Richard Harris’s reputation for hell raising has a tendency to eclipse his illustrious career.
But personal documents from the late actor’s life are now being made public, and ought to complicate the otherwise one-dimensional portrait of the man.
The archives have been donated to University College Cork, but their first public exhibition will take place in Limerick, at the Hunt Museum.
Born in Limerick in 1930, Harris once had his sights on life as a professional rugby player. A bout of tuberculosis in his teens quickly put a pin in that dream, and he reorientated his focus towards acting. His career started in tandem with the emergence of the Kitchen Sink drama – a huge cultural movement in British cinema. His last role was Albus Dumbledore in the early films of the Harry Potter franchise. He counted Peter O’Toole and Richard Burton among his peers. He had mastered both the stage and the screen, too.
But ask most people what first springs to mind about Harris and they will likely come back with vague notions about his womanising, his bar brawling and generalised loucheness. There is no doubt truth behind this characterisation, but Harris – like everyone – was multifaceted.
His son Jared – also an actor, with celebrated roles in The Crown and Chernobyl – is in London’s Savoy Hotel, where Richard Harris lived for 28 years. His name is still emblazoned over the suite’s threshold. The views over the Thames and Waterloo Bridge are quite remarkable.
The rooms were bursting at the seams with Harris’s documents, poems, letters, photographs and piecemeal paraphernalia, carefully organised by archivists and ready to be sent to Ireland for display.
Jared appears to have spent a great deal of time thinking about the character of his father. He speaks with forensic precision in the manner of someone who has interrogated their subject matter deeply. There is a clear fondness, too.
Jared seems somewhat weary of the so-called ‘hellraiser’ question. “[My father] fostered a public image because it is what the press wanted,” he explained. “He understood how to play the Hollywood game. By leaning into his persona he knew he could help editors sell newspapers and, in turn, he could sell tickets to his films.”
But this unwritten quid pro quo “was ultimately to his detriment”, Jared says. It simply became too hard for Richard to escape the angry young man narrative. One of his greatest roles – in Pirandello’s Henry IV – encapsulated this exact problem. “This is a play about someone who has created their identity,” Jared says, “and that creation has trapped them in a role they can’t get out of.” The adage “art imitates life” is a platitude only because it is true.
There are echoes of Richard’s obsession with identity in his archives. His poems and letters muse on how we adopt masks, how we become characters in our own life. Perhaps the greatest role he ever played, Jared suggests about his father, was the one of Richard Harris.
Harris’s Irishness was integral to how he viewed himself. “It became contentious,” Jared explains. His vocal support of reunification and nationalism put him at odds with much of the British establishment. By the time he ended up in Hollywood he had become attached to this outsider image his Irishness gave him. “It never left him,” Jared says.
Among the archive, a letter from Ronald Reagan stands out. As does a get well soon card from a young Daniel Radcliffe, sent to Harris in his final years.