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© 1987-2017
Scott R. Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

A Man Called Horse—and Bull (1930-2002)

When I heard the news that Richard Harris had died, I got an eerie sense of déjà vu. After all, just a couple of weeks before at the Cork Film Festival, I had seen him in serious decline in the film My Kingdom and had actually seen him die in the 1978 adventure yarn, The Wild Geese—which wasn’t actually playing at the Cork Film Festival but which I caught in my hotel room late one night on the BBC.

The Wild Geese is a fascinating movie to watch, not because it was particularly great, but because it is an absorbing historical artifact. It did for that generation of (mostly) British actors what the original Ocean’s Eleven did for the Rat Pack. It allowed a famous ensemble seem to play themselves, while largely playing on their public personas, in a romantic tale of old comrades coming together for the proverbial (and inevitably star-crossed) “one last job.” When mercenary ringleader Richard Burton describes himself as nothing but a drunk when he isn’t on a mission, we forget that Burton was (presumably) reading from a script. The film provided a choice role for Harris, who got to chew the scenery as a doting father, reluctant hero, courageous soldier, and tragic martyr. We got to see, by turns, his hammy side and his sensitive side.

In the days following his death, the newspapers in Harris’s native Ireland were full of tributes. They largely focused on his Limerick roots, his early days as rugby player and enduring love of the game, and his two Oscar-nominated performances, as the young rugby player in This Sporting Life and as the Bull McCabe in Jim Sheridan’s film adaptation of John B Keane’s play The Field—as well as how he lamented that the British papers always referred to him as “the British actor Richard Harris” when he won an award but as “the Irish actor Richard Harris” when they were reporting some escapade involving drink or women or both.

Many Americans will tend to remember Harris for his role as King Arthur in the 1967 film version of Camelot, which was critically panned but would have been seen by a lot more people than the stage version. Because of that leading role in a musical that somehow became linked with the aborted Kennedy administration (and also maybe even partly because of the common Irish connection), in our memory Harris is eternally bound to America’s mid-century golden age and sudden loss of innocence. Around that time, Harris also took up a side career as a pop crooner, which also brings up a reason that I had been dreading his eventual death. Sure, enough since October 25 I have again had to listen to his melancholy rendition of “MacArthur Park” on the radio.

Personally, I will always regret that I squandered not one but two opportunities to see Harris in person at the 1999 Seattle International Film Festival. He was there to promote the Africa-set film To Walk with Lions. Everyone who saw him told of how charming and eloquent and full of stories he was. By all accounts, he would have happily chatted away the entire night, sharing his endless bounty of stories and anecdotes. Sometime not long after, I got a small taste of what I had missed when I caught him on The Tonight Show being interviewed by Jay Leno. Even in that confined format, his charisma and zest shone through.

Even more than an actor or a singer, we will miss Harris as one of the world’s great characters. The early tales of hard drinking, hard living and hard womanizing only made him seem bigger than life. His avuncular charm in his later years made him sweetly human.

I’ve read in several places that Harris always wanted to play King Lear. Jim Sheridan quoted him as saying that, if his first starring role, in This Sporting Life, was his Hamlet, then The Field would be his Lear. Many would consider his performance as the Bull McCabe as the finest of his career. It certainly was one of the all-too-few times that you could watch his performance and not think, oh yeah, that’s Richard Harris. He truly became the stubborn, bitter, land-obsessed Kerryman, while unquestionably giving him a Shakespearean flavor. But he got to play a closer approximation of Shakespeare’s Lear in the new film My Kingdom. It certainly afforded Harris a great opportunity to, once again, chew the scenery and try to exorcise whatever demons haunted him from his own complicated family life.

It comes as no surprise that I have seen no mention, in any of the numerous and exhaustive tributes, of the one performance that I personally consider Harris’s greatest. Rarely have I been so moved as by his and James Earl Jones’s portrayals of fathers in 1940s South Africa, brought together under tragic circumstances, in the 1995 version of Cry, The Beloved Country. Never has either actor been better in a film role. If there were any justice in this world, these two men would be forever remembered for that film, instead of for Jones’s voice work in the Star Wars movies or for Harris’s supporting wizard role in the first two Harry Potter films.

-S.L., 31 October 2002

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