Richard Harris (1 October 1930 – 25 October 2002) from a family of seven siblings in Limerick, a commanding 6’2″, was once described as looking like “five miles of bad country road,” but there was also a charm, wit, humour and gentleness behind the facade, forged out of an early struggle against his siblings for his parent’s affection, as his father would sometimes profess to have forgotten Richard’s name.
When tuberculosis confined the teenage Harris to his sick bed for three years, his acting began in his empty sick-room as conversations with imaginary people, in which he would take on the part of the Pope, or the King of England, to much acclaim.
His health restored, Harris went to London to study acting, at a time when boarding-houses still specified “No Irishmen or blacks”, enduring a period of starvation working as a ratcatcher to support himself and sleeping in a coalcellar.
Spotted for his impressive early performances at Theatre Royal, in Stratford, Harris had an engrossing big acting style, a studied rage. He appeared in his first film, Alive and Kicking (1958) and Hollywood beckoned. Next, he won a small part in a war film, The Guns of Navarone, followed by a high-billing for his supporting role in Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), due to his initial reluctance to accept the part until the money became too good to refuse.
Appearing opposite the difficult and temperamental Marlon Brando, of whom he was a fan, his estimation of Brando was to change during the filming of Mutiny on the Bounty. Brando had to strike Harris in one scene, but after two takes Harris thought the blows so feeble that he mock-curtsied and asked Brando why he didn’t kiss him instead. Harris then kissed Brando and asked him for a dance. Brando stormed off in a foul mood, filming abandoned for a few days.
Harris would then cement his acting reputation in one of the best British films ever made, This Sporting Life, in which he skillfully portrays the character’s physical prowess and aspirational rage with his life working in the coal pits, denying his rugby teammates as class equals, his behaviour rather boorish. ( He won Best Actor at Cannes and his first Oscar nomination.)
But, half man, half maniac, he was challenging to work with, Charlton Heston, recalling the “very much professional Irishman and an occasional pain in the posterior”. Harris thought Heston was “square”, “issued from a cubic womb” and Harris tried to figure out a way to lace Heston’s coffee with LSD to loosen him up a bit.
Before shooting began on The Heroes of Telemark, Kirk Douglas squared-up to Harris, asking him “Are you going to be as difficult as they say you are?” Harris responded “Are you going to be as big a b*****d as they say you are?” After further squabbles over camera angles and which one of them got the bigger and better cars to courier them around, they came to blows, but were to be firm friends thereafter.
Harris developed a reputation with film directors for being intoxicated and they would add at least a week to his schedule, assuming he’d be drunk, not knowing he sometimes dabbled with LSD, as well.
Harris described himself as an “excessive compulsive… everything I do has to be excessive”. Prone to disappear and go on benders, it was not uncommon for him to end up in a foreign police cell, days later, with no memory of how he got there, having told his wife he was just popping out to the local, in London, for a quick pint.
He said “I adored getting drunk and I adored reading in the papers about what I had done the night before” and the more he drank, the more he was likely to engage in fisticuffs, just for the fun of it and not caring whether he won or lost.
He had a flamboyant temperament and a love of misbehaving, launching into an impromptu Irish Jig in the midst of a crowded restaurant, before touring the tables to kiss each and every woman in turn. He raised hell in the bars of London and Dublin, the latter he referred as the “glue pot” – “once you get in it, you can never get out”.
Getting on a night-train, at King’s Cross, because it was the only place to be found that still served drinks, he ended up in Leeds. He threw a stone up at somebody’s window to request a drink and a bed for a night. The old lady duly obliged and he stayed three-days.
This behaviour naturally put a strain on Harris’ marriages and he once described his ideal wife, “as a beautiful, mute nymphomaniac, who owns the local boozer.” Returning home after a two-week drinking bout, he wondered how he would explain himself. His wife opened the door and Harris asked her, “Why didn’t you pay the ransom?” After the divorce, he conducted a drinking tour of Italy, that took in some of the brothels there.
Having formed his own group called Alcoholics Unanimous, Harris was at peak drinking capacity, knocking back two bottles of vodka a day, along with bottles of port and brandy for good measure and he consequently appeared in some appalling films, including Caprice, with Doris Day, collapsing on set and being rushed to hospital. Although he was given the last rights, Harris survived, but it was a close call, preferring that his manner of death was “a heart attack on some beautiful blonde.”
Following the huge hit of Camelot and the stage musical spin offs, which made him very rich, because he owned the rights, he played macho-masochists in A Man Called Horse and Cromwell, before his career, unsurprisingly, hit the rails, after several films he said were “way below me” and accepted “just to have fun.”
He gave up drinking in 1983, having quaffed two bottles of Chateau Margeaux ‘57 at the Jockey Club. He would later make a return to Guinness, which he described as “the best Irish food.”
His career was revived with The Field and he was then offered roles in Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992), as the gunfighter “English Bob”, some reading it as a metaphor for his relationship with the Wild West of Hollywood egos. He branded Michael Caine “an over-fat, flatulent 62-year-old windbag” and said of Tom Cruise “he’s got very nice teeth, but has he ever read a book?”
He played the parts of bearded sage in Gladiator (2000) and in Harry Potter, as Albus Dumbledore, having initially turned it down, but then accepting, because his 11-year-old granddaughter had threatened to never speak to him again.
Harris won a host of Best Actor awards for This Sporting Life, The Field, Camelot and Cromwell.
Later in life, Harris took up residence at the Savoy Hotel for £6000 per week, with the staff at his beck and call. Female interviewers would be told to “come up and take your knickers off.” His health would finally deteriorate there, he gave up eating and drinking, eventually being carried out on a stretcher through the lobby, he sat up and shouted “It’s the food! Don’t touch the food!” Diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease, he lost his life shortly after.
Peter O’Toole (? 1932 – 14 December 2013) was born in Leeds, although it could be County Galway; he had two birth certificates, for different locations and different dates, one dated August, the other June.
Growing up in Hunslet, south Leeds, his mother was Scottish, his father Irish, a colourful character and well-known racecourse bookmaker, who toured racecourse towns in Northern England, often doing a runner when he had insufficient funds to pay-out winning bets due to miscalculations.
O’Toole began his working life as a trainee journalist and photographer at the Yorkshire Evening Post, becoming a signaller in the Royal Navy after being called up for National Service. Asked there by an officer what he wanted to do after his service, he replied a poet, or an actor, “Well, have a crack at it”, came the reply.
O’Toole won a two-year scholarship at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA), where he found himself in the same class as Albert Finney: they formed a lifelong friendship. Living on a narrow-boat during his RADA years, drinking wine best described as red ink, the boat sank, when too many guests joined in the jollities of drunkenness, shouting and shrieking.
When inebriated, he had a propensity to scale the north face of Lloyd’s bank, set fire to himself while asleep and burn out kitchens during his ill-advised cooking attempts.
Even before O’Toole became famous, he had the gift of attracting attention: Travelling around Yugoslavia in a sports car with his future wife, Sian Phillips, people mobbed him, wanted to spend time with him and talk to him.
He expected star treatment even while working as a stuntman during his RADA days, refusing to get out of bed until a car arrived. A Rolls Royce was laid on for him every day thereafter.
Graduating from RADA and beginning theatre roles, he would gain recognition as a Shakespearean actor, at the Bristol Old Vic for his theatrical performance style, a melodious clarity of speech, a patrician’s stateliness, gravitas and panache.
Transferring to film, he was spotted in The Day They Robbed the Bank of England (1961) and asked to audition for Lawrence of Arabia (1962), although he wasn’t the first choice: Marlon Brando had been auditioned, but wouldn’t commit himself. Albert Finney was also auditioned, but turned it down.
Nor was O’Toole the first choice of Lawrence producer, Sam Spiegel, who recalled having auditioned O’Toole once before for a minor role in a James Bond film in order to replace an actor who drank too much, but O’Toole had cracked an ill-judged joke and a whisky bottle fell from his coat pocket.
Viewing O’Toole’s audition for Lawrence, Spiegel relented, admitting that they had found their Lawrence. Speigel would later remark on O’Toole’s “heady mix of a blend of sensitivity and vitality, seldom matched.”
In Lawrence of Arabia, O’Toole makes one of the most charismatic and memorable film debuts, he is a strong screen presence, mesmerizing and flamboyant, hesitating with moral dilemmas, there is more going on behind the piercing blue eyes and his words are considered and concealing. He was awarded the Best Newcomer in a Leading Role for his performance in Lawrence of Arabia.
On a break from filming Lawrence and let loose on a night out in the drinking dens of Beirut with Omar Sharif (Cairo Fred, as O’Toole would affectionately call him) they got so drunk that O’Toole dogmatically tried to pay for sex in a nunnery. Frequenting Casinos, they lost 9 months of wages from the “Lawrence of Arabia” shoot in one night, even though Sharif claimed to have a system.
O’Toole was to justify his alcohol consumption by saying that there isn’t a baby born, a body buried, a head crowned, a ship launched, or a deal struck, without something cheerful being cracked open. Our chosen, euphoria inducing drug.
He recalled the joy of “drinking and waking up in the morning to find I was in Mexico,” and “the days when one went for a beer at one’s local in Paris and woke up in Corsica.” Many of his interviews took place in a pub, usually The Coach and Horses, in London’s Soho, then the lair of “Britain’s Rudest Landlord.”
Working with his old arm-bending associate, Richard Burton, on Becket, the sobriety on set lasted for all of 10 days, until Burton suggested “a little snifter”, which was to last 2 days and the cameras began rolling again while they are both still drunk, but not incapable of turning in a performance.
For years O’Toole and Burton had houses a stone’s throw away from each other, in Hampstead and they would frequently go on benders, always carrying each other home at pub closing time, in the midst of some rousing chorus or another, until Burton met Elizabeth Taylor, who had Burton firmly under her thumb and soon put a stop to the antics.
One-night, Burton suggested they both play Hamlet. “Oh, I couldn’t! It’s the worst play in the world”, O’Toole answered. After a few more beverages, they tossed a coin to decide the venues and directors. O’Toole got London and Olivier, Burton got New York and Gielgud and they both did it.
During one performance of Hamlet, in London, O’Toole heard Noel Coward sniggering on the front row. O’Toole realized he had left his horn-rimmed glasses on after picking horses from the paper backstage.
Failing to appear on the set of a film one day, he was spotted on live TV in the crowd at Sandown races, betting slip in hand, cheering on his chosen nag.
Once after sharing dinner at a restaurant with Michael Caine, they woke up in unrecognizable surroundings. After Caine had inquired about the time, O’Toole replied “Never mind what time it is, we’ve been asleep for two days” The owner of the restaurant banned them both for life, refusing to tell them what they’d done.
While shooting The Lion in Winter alongside Kate Hepburn, O’Toole severed the tip of his finger in a boating accident. Having dropped the finger in brandy, he put it back in the right place and wrapped it with a bandage, but would realize it was the wrong way around when the bandage came off.
O’Toole and Peter Finch, the Australian actor and fellow rabble rouser, were once refused a drink at a little hole in the wall pub in Dublin, because it was after closing time. The stars wrote out a cheque to buy the pub. Realizing what they’d done the next morning, panicked phone calls were made to the bank, but the landlord hadn’t cashed it and the three became friends.
In the seventies, he suffered from stomach cancer and pancreatitis, also having part of his intestines removed. He stopped drinking for a while, explaining away these operations as merely plumbing.
Sian Philips would later leave him, because he was “too uneven”, their relationship being “intermittently ecstatic, or unbelievably dreadful.” His only serious girlfriend late on in life was George Eliot; He went to bed with her every night.
His notorious 1980 Macbeth, was his low-point, the Old Vic audiences finding it so unintentionally funny that O’Toole used to join in with the laughter and it may have been worse had his plans to introduce inflatable scenery been accepted.
O’Toole’s final performances was on stage, in a role that was made to measure, Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell, about the legendary Spectator columnist and fellow bar raconteur. The reviews were unanimously favourable and gushing with praise. These two had once competed with each-other for the affections of a certain woman, Bernard won and never forgave O’Toole for it.
He played the roaring drunk in My Favorite Year ambitious madmen in Don Quixote, Macbeth, Caligula and Casanova ), charismatic lunatics (The Ruling Class, The Stunt Man) a tortured establishment figures (Goodbye, Mr Chips), the mercurial king (Becket, A Lion In Winter) and worldly nostalgists (The Last Emperor, Venus), winning Best Actor awards and having been nominated for 7 Academy Awards without success, he received an honorary award from the Academy in 2003.
O’Toole didn’t much like the outdoors, or most forms of weather. His idea of heaven was to move from one smoked filled room to another and hear the cork pop in anticipation of deep potations, merriment and stories exchanged with like-minded souls. He claimed his only exercise was “walking behind the coffins of my friends who regularly took exercise.”
Their legendary hellraising unfolded prior to the long-lens of the paparazzi, in a pre-internet, pre-social media age and whilst there are modern celebrities on a similar path to notoriety, none of them manage to remain quite so eloquent and quotable in the ensuing mayhem.
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