Perhaps aside from Richard "Little Dick" Burton, Richard "Big Dick" Harris is the best example of the Drunken Welsh or Irish Hero Actor whom every good hard-drinking man would wish to emulate. The thing that pushes Harris over the top is his ability to sing like some sort of 200 pound bird with a beard, hovering at your window with that raconteur look on his face which you could not deny. You'd feed him more booze-enhanced birdseed just to hear the next song.

He was born Oct. 1, 1930 (?), 1932 (?), 1933 (?). There seems to be some confusion; perhaps his mum was in her cups when wee Richard joined this world in Limerick, Eire. His dad was a miller, and I'm sure there's been more than one Miller's Tale told about his lad.

He was a fairly well-known rugby player as a kid, but after going to the Sacred Heart Jesuit College he studied classical acting at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. His first gig on stage was in The Quare Fellow in 1957. He caught the attention of some big shots when he did supporting roles in The Guns of Navarone in 1961 and a remake of Mutiny on the Bounty soon after. It's well-accepted that he upstaged Marlon Brando's Fletcher Christian in that one. He got the Best Actor award at Cannes as well as an Oscar nomination for his rough role in The Sporting Life in 1963. By this time, he was being compared to folks like Michael Caine and 007 himself as one of the real men in the world of actors who were not Yanks.

But this is where it gets good. In 1967 he replaced Little Dick in Lerner and Lowe's version of Camelot. Rex Harrison had played this role on Broadway, but Harris turned out to be both a better actor and singer than Harrison. Many of these folks were shocked to hear this blue-eyed tough guy sing. The sound track to the film was a bigger seller than the film itself.

And this is when it really gets good. He got involved with this Jimmy Webb guy. He and Webb put out this long song called MacArthur Park. This was the first song over three minutes long (it more than doubled that) to get airplay on AM radio in those days. I fully realize that this song has been parodied (Jurassic Park by Weird Al, for example) and made fun of regularly since that time. Some lists have it as one of the Worst Songs of All Time. References are always made to that damn cake out in that bleeding rain. Well, I say screw the critics. This song is a masterpiece of vocal work and (if you were stoned enough) that cake was a perfect metaphor for . . . something. I forget.

Anyway, the album was called A Tramp Shining and I love it. It's got songs on there such as the title song, Didn't We, Dancing Girl, and that cake out in the rain deal. This worked out fairly well for Sir Richard, and he and Webb did it again with The Yard Went on Forever. This is actually a stronger work, overall. His vocal work is better and the material is deeper and more interesting. The cerebral images of war and horror mix with the concepts of love and forgiveness. Yeah, I said that.

I got to see Richard Harris do Camelot live on stage, and I can tell you that this drunken bastard could move me with his voice like no one else I can think of. He's a star.

He's done several things on film since I fell in love with those Jimmy Webb songs. I guess A Man Called Horse was the most well-known. The scene where the Sioux hang him up on hooks by his tits is fairly memorable. That was in 1970.

They say he gave up drinking in his fifties (there's still time; what a relief), got a new sense of religion, and has been writing both poetry and prose. I haven't read any of it, but I'd suspect it's interesting. He was in Gladiator and is in this new Harry Potter movie.

He's either 71, 69, or 68; and whichever is true, he still looks pretty damn cool to me.


UPDATE: Richard Harris passed away at University College Hospital in London on October 25, 2002. The newspaper says he was 72 years old and was being treated for Hodgkin's Disease.

It took so long to bake it...

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