‘The Ghost of Richard Harris’ Docu Solidifies the Mystique of Famed Actor Before He Was Dumbledore

‘The Ghost of Richard Harris’ Docu Solidifies the Mystique of Famed Actor Before He Was Dumbledore


In his bold 1990 interpretation of Luigi Pirandello’s “Henry IV,” the late and legendary Irish stage, screen and music star Richard Harris utters the immortal lines, “Woe to him who doesn’t know how to wear his mask.”

Even before his breathtaking big-screen triumph 60 years ago as the rugby ruffian Frank Machin in Lindsay Anderson’s film directing debut, “This Sporting Life,” Harris proved adept at juggling personal and professional personas. He swaggered with macho gusto and great thesping chops through the London stage scene and quickly found key roles in action epics such as “Guns of Navarone” and “Mutiny on the Bounty.” 

Then his stunning 1963 breakthrough in “Life” made the showbiz side of the equation easy. 

A Cannes lead actor award, an Oscar nomination and reams of reviews such as Variety’s quickly put Harris at the top tier of international leading men. Variety’s London critic at the time wrote:

“Harris gives a dominating, intelligent performance as the arrogant, blustering, fundamentally simple and insecure footballer. His acting has a fierce all-out tempo. Yet on two or three occasions, he shows a quiet tenderness and warmth. He is clearly a standout screen personality as well as an impressive actor.”

Across the following decades, Harris lit up “Camelot” on stage and screen, took “MacArthur Park” to the top of the record charts and Grammy history and brought his boisterous rowdy energy to big-screen projects both reputable, such as Jim Sheridan’s “The Field,” which garnered Harris a second Oscar nomination, or Clint Eastwood’s Oscar best picture Western “Unforgiven,” to the more prosaic, which includes a long list of what can kindly be called “paycheck movies.”

And there are also major performances in lesser-known genre gems worthy of rediscovery from Richard Lester’s Swiss watch thriller “Juggernaut” or Sam Peckinpah’s ill-fated but wildly ambitious “Major Dundee.”

And of course, not long before he passed away, Harris was Dumbledore in the early innings of the “Harry Potter” mega-franchise.

Last year, the Harris mythology and the magnificence were both brought to rousing life in Adrian Sibley’s Venice-preeming doc, “The Ghost of Richard Harris,” a moving journey through Harris’ tabloid antics and his transfixing performances, hosted and guided by his sons Jared, Jamie and Damian.

In Damon Wise’s admiring review in Deadline, Wise notes “Harris was never a man to abide by anyone’s rules, especially his own,” and veteran industry observers such as his former agent, Sandy Lieberson, are thankfully on hand in the film to keep track of the contradictions. It’s Lieberson who laughingly assesses Harris’ pronouncements of never selling out to Hollywood as perhaps good copy, but questionable history. And as Wise is keen to point out, Harris “was always an immaculate self-publicist.”

But the difference between Harris the fabulist and the countless number of Hollywood self-promoters whose names are lost to time, a viewing of Harris’ Oscar-season “Life” from 60 years back still bursts with the vibrant bravado and the great heart of an actor and spirit who is actually no “Ghost,” but a living breathing creature still capable of thrilling new viewers and eliciting fresh responses such as “They don’t make ’em like that guy anymore.” 

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