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The other Richard

February 20, 2021

One of the many actors I interviewed during my show biz days back in the 1980s was Richard Harris. This interview was a lot tougher than the one I’d done with Richard Griffiths, not because Harris was difficult, but because I’d had a huge crush on him since I was about 12 years old. I even had a copy of his awful album. Just what exactly were the lyrics of ‘MacArthur Park’ supposed to mean? “Someone left the cake out in the rain”? What?

Anyway, trying not to gush or blush was going to be a challenge. I am pleased to say I met the challenge. Just.

I don’t have a copy of the interview, but I do remember three of the stories he told me.

At the time of our interview he’d been sober for a year. The previous year he’d collapsed and been rushed to hospital while he was touring with Camelot. When he came to the doctor matter-of-factly informed him that he had two choices: either he stopped drinking or he’d be dead in six months. All things considered he’d decided he would prefer to live.

Two of the stories revolved around his new found sobriety.

One was about the first time he went back to Ireland after he’d dried out. He did go to the pub with some friends one evening. While he stuck to Perrier, his mates were on their usual: pints of Guinness with whiskey chasers. As the evening progressed his mates grew increasingly and less appealingly pissed and it was a shock for him to realise these now shit-faced pricks were exactly who he’d been for decades.

The second story was about a party he’d attended in New York recently. There was a very attractive woman there who, when they locked eyes, gave him a big smile. When he sidled up to her a while later she seemed very pleased to see him, but, as he progressed in his efforts to chat her up, she became less and less pleased. Eventually she said, “You really don’t remember me, do you?” This threw him. He did, after all, meet a lot of women. He apologised, said he was terribly sorry, where had the met? That’s when she informed him that some years earlier they’d spent a week together in the Bahamas. Did she then chuck her drink in his face? I think he might have said she did, but I don’t honestly remember. He didn’t need a drink in the face to be shocked. He’d been absolutely gobsmacked that alcohol had robbed him of all memory of this beautiful woman. (Needless to say there was no point in continuing to chat her up.)

The third story is one that returned to me when I returned to acting after some decades. I’ve also shared it with a number of thespian friends.

When Harris was in his early twenties, he had his first opportunity to appear with the Royal Shakespeare Company. This young Irish actor was determined to show these English actors how Shakespeare should really be done. He didn’t have a lot to work with. His first role was as a spear carrier in one of the Bard’s history plays. At one point he was supposed to deliver one line. (Something along the lines no doubt of “The enemy approaches, my liege” – possibly slightly longer.) He was going to give it everything he had. On opening night he ran on stage and then he froze. His one line – whatever it was – had disappeared completely from his brain. He stood there for a moment that seemed like an eternity, then shouted “Ha!” and ran off stage.

The first time I had to call for a line in recent years I thought of that story. Every time someone else has been beating themselves up for having to call for a line I’ve told them that story. I mean, if it could happen to Richard Harris, it could happen to anyone, right?

At the end of the interview (one, no doubt, of dozens he’d be doing that day – can’t remember what film he was promoting, but there must have been one), he stood up and, as he was shaking my hand, told me it had been lovely to meet me. Under ordinary circumstances, sarcastic me would probably have been tempted to smile and say I hoped he’d actually remember, but these weren’t ordinary circumstances.  Richard Fucking Harris was shaking my hand. I was actually touching Richard Fucking Harris. I mumbled something and hightailed it out of the hotel room where the interview was taking place before I started blushing.

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