January 24, 2024 | Alicia B.

Magical Facts About Richard Harris, The Original Dumbledore

Richard Harris's life was a rollercoaster of good acting and bad behavior—his career as versatile as his personal life was volatile. 

1. He Had A Chaotic Life

For the younger generations, Richard Harris was best known for playing the wise and serene wizard, Albus Dumbledore in the Harry Potter series. Off-screen, however, he was known for being the complete opposite. Despite his scandalous reputation, Harris emerged victorious as one of the greatest Irish actors. 

Sadly, in the end, his biggest enemy was always himself.

 Screenshot from the movie Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (2001)Warner, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (2001)

2. He Had Bad Parents

Born in 1930, Harris's life began and ended with chaos. His father may have been a successful flour mill and bakery owner, but money couldn’t buy what mattered the most to his eight kids. Richard’s dad even struggled to remember his name, often asking, “What’s his name again?” 

This emotional neglect taught Richard to use his troublemaking as a way to seek attention. But it gets worse.

Screenshot from the movie This Sporting Life (1963)Janus, This Sporting Life (1963)

3. He Went From Riches To Rags

Harris's silver spoon was ripped out of his mouth after the family business fell apart. He'd been used to a life of luxury—a huge house, luxury cars, and servants—so it came as a shock when his life turned upside-down. He went from a carefree existence to watching his mother "on her knees scrubbing floors". 

Times were tough—but Richard Harris had a knack for making life even more difficult than it already was.

Screenshot from the movie This Sporting Life (1963)Janus, This Sporting Life (1963)

4. He Was A Future Sports Star 

Harris drove his parents and teachers crazy, but they found solace in his rugby prowess. It was likely the only thing keeping his family and school from giving him the boot. He shone on the field, channeling all the energy he normally used for setting fires, drinking, and brawling.

Harris even fantasized about playing professionally—until life threw him another cruel curveball.

Screenshot from the movie This Sporting Life (1963)Janus, This Sporting Life (1963)


5. He Nearly Lost His Life

Richard Harris went from fighting his homework obligations to fighting tuberculosis. This battle didn’t just leave the teenager bedridden and lonely for three years—it annihilated his rugby potential. But something bloomed over his broken dreams and crushing loneliness. Richard decided he wanted to pursue acting, and moreover, he developed a lust for life. He couldn’t tame either.

Screenshot from the movie This Sporting Life (1963)Janus, This Sporting Life (1963)

6. He Had New Ambitions

At least this failed student and rugby player had the family business to fall back on—until that fell apart too. Harris's father fired him after he supported the employees in a dispute. At this point, the Irishman had acting dreams and nothing to lose. His father was over it: "For God's sake, let him go”. 

Harris took these inspiring words to London, where even more misery awaited.

Grayscale Portrait Photo of Actor Richard HarrisCity of Boston Archives, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

7. He Was A Struggling Actor

There were struggling actors—and then there was Richard Harris. Most drama schools thought the 24-year-old was ancient and refused to give him a chance. It didn’t help that anti-Irish prejudices were alive and well. Unable to break into show biz, he entered his “starvation period”. Then, the stars aligned. 

Harris was in a pub (of course he was) when he overheard a conversation about a production looking for an actor. 

Screenshot from the trailer of the movie Orca (1977)ScreamFactoryTV, Wikimedia Commons

8. He Was A Go Getter

Richard Harris didn’t just make trouble—he made his own luck. After borrowing money for a phone call, he chased this opportunity. However, there was a catch. The acting job was for a 50-year-old. Harris bellowed that he looked that old because “I haven’t had a good meal for four months and I haven’t slept for days. Just take a look at me!” 

Harris must’ve already been capable of magic because this outburst worked. This “charm” also worked on women.

Grayscale Portrait Photo of the Actor Richard HarrisTG4, Flickr

9. He Met His Match

Enter: Elizabeth Rees-Williams. She was also an aspiring actress, but that’s where their similarities started and ended. You see, Elizabeth was a prim and proper socialite in British high society. Once again, the good girl fell for the bad boy. But Elizabeth saw a diamond in the rough. High on love, she did the unthinkable.

 Irish actor and singer Richard Harris (1930 - 2002) with his wife, Welsh socialite Elizabeth Rees-Williams outside the Royal Courts of JusticeHarold Clements, Getty Images


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10. He Was Proposed To

Elizabeth (figuratively) got down on one knee. At 27, Harris signed up for his most important roles yet: husband... and nightmare son-in-law. Elizabeth’s mother reportedly flung her arms up and ran screaming when she found out. Her parents were horrified that their only daughter didn’t just settle for, but pursued, a struggling actor. 

Their fear was justified.

Grayscale Photo Photo of actor Richard Harrisvincentian, Flickr


11. He Still Struggled

Richard Harris's first—and hard won—acting gig wasn’t the breakthrough he hoped it’d be. He continued to hustle, mostly on stage, for another decade. Elizabeth fought in the trenches with him. She’d vowed to be there for better and for worse, after all—and there was a lot of the latter. 

Elizabeth even sold her jewelry just to survive. The stakes rose even higher.

Publicity still from Mutiny on the Bounty with actor Richard Harrisvincentian, Flickr

12. He Became A Dad

A year after marriage, Harris and Elizabeth welcomed the first (of three) sons into their family. And by welcome, I mean Harris fainted during his wife's labor. This wasn’t a hilarious one-off anecdote: It showed how prepared Harris was for his roles as husband and father. When Harris's’s big break finally arrived, his luck seemed to be turning... seemed.

Still taken from Irish Jesuits, Flickr

13. He Caught His Big Break

His big break—a television role—came just as he considered quitting. Harris was so broke that he had to ransack his apartment for bus fare. When he finally made it to the audition, the director kept him waiting. After an hour, he burst into the office and cursed the man out. Once again, the actor's charm worked in magical ways: He landed the role. His life would never be the same.

Screenshot from the movie This Sporting Life (1963)Janus, This Sporting Life (1963)

14. He Became A Star

Once the opportunities and cash started rolling in, they didn’t stop for decades. Over his legendary career, Richard Harris appeared in 62 movies and 13 shows. His most bittersweet film was This Sporting Life, where he played a professional rugby player. He earned countless awards and nominations. 

These include Oscars, Golden Globes, Emmys, and even a Grammy. But stardom changed Harris for the worse.

Screenshot from the movie This Sporting Life (1963)Janus, This Sporting Life (1963)

15. He Changed For The Worse

Richard Harris's transformation claimed countless victims—but none suffered more than his family. He had always loved drinking, but he took it too far more often than not. The more he drank, the meaner he became. And this was before other substances entered the picture. 

When Harris went out with a friend to a soccer game one Saturday, Elizabeth asked when he’d get back. He replied, “Tuesday, and it might be in the police courts”. He wasn’t joking.

 Screenshot from the movie This Sporting Life (1963)Janus, This Sporting Life (1963)

16. He Had Countless Run Ins 

Normal people become regulars at coffee shops, but Richard Harris became a regular at his local precinct. After another late night bender, he found himself in front of the station—by choice. Harris marched up to the front desk and requested toast and tea. The officer sighed, “Oh, it’s you again,” and put the water on to boil. 

Thanks to the actor's fame and charisma, he never faced any real consequences for his bad behavior–even when he deserved it.

Screenshot from the movie This Sporting Life (1963)Janus, This Sporting Life (1963)


17. He Was A Bad Husband

Richard Harris later confessed, "If ever I was miscast in my life, it was in the role of husband… I was the worst husband in the world”. The drinking, snorting, and cheating already tested Elizabeth’s patience—but Harris took it even further and crossed unforgivable lines. 

On one occasion, Elizabeth commented on his behavior—and paid the price. Harris grabbed a wardrobe and hurled it in her direction. He didn’t stop there.

Screenshot from the movie This Sporting Life (1963)Janus, This Sporting Life (1963)

18. He Got Physical

After Elizabeth publicly claimed that Harris hit her, he owned up to committing “unjustified” and “horrendous” acts against her. But the damage was done the moment he gave her "a smack across the face”. Harris also took his rage out of the home and unleashed it on strangers. No one was safe. 

People wondered how much more Elizabeth could take. She wondered the same.

 Screenshot from the movie Cromwell (1970)Columbia, Cromwell (1970)

19. He Was A Mess

After a London pub threw Harris out at closing time, he boarded a train solely for its open bar. He had no clue where it was headed. When he found himself in Leeds after midnight, he threw a rock at the first well-lit house. The owner stormed outside—but invited Harris in after recognizing the star. The actor wasn’t sober for a moment of his stay.

Four days later, the owner’s wife had had enough. She rang up Harris's wife and informed her “I’ve got your husband”. She likely didn’t expect Elizabeth's response: “Good. Keep him”.

Screenshot from the movie Cromwell (1970)Columbia, Cromwell (1970)

20. He Was Dumped

Elizabeth didn’t hold back when Harris asked her, “What was I really like to be married to?” She admitted, “It was absolute magic, a magic carpet ride, but then one day you'd get that look in your eyes, one drink too many, and in the end, I couldn't take it, the good moments weren't balancing out the bad”. 

Elizabeth knew they’d made it—fame, fortune, children—but realized she only cared about avoiding Harris. She had to get out.

Screenshot from the movie Cromwell (1970)Columbia, Cromwell (1970)

21. He Went Through A Messy Divorce

After 12 years, Elizabeth filed for divorce—and then some. Elizabeth didn’t just blindside Harris with the filing; she took further action to keep him away from her and their sons. “I am scared of him,” was one of her public confessions. The courts sided with Elizabeth. While this devastated Harris, he later felt  “glad she gave me the boot”. But you can divorce spouses, not kids.

 Screenshot from the movie Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (2001)Warner, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (2001)

22. He Was A Bad Dad

Richard Harris forgot to mention being miscast for another leading role: dad. Along with Elizabeth, the kids were the biggest victims of his vices. One son even revealed that he’d once walked into Harris's bedroom and discovered his father on the floor—his face lying in a pile of illicit substances.

By the time Richard realized what he’d done, it was too little too late.

 Screenshot from the movie Cromwell (1970)Columbia, Cromwell (1970)


23. He Was Unprofessional

Harris was erratic, but talented. Studios and directors continued working with him. Even if they—knowing he’d been inebriated—added extra time to his schedule. Kirk Douglas called Richard out, saying, "Are you going to be as difficult as they say you are?" Spoiler alert: yes. 

People already had low expectations for his behavior, but he often sank even lower.

Promotional photography of actor Kirk Douglas (1963)Unknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

24. He Was Still Wild

On another unforgettable occasion, after having a drink—or ten—Richard Harris stumbled back to his hotel. He undressed and climbed into bed. He heard an unfamiliar voice demand, "Hey, what's the big idea?" Turns out, Harris was in the wrong room—and in bed with two strangers. He didn’t care: "I don't have one, but if one occurs to you, by all means wake me up”. 

But not even these antics kept the ladies away.

Screenshot from the movie Cromwell (1970)Columbia, Cromwell (1970)

25. He Was A Ladies Man

Harris was known as a leading man and a ladies' man. His list of rumored lovers includes the expected starlets like Merle Oberon and Mia Farrow. But they also included royalty, like Princess Margaret and Empress Soraya of Iran. Sophia Loren, in particular, pursued him relentlessly. But Harris swore he’d never marry again. That is, until he met one special woman.

Original publicity photo of Merle Oberon 1963Studio, Wikimedia Commons

26. He Found Love Again

Ann Turkel wasn’t just a 28-year-old, up-and-coming actress. She’d been a Richard Harris fangirl since her teenage years—and even had posters of him on her bedroom walls. When Ann met her idol on her first gig, she couldn't help but shoot her shot. Even though Richard was 16 years older, the feelings were mutual—but his response was unexpected.

 Grayscale Portrait Photo of model/actress Ann TurkelJ KEMP, Flickr

27. He Was A Romantic

When it came to Ann, Harris was a downright gentleman. Apparently, they’d only kissed for the first few months of their courtship. However, a year later, Harris broke his rules and reprised the husband role. He played the part so well that Ann remained oblivious to his vices and volatility. But he couldn’t keep up the act.  

By the time Ann saw Harris's’s true colors, it was too late.

Portrait Photo of actor Richard Harris and his wife Ann TurkelGotfryd Bernard, Wikimedia Commons

28. He Deceived Her

Ann couldn’t believe what Harris did when she threw him a surprise birthday party. He drank so much that he didn’t recognize her, destroyed property, accidentally slashed his wrists, and wound up in the hospital. The next day, he swore this was just a once-a-year thing. Ann believed him. But once she was in deep, this annual event turned into a daily one.

 Golden Rendezvous Promo Photo 1 Ann Turkel and Richard HarrisCineClube Caminha, Flickr

29. He Made His Wife Paranoid

“I had no idea what was in store for me," Ann rued. Hiring a private investigator to stalk your husband isn’t a sign of marital bliss—and that’s exactly what Ann did. But Harris knew what his suspicious wife was up to—and exposed the detective with his usual flair. Utterly tipsy, as per usual, he bellowed at the private investigator “Could you please tell me where I am?”

Golden Rendezvous Promo Photo 2 Ann TurkelCineClube Caminha, Flickr

30. He Had Another End Of Life Experience

When Richard Harris's vices caught up to him, doctors expected the worst. His constant fainting spells had become a serious problem. Everyone prepared for the inevitable after he ended up on life support. While a priest prepared to perform last rites, not even imminent death could crush his spirit. 

Harris told him, “Father, if you are going to hear my confession, prepare to be here for days. By the end of it, I can guarantee you will very much regret your vow of celibacy”. The priest fled. But Harris wasn’t done astonishing everyone.

Screenshot from the movie Man in the Wilderness (1971)Warner, Man in the Wilderness (1971)

31. He Went Cold Turkey

Luckily, Harris pulled through—but he’d continue struggling with addiction until he finally conquered his demons. After overdosing, his realization that he’d prefer to meet his end while astride "some beautiful blonde” motivated him to quit using. Harris's addictions were always the third wheel in his marriage, but something else ended it.

Screenshot from the movie Man in the Wilderness (1971)Warner, Man in the Wilderness (1971)

32. He Was Dumped Again

After eight years, Ann finally dumped Harris. There was no dramatic fight, no broken glasses, and no slammed doors. It was time and distance. They’d drifted apart over the years as Ann felt more like her husband's handler than his wife. Harris had to face the music. 

While he’d masterfully played countless roles, he never managed to nail the roles of husband or father. But Harris and Ann’s story wasn’t over yet.

Screenshot from the movie Man in the Wilderness (1971)Warner, Man in the Wilderness (1971)

33. He Was A Good Friend

Richard Harris discovered a role that suited him better. While his romances with Elizabeth and Ann were six feet under, his friendships were alive and well. These relationships improved after the divorces. But it was too late for parenting by the time he got his act together. Instead, Harris and his adult children developed close friendships. 

Richard couldn’t change the past—but he could still change himself.

Screenshot from the movie Gulliver's Travels (1977)Arrow, Gulliver's Travels (1977)

34. He Made A Shocking Announcement

Richard Harris announced he was done with drinking. While he'd already ditched the substances, he'd still clung onto bottles like an obsessed lover. He joked that the “liquor industry went into a panic when they heard I wasn’t drinking anymore. Have you noticed how much the shares have dropped?” 

Many remained skeptical. But perhaps the one thing Harris enjoyed more than drinking was shocking people.

Screenshot from the movie Gulliver's Travels (1977)Arrow, Gulliver's Travels (1977)

35. He Relapsed

The actor quit drinking altogether—for a decade. But when Harris finally caved, it was different from past relapses. He'd finally tamed his extreme all-or-nothing approach. Now, he could enjoy one drink at a time. Richard Harris was like a new man in these later years, and yet, his past continued to haunt him. Some couldn’t forgive or forget.

Screenshot from the movie Gulliver's Travels (1977)Arrow, Gulliver's Travels (1977)

36. He Lost His Career

Some stars continued to shine as they aged, but Richard Harris wasn’t one of them. Thanks to his notorious past and ravaged appearance, he only received bottom of the barrel opportunities. Time wasn’t kind to Harris—and neither were the critics who roasted his performances. 

The days of Oscar-winning roles were well behind him. He read the writing on the wall and followed his heart.

 Screenshot from the movie The Field (1990)TG4, Flickr

37. He Ran Away

While Harris semi-retired from acting, he remained fully committed to scandalizing. While living in the Bahamas, he got fed up with his uninvited neighbors constantly visiting—and hatched a clever scheme. When a family walked into his home, they found Harris with two friends in their birthday suits and watching inappropriate movies. 

After the neighbors ran for the hills, the scandal spread like wildfire. Harris enjoyed his peace—but not for long.

Screenshot from the movie The Field (1990)Granada, The Field (1990)

38. He Was Self-Aware

Before Richard Harris turned 70, he moved back to London with a bittersweet attitude. At the Savoy hotel, he lived with himself and his sense of mortality. As his peers passed one by one, he knew his turn was coming. He revealed, “I consider myself in God’s departure lounge, waiting for that final plane, but luckily some of my scheduled flights have been cancelled”.

Screenshot from the movie The Field (1990)Granada, The Field (1990)

39. He Got One Last Hurrah 

Before the curtain permanently closed on Richard Harris, he got one last flourish. In 2001, he was asked to play Albus Dumbledore in the highly anticipated first Harry Potter movie. This was the opportunity of a lifetime—especially considering the quality of his recent offers. But his reaction shocked people: He refused.

Screenshot from the movie Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (2001)Warner, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (2001)

40. He Rejected Harry Potter

In his defense, Richard Harris's rationale was understandable. Dumbledore wouldn’t be a one-off role: It’d be a multi-film and multi-year commitment. He was already 71 and in poor health. He also confessed that he feared the Albus Dumbledore role in many ways. He admitted, “I hate commitment of any kind. That's why I've got two ex-wives. It scares me”. There’s more.

Screenshot from the movie Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (2001)Warner, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (2001)

41. He Feared The Harry Potter Effect

Harris also worried that this role would overshadow the rest of his career. He explained that he’d turned them down "Because, you see, I don't just want to be remembered for being in those bloody films, and I'm afraid that's what's going to happen to me”. Richard thought he’d made up his mind, but he had a weakness—a huge one.

Screenshot from the movie Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (2001)Warner, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (2001)

42. He Couldn’t Say No

Turns out, Richard Harris never stood a chance against his beloved granddaughter. The eleven-year-old vowed to never talk to him again if he didn’t play Dumbledore. “What could I do? I wasn’t going to let her down,” Richard complained. He went into Harry Potter with low expectations and high levels of reluctance. It blew him away.

Screenshot from the movie Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (2001)Warner, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (2001)

43. He Fell In Love With Harry Potter

The first movie was a box office and cultural hit: It brought in a new generation of fans to appreciate Richard Harris's legacy. The fans fell in love with Harris—and he loved Harry Potter back. Director Chris Columbus revealed how much Harris loved this role. 

As Columbus played basketball on set, Richard Harris—in full Dumbledore costume—raced around in a golf cart cheering him on. But tragedy struck during the actor's renaissance.

Director Chris Columbus attends the premiere of Stephen Lovekin, Getty Images

44. He Worried Everyone

After wrapping up the second Harry Potter movie in 2002, Harris returned to his life at the Savoy hotel. However, something was wrong: The actor wasn’t eating or even drinking his favorite Guinness. When he stopped communicating with people, it became an emergency. Elizabeth and his sons broke into his room and made a horrific discovery.

  Screenshot from the movie Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (2001)Warner, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (2001)

45. He Couldn’t Resist A Quip

They found Harris in a sorry state —shockingly thin and weak. His health had taken a nosedive while he was alone in his suite. They called an ambulance to whisk him away to the hospital. Harris, even in this state, couldn’t help himself. He mustered the strength to sit up on the stretcher, face the lobby, and cried out, “It was the food! Don't touch the food!”

Richard Harris at premiere of HARRY POTTER & THE SORCERER'S STONEEverett Collection, Shutterstock

46. He Received Bad News

Sadly, there was nothing funny or cheeky about what happened next: Richard Harris received a terminal cancer diagnosis. Throughout his life, he'd fought countless demons and close calls. Thanks to his determination, charm, and luck, Harris had always come out on top. However, it became clear that he wasn't going to be the victor this time.

Actor Richard Harris leaves the Four Seasons Hotel.Bart Sherkow, Shutterstock

47. He Made His Peace

To the world, Harris was still his mischievous and cheeky self. But deep inside, he’d accepted and made peace with his fate. He knew he’d lived an incredible life that, for better and for worse, would go down in Hollywood history. He had no regrets: “If I had my life again I’d make all the same mistakes”. But no one else was ready to say goodbye.

Portrait Photo of the actor Richard Harris wearing a blue roman suitWilliam Ferreira, Flickr

48. He Didn’t Want To Be Replaced

Richard Harris vowed to end director Chris Columbus if he recast Albus Dumbledore. The director, confident of his actor’s recovery, promised not to. “I don’t even know why you’re thinking that way. I’ll see you in a couple of weeks," Columbus assured Harris. Ten days later, Richard passed with Elizabeth, Ann, and his sons by his side. 

One of his sons didn’t think the sombreness suited Harris, and bought him one last pint.

Promotional photo of Richard Harris (Albus Dumbledore)mirror of erised, Flickr

49. He Was An Icon

18 years after Richard’s passing, The Irish Times ranked him third on their list of Ireland’s greatest actors. They recognized that he was an icon of the British New Wave—and so much more. From Oscars to Grammys, Richard’s career was the stuff of dreams. His scandals were legendary, but so were his performances. 

Michael Gambon, the man who replaced him, revealed, “All I did was copy him as Dumbledore”.

 Michael Gambon arriving for premiere of the final Harry Potter film Featureflash Photo Agency, Shutterstock

50. He Lives On

His legacy is one still in production. Richard Harris was already a proud dad whenever his sons caused trouble as kids—and that’s before they all went into show biz as actors or directors. We can only imagine his reaction to them carrying the torch

One thing's for sure: Richard Harris lives on in the magic he made onscreen and offscreen.

 Grayscale Portrait Photo of Actor Richard Harris in 1985City of Boston Archives from West Roxbury, United States., CC BY 2.5, Wikimedia Commons

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