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The Wild Life Of Richard Harris, The First Dumbledore

Josh Teal

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The Wild Life Of Richard Harris, The First Dumbledore

Richard Harris (left) and Peter O'Toole.

Shortly before his death in 2002, Limerick born Richard Harris somewhat predicted his future when he said he'd only be remembered by younger generations for his role as Albus Dumbledore in the Harry Potter films.

This may be true to some extent. When I asked one of my colleagues - a massive Potter fan - about Harris, she wasn't too savvy about him or his career decades prior to Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. She certainly had no idea that the man who initially brought the Hogwarts headmaster to life was once a Hollywood hellraiser.

I didn't know a great deal until I read Hellraisers, one of the funniest books I've ever read, which focuses on the trials and tribulations of Richard Harris in his acting heyday, along with Oliver Reed, Peter O'Toole and Richard Burton, staggering from one pub to the other, turning up pissed to work, leaving the family home and sometimes not returning for days on end.


It's anyone's guess what truly stirred Harris to act in the way he did. He grew up with seven brothers and sisters and the only way to be recognised was to probably act the fool. The struggle of trying to make it in the snotty London theatre scene of the 1950s couldn't have helped. But it's also very plausible that Harris simply loved to get pissed, under any circumstance.

Richard Harris in 'This Sporting Life'. Image: Getty

Whatever the reason, he was the perfect fit for the 'Angry Young Man' that became prevalent in British film in the mid 20th century. His breakthrough came with This Sporting Life in 1963, a humble kitchen-sink drama which catapulted him to success and riches. Though it wasn't that which instilled within him a penchant for boozing. He'd been acting up years before he ever graced the silver screen.


According to British actor Ronald Fraser, Harris 'was pissed from the day he was out of short trousers'. As a teenager, he had his driving license revoked for hitting a double-decker bus in Dublin while on a delivery run. When we was a drama student, looking for somewhere to sleep, he came across a tobacconist that was offering rooms for rent. Upon seeing a board stating no Irish or black applicants would be considered, Harris promptly smashed his fist through the glass, took the paper and kept it for the rest of his life.

His theatre days were constantly governed and conflicted with his appetite for getting smashed. During one play, he and co-star Peter O'Toole would spend their off-stage breaks throwing back as many pints down the pub opposite the Bristol Old Vic as they could. One evening, they got so engrossed in drinking that they actually forgot their stage cue. The stage manager ran into the pub: "What are you doing?! You're on! There's an audience waiting for you!" The two men quickly necked their drinks, fled back to the theatre and Harris ended up tripping up on stage, nosediving off of the foot-lights and landing on the lap of a female audience member. "Good God," she shouted. "Harris is pissed drunk."

Image: Getty


His antics travelled far and wide. In New York, there was one bar that would line up six double vodkas just as Harris walked through the door. When he told this to a journalist, the writer called bullshit. Harris took him outside, into a taxi, out and into the bar where, sure enough, six double vodkas appeared.

Harris somehow managed to sustain a marriage in spite of his reputation and intake, which was then up to two-and-a-half bottles of vodka a day. On one occasion, after being thrown out of a London pub at closing time, he ran to catch a train at Kings Cross purely to rinse the open bar. A few hours later, he ended up in Leeds - twatted. Strolling the streets looking for a bed-sit, he threw a stone at the lit-up window of a random, suburban house. Luckily for him, the owner of the house recognised him and invited the actor inside. He ended up staying for four days. None of which he could remember.

The woman of the house eventually rang his wife, Elizabeth, declaring: "I've got your husband."

"Good," she replied. "Keep him." They later divorced.


Speaking reflectively on his relationship with women in 2000, Harris said: "If I was analysing myself, I'd say I was an obsessive-compulsive. Everything I do, it has to be excessive. If I fall in love, it has to be excessive. I overpower the woman with devotion and love and sex to such an extent I exhaust them. Same when I drink."

Harris and his second wife, Ann Turkel. Image: Getty

Even though the film studios would add extra working hours to suit the star's wild lifestyle, his second wife, former model Ann Turkel, wasn't so tolerant. That union also ended in divorce. "I'm totally guilty," Harris said. "I'm absolutely guilty of everything I'm accused of. I'm guilty of breaking up two marriages. I accept that. And if I had my life to live again I'd do the same thing."


By the late 70s, Harris was advised to quit booze, which he did cold turkey. But he soon replaced it with drugs: coke, weed, acid, heroin. You name it, he probably did it. Though he admitted it was a short affair. Snorting up five to eight grams of chisel a day, it wasn't before long that he overdosed and truly went teetotal.

A positive indictment of his strength, Harris managed to steer clear of booze for just short of 15 years. While he could finally remember what he had done the day before, it wasn't anything worth remembering. Offered a pint of Guinness at a funeral in the mid-90s, the actor willingly fell off the wagon.

The relapse came at a time when his career was on the rise. He'd starred in Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven and would soon be in Gladiator. When he was approached about the Dumbledore role, like Sean Connery before him, he turned it down. Several times actually. Harris was in his 70s. He didn't want to commit to an arduous film series in the last years of life. It was only because of his granddaughter, who said she'd never speak to him again if he turned it down, that he threw on the fake beard and signed on.

Harris would still revel in his old days and give it some blarney when he desired. His son Jared remembers a particular occurrence: "He was 70 and he was outside the Coach and Horses not far from here having a Guinness and an Irish girl came up to him and started having a go, something about how Dad hadn't 'given back' to Limerick. 'I really am a very forgiving man,' he said to her. 'I can forgive ignorance, and I can even forgive rudeness, but I can't forgive ugliness and you are the ugliest woman I have ever seen, now fuck off'."

But it's his swansong that solidifies the status of the man. Being stretchered out of the Savoy Hotel weeks prior to his death of cancer in October 2002, Harris sprang up and shouted at people passing by: "It was the food!"

So here's to Richard Harris: the man, the myth, the legend.

Words by Josh Teal

Topics: Harry Potter

Josh Teal
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