Today’s Guest: Richard Harris, actor, “Camelot”
The following interview with legendary British actor Richard Harris was conducted by Bob Andelman and originally published in the St. Petersburg Times on November 8, 1985. Unfortunately, the audiocassette it was recorded on didn’t stand up to time but, as you’ll see below, the conversation certainly did. So did the actor’s chops; he played Professor Albus Dumbledore in the first two Harry Potter films, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. He died at the age of 72 on October 25, 2002. I am posting this online for the first time in celebration of what would have been the 86th anniversary of his birth, October 1, 1930. — Mr. Media
Camelot – and its tale of King Arthur, honor, nobility and optimism – is an extremely popular American musical. Richard Harris thinks he knows why.
“Americans have a wonderful, healthy naivete that the world is going to be okay, that everything that Camelot stands for is just around the corner and it’s going to be attained, it’s there when the crisis arrives,” he says.
Harris must be considered an expert on the Broadway musical. He has portrayed King Arthur in film, on stage and on television. Begin ning this Tuesday, Nov. 12, and continuing through Nov. 17, Harris brings the road production of Camelot – which he directs and stars in – to the Bayfront Center in St. Petersburg, as part of Zev Bufman’s seventh season of Broadway in the Sunshine.
Camelot’s appeal is almost uniquely American, according to Harris, interviewed recently by telephone. The show doesn’t play well in England, for example.
“IN ENGLAND, the world is doomed. And the world is pot worth saving unless England can save it for itself – not from itself, but for itself. It suddenly dawned on the English about 10 years ago that the empire is gone and they’re not par ticularly important in world affairs anymore. Therefore, they look up on it very cynically, with a certain air of disdain and cynicism. They think it’s very old-fashioned.”
RICHARD HARRIS excerpt: “We used to work only when the accountant rang up and said, ‘You got no more money left.’ Then we looked for a script that was suitable and did it. Mark you, I never regret that. One of the great periods of my life, that was. It was four years when England, like a dying animal, was kicking itself rather splendidly.”
Harris wavers on the connection Americans make between Camelot and the Kennedy era, which had just begun when the play was first staged in New York on Dec. 3, 1960. “Well, I think even Republicans like it,” he jokes.
“No, I think it’s a general thing about the American character which is so positive, so healthy, full of life. They don’t see things through doomed lenses. They be lieve very much in the positive side of human nature. They really be lieve that there’s an Arthur that will one day be sent into the White House when necessary, and his idea of peaceful co-existence is what they really want in America . They have this great belief in peace, a great belief in a social order that can exist without violence. That’s why I think Camelot really appeals to them.”
To play King Arthur, an actor must be able to act and sing with authority. Or at least appear to do that.
“I DON’T rate myself as a sing er at all,” Harris begs off. “I want you to know that quite off the front. If they come to hear me sing, then they better stay at home. If they come to see me act, that’s okay. But for God’s sake, don’t come to hear me sing. We have wonderful singers. Come to hear them sing.”
Harris may not think much of himself as a singer, but he does have one hit record to his credit. MacAr thur Park, a mostly spoken lament about leaving cakes out in the rain and other personal losses, reached the number 2 position on the charts in 1968.
Still, to his talents in perspective, Harris tells this story:
“I remember years ago, there was a very famous journalist in London who worked at the Daily Mirror. His name was Donald Zeck. He came to the house one day. I was at the height of my success at the time. He was sitting in my house, and he said, ‘1 didn’t ever realize you were so ugly!’ I said, ‘Am I? There are a lot of uglier actors.’ He said, ‘Well, name me one actor who is uglier than you.’ I couldn’t name one. I kept saying, ‘Ummmm, llmmmm … ‘ And he had a series of photographs, and the top of the article was: ‘Question – Name Me One Star Who’s Uglier Than You.’ And then he put the answers under the photographs, with me going, ‘Ummmm, ahhh, ummmm,’ scratching my head, ‘Ummmm, ahhh.’ In a series of seven pictures, there was no answer. So I have no illusions about myself at all.”
ALTHOUGH THE role of Arthur was made famous by the late Richard Burton, Harris was the king in the 1967 film and in the 1982 HBO production. Now 51, Harris has frequently portrayed Arthur on Broadway and in road companies, but this is his last season as the benevolent ruler.
“I won’t do it anymore,” Harris says. “Whereas I can play the second act very comfortably now at 50, the young hoy at the beginning, when he meets Guinevere, is very difficult, and it’s stretching the imagination of audiences, I think. Audiences have to believe in the magic of the theater to realize that Richard Harris is not 24 or 25 any more.”
It was with intentions of becoming a director, not an actor, that Harris attended the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts in 1956.
“There was no place for a director to study direction in England so I had to go to an acting academy,” he says. “That’s the only approach I could possibly make toward becoming a director. I had never had any ambitions toward being an actor at all … I don’t think they thought I was very good, even in the academy, as an actor. They say now, the Monday morning quarterback, ‘Oh, you were brilliant, you were a genius,’ all that kind of crap. But at the time I was there, memory tells me they’re lying.”
Harris, of course, went on to a memorable acting career (This Sporting Life, Mutiny on the’ Bounty, A Man Called Horse, Camelot, The Wild Geese). He has had only two real directing turns. First came a job in 1956, behind the scenes of a short- lived London pro duction of Clifford Odets’ Winter Journey (The Country Girl). A few years later, he directed a movie, The Hero. Until Camelot, that was the extent of his directing experience.
Directing Camelot “sort of fell my way by accident, really,” Harris says. “In 1984, I gave the producers 47 weeks of my time to do a massive tour … My house in the Bahamas was being pulled down and rebuilt, and I thought it would take them a year to do so. I want you to know they’re still in there. They started January 1984. I’m practically bankrupt from it.
“I wanted to do a theater-in-the round season with it (Camelot) for 10 weeks. So we put together a company and designed a set. Of course, you can’t have a very elabo rate set for theater-in-the-round. So I went and did the best 10 weeks of my life.”
When the season ended, Harris thought he was going right into a full-blown, international road com pany version of the play. But the set designer hadn’t put together the set, and there was.no director. The producers wanted to take the show out anyway, Harris says, using theater-in-the-round sets. Harris balked.
“I said, ‘Sorry, I’m not going to do it. We have to close it down. I have no intentions of asking people to pay $37 for a seat and to be rooked.'”
Harris was asked to direct the show himself. He initially refused but then decided to take the castle by the turrets, participating in the design of a set and the alteration of the play’s book.
“I was told how much money I had to spend so I had to make do with it. But I think we’ve done beautifully. What we have is beautiful looking. I also put a lot of emphasis on the influence of Merlin.”
Harris has a reputation some times verging on the outrageous, mostly gained in his days as a heavy drinker and carouser. (He claims to have laid off alcohol since Aug. 11, 1981.) Does a cast approach working for him with some measure of trepidation?
“I don’t know,” he says. “I actually don’t think of myself at all like that. I’m not one of these actors who’s continually worried about the impression he’s making on people. I think I disappoint a lot of people when they meet me. I think I don’t live up to my reputation, whatever that’s supposed to be. I’m a gentle soul, sitting there, eager to help and to be of service to people.”
For anyone who saw Harris on the silver screen almost two decades ago in Camelot, he says there are several differences to be aware of before coming to see him in 1985. “They must first of all get used to the shock that I’m 18 years older. The critics quickly point that out to me … Age, experience and lifestyle have played their tricks on me. I think my performance is much different, of course. It’s more mature, and it’s less self-indulgent than it was in the movie.
“My energy is there, because I live a very disciplined life, which is absolutely tailored to what I’m doing in the evening. My enthusiasm is there, my love for the thing is there. Sometimes driving in the car to the theater, I think, ‘God, what am I doing this for? I don’t have to do this. I’m rich enough. I could retire, I could do an easy movie or something.’ And yet, when the over ture starts up, and I’m standing behind that tent behind that cur tain, I think there is no place ·else in the world I want to be but there.”
Harris has had his share of bad moments onstage.
“I suffer from hypoglycemia, which about two years ago I didn’t know how to control, how to deal with it. I do now. I’ve studied with Nathan Pritikin so it’s not a prob lem anymore. But when it was a problem, it was terrifying if I got an attack on stage, and I did. Not quite often, but I did. The actors could see it straight away. They could see it in my face. A conductor could tell within a second. And I have to lie down. I can’t move. It’s as if every morsel of energy has been taken out of my body, and I can’t move at all, so I lie there. My dresser quickly makes me oatmeal or some kind of protein. They have it always standing by, even offstage now, just in case. They improvise getting me off. It’s tough when it happens. It happened, unfortunately, disastrously in Detroit in 1982. I actually collapsed on the stage. We had to stop the show, and I was taken to the hospital. That’s when I was admitted to the Pritikin Clinic.”
RICHARD HARRIS excerpt: “Americans have a wonderful, healthy naivete that the world is going to be okay, that everything that Camelot stands for is just around the corner and it’s going to be attained, it’s there when the crisis arrives.”
WHEN CONFRONTED cautiously about his good film/bad film movie career – including Orca, The Killer Whale and Tarzan, The Ape Man, with Bo Derek – Harris’ response is startling to a reporter.
“Some very, very bad movies,” he remarks. “Don’t be ashamed to say it.”
“Some horrible movies.”
“Terrible movies,” Harris enthuses. “That’s the truth.
“I think what happened was at one particular stage, Hollywood was bent on making classic movies, of a classic nature, and they needed classic actors. That’s when Burton, O’Toole, Finney and myself all started. Then that ended, and they started making Hollywood cop movies and Godfather-type movies. And there are people in America who can play those far better than us. So our type of picture really changed in a sense, disappeared.
“The type of things one was offered were not very good. I was doing the best of what I was offered, which just shows you what the oth er scripts were like, the ones I rejected. Also, we came out of a very strange period in England during the ’60s and early ’70s. One thought that working was interfering with our lifestyle. We weren’t very ambitious. We wanted to see how much we could drink and how late I could stay up and how many girls we could (get). Acting and career became secondary for a long period.
“We used to work only when the accountant rang up and said, ‘You got no more money left.’ Then we looked for a script that was suitable and did it. Mark you, I never regret that. One of the great periods of my life, that was. It was four years when England, like a dying animal, was kicking itself rather splendidly.”
AS HE wanders through middle age, Harris has a boyish anticipa tion about the classical roles he says are only now becoming available to him.
“I think of all the Shakespeare I’m going to do. I’m going to try Hamlet, and I’m going to do Martin Luther, Ibsen’s brand. You can’ play those parts until you’re 50. I’m’ just at the right age now.”