Rex Harrison

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Sir Rex Harrison
Rex Harrison Allan Warren.jpg
Harrison at his home in London in 1976, by Allan Warren
Born Reginald Carey Harrison
(1908-03-05)5 March 1908
Huyton, Lancashire, England, UK
Died 2 June 1990(1990-06-02) (aged 82)
New York City, New York, U.S.
Cause of death
Pancreatic cancer
Education Liverpool College
Occupation Actor
Years active 1930-1989
Spouse(s) Colette Thomas (m. 1934; div. 1942)
Lilli Palmer (m. 1943; div. 1957)
Kay Kendall (m. 1957; wid. 1959)
Rachel Roberts (m. 1962; div. 1971)
Elizabeth Rees-Williams (m. 1971; div. 1975)
Mercia Tinker (m. 1979–90)
Children
Relatives Cathryn Harrison (granddaughter)

Sir Reginald Carey "Rex" Harrison MBE (5 March 1908 – 2 June 1990) was an English actor of stage and screen.

Harrison began his career on the stage in 1924. He won his first Tony Award for his performance as Henry VIII in Anne of the Thousand Days in 1949. He won his second Tony for the role of Professor Henry Higgins in the stage production of My Fair Lady in 1957. He reprised the role for the 1964 film version, which earned him a Golden Globe Award and Best Actor Oscar.

In addition to his stage career, Harrison also appeared in numerous films, including Anna and the King of Siam (1946), The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), Cleopatra (1963), and Doctor Dolittle (1967). In July 1989, Harrison was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II.

In 1975, Harrison released his first autobiography. His second, A Damned Serious Business: My Life in Comedy, was published posthumously in 1991.

Harrison was married a total of six times and had two sons: Noel and Carey Harrison. He continued working in stage productions until shortly before his death from pancreatic cancer in June 1990 at the age of 82.

Youth and stage career[edit]

Harrison was born at Derry House in Huyton, Lancashire,[1] the son of Edith Mary (née Carey) and William Reginald Harrison, a cotton broker.[2] He was educated at Liverpool College.[3] After a bout of childhood measles, Harrison lost most of the sight in his left eye, which on one occasion caused some on-stage difficulty.[4] He first appeared on the stage in 1924 in Liverpool. Harrison's acting career was interrupted during World War II while serving in the Royal Air Force, reaching the rank of Flight Lieutenant.[5] He acted in various stage productions until 11 May 1990. He acted in the West End of London when he was young, appearing in the Terence Rattigan play French Without Tears, which proved to be his breakthrough role.

He alternated appearances in London and New York in such plays as Bell, Book and Candle (1950), Venus Observed, The Cocktail Party, The Kingfisher and The Love of Four Colonels, which he also directed.[6] He won his first Tony Award for his appearance as Henry VIII in Anne of the Thousand Days and international superstardom (and a second Tony Award) for his portrayal of Henry Higgins in the musical My Fair Lady, where he appeared opposite Julie Andrews.

Later appearances included Pirandello's Henry IV, a 1984 appearance at the Haymarket Theatre with Claudette Colbert in Frederick Lonsdale's Aren't We All?, and one on Broadway at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre presented by Douglas Urbanski, at the Haymarket in J.M. Barrie's The Admirable Crichton with Edward Fox. He returned as Henry Higgins in the revival of My Fair Lady directed by Patrick Garland in 1981, cementing his association with the plays of George Bernard Shaw, which included a Tony nominated performance as Shotover in Heartbreak House, Julius Caesar in Caesar and Cleopatra, and General Burgoyne in a Los Angeles production of The Devil's Disciple.

In film[edit]

Harrison's film debut was in The Great Game (1930), other notable early films include The Citadel (1938), Night Train to Munich (1940), Major Barbara (1941), Blithe Spirit (1945), Anna and the King of Siam (1946), The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), and The Foxes of Harrow (1947). He was best known for his portrayal of Professor Henry Higgins in the 1964 film version of My Fair Lady based on the Broadway production of the same name, which was based on George Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion) for which Harrison won a Best Actor Oscar.

He also starred in 1967's Doctor Dolittle. At the height of his box office clout after the success of My Fair Lady, Harrison proved a domineering and demanding force during production, demanding auditions for prospective composers after musical playwright Leslie Bricusse was contracted[7] and demanding to have his singing recorded live during shooting, only to agree to have it rerecorded in post-production.[8] He also disrupted production with incidents with his wife, Rachel Roberts and deliberate misbehaviour, such as when he deliberately moved his yacht in front of cameras during shooting in St. Lucia and refused to move it out of sight due to contract disputes.[9] Harrison was at one point temporarily replaced by Christopher Plummer, until he agreed to be more cooperative.[10]

He starred in the 1968 comedy The Honey Pot, a modern adaptation of Ben Jonson's play Volpone. Two of his co-stars, Maggie Smith and Cliff Robertson, were to become lifelong friends. Both spoke at his New York City memorial at the Little Church Around the Corner when Harrison died in 1990.

Harrison was not by any objective standards a singer (his talking on pitch style he used in My Fair Lady would be adopted by many other classically trained actors with limited vocal ranges); the music was usually written to allow for long periods of recitative, or "speaking to the music." Harrison was self-conscious of this weakness and was prone to refuse to have co-stars who were stronger in this talent cast with him such as when he demanded that Sammy Davis Jr. be replaced with the non-singing actor, Sidney Poitier, in the initial casting for Doctor Dolittle.[11] Nevertheless, "Talk to the Animals", which Harrison performed in that film, won the Academy Award for Best Original Song in 1967.

Despite excelling in comedy (Noël Coward described him as "The best light comedy actor in the world—except for me.")[12] he attracted favourable notices in dramatic roles such as his portrayal of Julius Caesar in Cleopatra (1963) and as Pope Julius II in The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965), opposite Charlton Heston as Michelangelo. He also acted in a Hindi film Shalimar alongside Indian Bollywood star Dharmendra as well as appearing as an aging homosexual man opposite Richard Burton as his lover in Staircase (1969).[13]

Harrison as Julius Caesar in the film Cleopatra for which he was nominated for an Academy Award.

Personal life[edit]

Harrison was married six times. In 1942, he divorced his first wife, Colette Thomas, and married actress Lilli Palmer the next year; the two later appeared together in numerous plays and films, including The Fourposter.[14]

In 1947, while married to Palmer, Harrison began an affair with actress Carole Landis. Landis committed suicide in 1948 after spending the evening with Harrison.[15] Harrison's involvement in the scandal by waiting several hours before calling a doctor and police[16] briefly damaged his career and his contract with Fox was ended by mutual consent.[17]

In 1957, Harrison married the actress Kay Kendall. Kendall died of Myeloid leukemia in 1959.[18] Terence Rattigan's 1973 play In Praise of Love was written about the end of this marriage, with Harrison appearing in the New York production playing the character based on himself. Rattigan was said to be "intensely disappointed and frustrated" by Harrison's performance, as "Harrison refused to play the outwardly boorish parts of the character and instead played him as charming throughout, signalling to the audience from the start that he knew the truth about [the] illness."[19] Critics however were quite pleased with the performance and although it did not have a long run, it was yet another of Harrison's well plotted naturalistic performances.

He was subsequently married to Welsh-born actress Rachel Roberts from 1962 to 1971. After a final attempt to win Harrison back proved futile, Roberts committed suicide in 1980.[20]

Harrison then married Elizabeth Rees-Williams, divorcing in 1975, and finally in 1978, Mercia Tinker, who would become his sixth and final wife.[21] Harrison's eldest son Noel Harrison became an olympic skier, singer and occasional actor; he toured in several productions including My Fair Lady in his father's award-winning role. Noel died suddenly of a heart attack on 19 October 2013 at age 79. His younger son Carey Harrison is a playwright and social activist.

Harrison's sister Sylvia was married to David Maxwell Fyfe, a lawyer, Conservative politician and judge who was successively the lead British prosecutor at Nuremberg, Home Secretary and Lord Chancellor (head of the English judiciary); after his death she married another Cabinet minister, Lord de la Warr.

Chronology of Harrison's six marriages
Grandchildren
  • Granddaughters: Cathryn, Harriott, Chloe, Chiara, Rosie, Faith
  • Grandsons: Will, Simon, Sam

Harrison owned properties in London, New York and Portofino, Italy. His villa in Portofino was named San Genesio after the patron saint of actors.[citation needed]

Later career and death[edit]

Having retired from films after the 1982 picture A Time to Die, Harrison continued to act on Broadway and the West End until the end of his life, despite suffering from glaucoma, painful teeth, and a failing memory.[22] He was nominated for a third Tony Award in 1984 for his performance as Captain Shotover in the revival of George Bernard Shaw's Heartbreak House. He followed the show up with two successful pairings with Claudette Colbert, The Kingfisher in 1985, and Aren't We All? in 1986. In 1989, he appeared with Edward Fox in The Admirable Crichton in London. In 1989-1990, he appeared on Broadway in The Circle by W. Somerset Maugham, opposite Glynis Johns and Stewart Granger.[23] The production actually opened at Duke University for a three-week run followed by performances in Baltimore and Boston before opening 14 November 1989 on Broadway.[24][25]

Harrison died of pancreatic cancer at his home in Manhattan on 2 June 1990 at the age of 82. He had only been diagnosed with the disease for a short time. The stage production in which he was appearing at the time, The Circle, came to an end upon his death.[26]

Harrison's second autobiography, A Damned Serious Business: My Life in Comedy (ISBN 0553073419), was published posthumously in 1991.

Honours and legacy[edit]

On 25 July 1989, Harrison was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace as an orchestra played the music of songs from My Fair Lady.

Rex Harrison has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, one at 6906 Hollywood Boulevard for his contribution to films, and the other at 6380 Hollywood Boulevard for his contribution to television. Harrison is also a member of the American Theater Hall of Fame. He was inducted in 1979.[27]

Due to his association with the checked wool hat, which he wore both in the Broadway and film versions of My Fair Lady, that style of headware was officially named "The Rex Harrison."[citation needed] The 1985 teen comedy Weird Science would affirm this association when the main character, Lisa, would admonish a party crasher with the line "You ought to know better than to walk into somebody's house and start hitting people with your Rex Harrison hat!"

Seth MacFarlane, creator of the animated series Family Guy, modeled the voice of the character Stewie Griffin after Harrison, after seeing him in the film adaptation of My Fair Lady.[28][29]

Filmography[edit]

Film
Year Title Role Notes
1930 The Great Game George
The School for Scandal Uncredited bit part
1934 Get Your Man Tom Jakes
Leave It to Blanche Ronnie
1935 All at Sea Aubrey Bellingham
1936 Men Are Not Gods Tommy Stapleton
1937 Storm in a Teacup Frank Burdon
School for Husbands Leonard Drummond
1938 Sidewalks of London, also known as St. Martin's Lane Harley Prentiss
The Citadel Dr. Frederick Lawford
1939 Over the Moon Dr. Freddie Jarvis
The Silent Battle Jacques Sauvin
1940 Night Train to Munich Gus Bennett
Ten Days in Paris Bob Stevens
1941 Major Barbara Adolphus Cusins
1945 Blithe Spirit Charles Condomine
I Live in Grosvenor Square Major David Bruce
The Rake's Progress Vivian Kenway
1946 Anna and the King of Siam King Mongkut Nominated — New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actor
1947 The Ghost and Mrs. Muir Captain Daniel Gregg
The Foxes of Harrow Stephen Fox
1948 Escape Matt Denant
Unfaithfully Yours Sir Alfred De Carter
1951 The Long Dark Hall Arthur Groome
1952 The Four Poster John Edwards
1954 King Richard and the Crusaders Emir Hderim Sultan Saladin
1955 The Constant Husband William Egerton
1958 The Reluctant Debutante Jimmy Broadbent
1960 Midnight Lace Anthony "Tony" Preston
1962 The Happy Thieves Jimmy Bourne
1963 Cleopatra Julius Caesar National Board of Review Award for Best Actor
Nominated — Academy Award for Best Actor
Nominated — Golden Globe Award for Best Actor - Motion Picture Drama
Nominated — Laurel Award for Top Male Dramatic Performance
1964 My Fair Lady Professor Henry Higgins Academy Award for Best Actor
David di Donatello Award for Best Foreign Actor
Golden Globe Award for Best Actor - Motion Picture Musical or Comedy
Laurel Award for Top Male Musical Performance
New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actor
Nominated — BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role
The Yellow Rolls-Royce Lord Charles Frinton - The Marquess of Frinton
1965 The Agony and the Ecstasy Pope Julius II Nominated — Golden Globe Award for Best Actor - Motion Picture Drama
Nominated — Laurel Award for Top Male Dramatic Performance
1967 The Honey Pot Cecil Sheridan Fox
Doctor Dolittle Dr. John Dolittle Nominated — Golden Globe Award for Best Actor - Motion Picture Musical or Comedy
1968 A Flea in Her Ear Victor Chandebisse/Poche
1969 Staircase Charles Dyer
1977 Crossed Swords The Duke of Norfolk
1978 Shalimar Sir John Locksley
1979 Ashanti Brian Walker
The Fifth Musketeer Colbert
1982 A Time to Die Van Osten
Television
Year Title Role Notes
1952 Omnibus Henry VIII episode: The Trial of Anne Boleyn
1953 The United States Steel Hour Raymond Dabney episode: The Man in Possession
1957 DuPont Show of the Month Mr. Sir episode: Crescendo
1960 Dow Hour of Great Mysteries Cyril Paxton episode: The Dachet Diamonds
1971–1973 Play of the Month Mikhail Platonov, schoolmaster
Don Quixote
2 episodes
1983 The Kingfisher Cecil TV film
1985 Heartbreak House Captain Shotover TV film
1986 Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna Grand Duke Cyril Romanov TV film

Stage roles[edit]

Date[30] Production Role Notes
4–25 March 1936 Sweet Aloes Tubbs Barrow
8 December 1948 - 8 October 1949 Anne of the Thousand Days Henry Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play
14 November 1950 - 2 June 1951 Bell, Book and Candle Shepherd Henderson
13 February - 26 April 1952 Venus Observed Hereward
15 January - 16 May 1953 The Love of Four Colonels The Man
15 March 1956 - 29 September 1962 My Fair Lady Henry Higgins Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical
8 December 1959 - 20 February 1960 The Fighting Cock The General
28 March - 28 April 1973 The Living Mask Henry IV
10 December 1974 - 31 May 1975 In Praise of Love Sebastian Cruttwell
1976 Monsieur Perichon's Travels Eugène Labiche & Edouard Martin
24 February - 5 March 1977 Caesar and Cleopatra Julius Caesar
6 December 1978 - 13 May 1979 The Kingfisher Cecil
18 August - 29 November 1981 My Fair Lady Henry Higgins
7 December 1983 - 5 February 1984 Heartbreak House Captain Shotover Nominated-Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Actor in a Play
Nominated-Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play
29 April - 21 July 1985 Aren't We All? Lord Grenham Drama Desk Special Award
20 November 1989 - 20 May 1990 The Circle Lord Porteous

References[edit]

  1. ^ Derry House, Huyton: Aaronson, Charles S, ed. 1969 International Television Almanac, Quigley Publications, New York, USA
  2. ^ "Rex Harrison, a Leading Man With Urbane Wit, Dies at 82". Nytimes.com. Retrieved 5 February 2014. 
  3. ^ "(Sir) Rex Harrison". filmreference.com. 
  4. ^ (Harrison 1975, pp. 16, 122)
  5. ^ "Sir Rex Harrison Biography at". Biography.com. Retrieved 5 February 2014. 
  6. ^ "The Love of Four Colonels". ibdb.com. Retrieved 1 October 2009. 
  7. ^ Harris, Mark (2008). Pictures at a Revolution. The Penguin Press. p. 131. 
  8. ^ (Harrison 1975, p. 155)
  9. ^ (Harrison 1975, pp. 242–243)
  10. ^ (Harrison 1975, pp. 133–134)
  11. ^ Harris (2008). Pictures. p. 127. 
  12. ^ Smith, J. Y. (3 June 1990). "Rex Harrison, 82, Dies; Star of `My Fair Lady'". The Washington Post. pp. c. 07. 
  13. ^ (Hadleigh 2001, p. 91)
  14. ^ (Golden 2002, p. 74)
  15. ^ (Fleming 2004, p. 223)
  16. ^ Mosby, Aline (6 July 1948). "Carole Landis Mystery Death Clues Hunted". Oakland Tribune. p. 1. 
  17. ^ (Donnelley 2003, p. 445)
  18. ^ (Parish 2007, p. 34)
  19. ^ [1][dead link]
  20. ^ (Golden 2002, p. 155)
  21. ^ Pace, Eric (3 June 1990). "Rex Harrison, a Leading Man With Urbane Wit, Dies at 82". The New York Times. p. 2. Retrieved 12 May 2009. 
  22. ^ Wapshott, Nicholas (1991). Rex Harrison: A Biography. Chatto & Windus. p. 327. 
  23. ^ Rich, Frank (21 November 1989). "Review/Theater; Rex Harrison Back on Broadway". The New York Times. Retrieved 12 May 2009. 
  24. ^ York, New (29 June 1989). "Coming Full `Circle`". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 17 June 2012. 
  25. ^ Treadwell, David (15 December 1989). "COLUMN ONE : Culture in the South Rises Again". The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 17 June 2012. 
  26. ^ Pace, Eric (3 June 1990). "Rex Harrison, a Leading Man With Urbane Wit, Dies at 82". The New York Times. p. 1. Retrieved 12 May 2009. 
  27. ^ Johnston, Laurie (19 November 1979). "Theater Hall of Fame Enshrines 51 Artists". New York Times. 
  28. ^ Dean, John (1 November 2008). "Seth MacFarlane’s $2 Billion Family Guy Empire". Fox Business. Retrieved 24 August 2009. 
  29. ^ Franklin, Nancy (16 January 2006). "American Idiots". The New Yorker. 
  30. ^ "Rex Harrison". Playbill Vault. Retrieved 21 November 2013. 

Sources[edit]

  • Donnelley, Paul (2003). Fade To Black: A Book Of Movie Obituaries (2 ed.). Omnibus Press. ISBN 0-7119-9512-5
  • Fleming, E. J. (2004). The Fixers: Eddie Mannix, Howard Strickling, and The MGM Publicity Machine. McFarland. pp. 223. ISBN 0-7864-2027-8
  • Golden, Eve; Kendall, Kim Elizabeth (2002). The Brief, Badcap Life of Kay Kendall. University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 0-8131-2251-1
  • Hadleigh, Boze (2001). The Lavender Screen: The Gay and Lesbian Films - Their Stars, Directors, and Critics (3 ed.) Citadel Press. ISBN 0-8065-2199-6
  • Harris, Mark (2008). Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood. The Penguin Press. ISBN 0-143-11503-0
  • Harrison, Rex (1975). Rex: An Autobiography. William Morrow. ISBN 0-688-02881-0
  • Parish, James Robert (2007). The Hollywood Book of Extravagance: The Totally Infamous, Mostly Disastrous, and Always Compelling Excesses of America's Film and TV Idols. John Wiley and Sons. ISBN 0-470-05205-8
  • Roberts, David (2006). British Hit Singles & Albums (19th ed.). London: Guinness World Records Limited. ISBN 1-904994-10-5
  • Wapshott, Nicholas (1991). Rex Harrison: A Biography (1st ed.) Chatto & Windus. ISBN 0-701-13764-9

Further reading[edit]

  • Harrison, Rex (1991). A Damned Serious Business: My Life in Comedy. ISBN 0-553-07341-9
  • Garland, Patrick (1998). The Incomparable Rex. (1998) ISBN 0-333-71796-1
  • Thomas, Nick (2011). Raised by the Stars: Interviews with 29 Children of Hollywood Actors. McFarland. ISBN 978-0-7864-6403-6.  (Includes an interview with Harrison’s son, Carey)

External links[edit]