catapulted Harris back into play, making the most of his screen time in big studio productions like 'Patriot Games,' 'Unforgiven,' and 'Gladiator,' as well as smaller, quieter films such as 'Wrestling Ernest Hemingway' and 'To Walk with Lions.' There's something of the regal rogue in his performances during his latter years, the mark of a man who carried himself with style and elegance, and perhaps a touch of resigned acceptance about the opportunities he may have lost because of his boisterous lifestyle. He became a popular guest on late night talk shows, principally because he was a great storyteller.
Here he tells Conan O'Brien how he gained revenge against an uppity English actor in his youth:
And then came the 'Harry Potter' films, which raised his profile and introduced another generation to an actor with indelible power and passion.
Richard Harris died on October 25, 2002, at the age of 72. Very few actors have ever displayed such fierce vitality and rakish charm in such large measure.