Irish actor Richard Harris studied at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art before making his stage debut in 1956. He continued his career on stage in films such as Shake Hands with the Devil and Mutiny on the Bounty but is probably best known for his role as King Arthur in the Broadway hit Camelot and Albus Dumbledore in the first two Harry Potter films.
Born in Limerick, Ireland, actor Richard Harris first wanted to be a rugby player. He excelled at the sport as a young man, but he was sidelined after contracting TB. For two years, Harris read veraciously while he recuperated from his illness. During this time, his ambitions shifted toward a life in the arts.
Harris wanted to be a director at first, but he then decided to study acting. He enrolled at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art in 1956. That same year, Harris made his stage debut in The Quare Fellow. Harris soon became one of a new generation of young British actors in the London theater scene, including Albert Finney among others.
After making his first film appearance in 1959’s Alive and Kicking, Harris landed roles in a number of major motion pictures. He appeared in the World War II action adventure The Guns of Navarone with Gregory Peck, David Niven and Anthony Quinn. In 1962’s Mutiny on the Bounty, Harris showed critics that he could hold his own against such Hollywood heavyweights as Marlon Brando. But his most impressive performance came the following year in This Sporting Life.
Harris netted an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal as a short tempered rugby player involved in a stormy relationship. He, however, was on the receiving end of a critical drubbing for the musical Camelot (1967). In the film he played King Arthur—with Vanessa Redgrave as his Guenevere. While the film may not have been a hit, Harris ended up buying the performance rights to the show. He toured in Camelot several times during his career, most notably in the 1980s with great success.
In 1970, Harris again won over audiences and critics with the western drama A Man Called Horse. He played an English aristocrat captured by some Native Americans, and his character eventually learns from his captors and adopts their ways. The film spawned several sequels, which failed to live up to the original in terms of quality and popularity.
Throughout much of his career, Harris had a habit of taking on roles in mediocre films. One of his most famous flops was the 1977 action-adventure tale Orca. Harris took a break from film in the 1980s, but his retirement proved to be short-lived. In 1990, he starred in The Field as a farmer fighting to keep his family’s lands. The film brought him an Academy Award nomination. He gave another strong performance two years later in the Clint Eastwood western Unforgiven.
Harris also earned raves for his portrayal of Roman leader Marcus Aurelius in 2000’s Gladiator starring Russell Crowe. The following year, he brought to life a beloved literary character. Harris appeared as Professor Albus Dumbledore in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. He appeared the next installment of the film series, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, in 2002.
Shortly before the start of filming the third Harry Potter movies, Harris died at a London hospital on October 25, 2002. He had suffering from Hodgkin’s Disease.
For many years, Harris was as famous for his hard partying lifestyle as he was for his acting. He counted Peter O’Toole and Richard Burton among his drinking buddies. But it wasn’t all good times for Harris—his substance abuse problem nearly killed him on several occasions. He eventually straightened himself out in the 1980s.
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