‘The Ghost of Richard Harris’ Reveals Different Sides of a Complicated Man

Feature-length documentary ‘The Ghost of Richard Harris’, which will premiere Sunday at the Venice Film Festival, seeks to answer the question: ‘Who was Richard Harris?’ The film also contains the revelation that Harris was offered the role of Gandalf in Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” films, but instead opted to play Dumbledore in the “Harry Potter” franchise.

Variety spoke to director Adrian Sibley and Richard Harris’ son Jared Harris – a distinguished actor himself and one of the project’s initiators – about how the documentary was made.

Sibley first broached the subject of making a film about Richard Harris some 20 years ago with the man himself, who replied, “I will, but only if I can tell half the truth. time,” recalls Jared Harris.

“This sporting life”

Sibley liked the idea but the BBC – to whom he pitched it – were less enthusiastic. “The BBC was questioning my integrity that we could make a documentary that wasn’t true,” he says. “They were like, ‘What do you mean, he’s not going to tell the truth?’ And I said, “Well, that’s all about Richard Harris: what makes him interesting is how he plays with who he is.”

Sibley had been introduced to Harris by another of his three sons, director Damian Harris, whose eye had been caught by Sibley’s documentary on Anthony Hopkins. Sibley told him, “Look, I’ve always been interested in your dad, because he’s actually not who he claims to be. And if he is who he claims to be, he is also someone else.

Sibley’s meeting with Harris at the Savoy Hotel, where the actor was living at the time, was not a comfortable experience. “Richard was disturbing for a journalist. Probably the closest encounter I had was with Jerry Lee Lewis, whom I interviewed for The Guardian, and who was really nice to me and sang ‘Breathless’ to me, but then hit a guy called James Kent right after,” he recalls. “And Richard had the same kind of visceral…you kind of knew that if you said the wrong thing you’d be out of there pretty quickly, it wasn’t going to be a nice journalistic roundtable.”

Unfortunately, the collaboration was not to take place as Harris died in 2002, before it could proceed, but, says Sibley, “The engagement was fascinating and it got into my head.” The director had made films about a range of showbiz personalities, such as Baz Luhrmann and Dino De Laurentiis, but it was Steve Martin who came to mind when evaluating Harris, because “he’s definitely not also not the one it claims to be, in many ways, and has complexity.


Through her friendship with Damian, Sibley got to know Jared, who “lamented slightly that the doc never came out,” Jared says. Their thoughts turned to how it could be revived without the central character. Sibley’s response was to focus on the three sons: Jared, Damian and Jamie, also an actor. “At that point, we just didn’t want to take center stage in our dad’s story, so we kind of balked at that one,” Jared says. “But then Adrian absolutely pursued that process, that goal of trying to put this movie together and find original IP for it.”

It was then 2015, and Sibley came across a series of audio interviews journalist Joe Jackson had conducted with Harris over a 15-year period for a biography the actor had commissioned, but had yet to release. published. He combined them with new interviews with close friends and associates of Harris, like Russell Crowe, Stephen Rea, Jimmy Webb, Jim Sheridan and Vanessa Redgrave, and never-before-seen family footage shot by Harris himself from the archives. family, and recently discovered Super 8 footage of her childhood.

Sibley preferred these sources to the many appearances Harris had made on chat shows hosted by Johnny Carson, David Letterman and the like.

“The Richard that I got to meet, I haven’t seen him in the interviews, you know, I haven’t seen him in the endless Carson stuff, the Letterman stuff, the stories. I was much more interested in this Irishman who had tried to assert his Irish identity on English theatre,” says Sibley.

The film covers his breakthrough stage work with collaborators like Joan Littlewood and Lindsay Anderson, followed by his breakthrough performance in Anderson’s film “This Sporting Life.” “Richard was this very powerful physical actor and hit the West End with a huge impact,” Sibley says. “But he was also looking to fuck people and had this affair with Princess Margaret. I loved the idea that this guy wasn’t just looking to take over the theater but was actually walking into the royal family’s bedroom, which is pretty incredible for a guy from Limerick.

Jared says that when he does press interviews for shows, he’s often asked about his dad, but the questions are usually about his dad the drinker and hell, not his dad the actor, poet , singer and producer.


One condition Jared and his brothers set was that his father be portrayed with respect. “We have agreed that we will be absolutely honest with Adrian and that we count on Adrian to be respectful. I mean, not to rewrite history or anything, but to treat it with respect,” he says.

There are some similarities between the film and Andrew Dominik’s Venice pageant title “Blonde,” in which Norma Jeane is seen becoming Marilyn Monroe. “Yeah, my dad used to say the greatest role he ever played was Richard Harris. And he was aware on some level that it was an image building, if you will, not a “a personality, but more of an image. And one of the things that Damian said, shortly after dad died, was that he had promoted that image to the detriment of his career, because the people started rejecting it,” Jared says.

He remembers being at a dinner party in London when an Australian woman asked him what production she should see in the West End. Someone suggested “Henry IV” by Pirandello. The woman, who didn’t know who Jared was, insisted, “Isn’t that the one with Richard Harris?” Does anyone still take this man seriously? There was dead silence at the table, Jared recalls.

Nevertheless, Richard Harris continued to present himself as hell because he believed it would sell newspapers and magazines, generate a larger audience for talk shows, and thus help sell more tickets to his shows and movies. , and would prolong his career.

Sibley adds: “The other thing is he was a complicated guy, and there were different levels for him, and he adopted different people at different times. That’s what I found fascinating, because I know people who have this drive to create themselves. He compares the different stages of Harris’s career as an artist to that of Steve Martin, who also regenerated himself many times. “And this reader is also in Richard , but with Richard it happened like a hinge, it would happen at different times.”

Harris, in turn, went from being an “angry young man” actor in social realism plays to being a Hollywood star with “Camelot,” a pop star with songs like “MacArthur Park,” and a poet.

Jared says, “What I appreciate about what Adrian did, and what his approach was, it wasn’t going to be some kind of walking through a timeline of someone’s life. It was the examination of a personality.

He rejects the idea that his father was “tormented”. “There was a restlessness about him, and he was bored, you know. When we went on vacation together, he loved it for three days. And after three days, then he started to… the expectation and the familiarity and the repetition of it all started to piss him off, and he just wanted… He started an argument just to change things up, just to entertain himself. ”

He remembers a big family gathering where his father deliberately started arguing: “He would raise something and start a little conflict between people, then calm them down, so he could be the peacemaker. Then when he was fed up, he started again. And I think that’s why Peter O’Toole’s nickname for my dad was “The Mixer.”


Harris would form fierce relationships with people quickly, and end them just as quickly, with both men and women. Jimmy Webb, the author of “MacArthur Park,” was an example of a heady bromance that ended badly for Harris. Sibley says, “What happens with that kind of maelstrom and focus is that it often just heads into something else and causes a rift because it’s so intense.”

When he fell ill in 2002 and was rushed to hospital shortly before his death, he wasn’t talking to his two best friends in the world, John Heyman and Terry James, Jared says. James was able to come to London, and they reconciled, but Harris and Heyman did not reconcile. “John Heyman read my father’s eulogy. And the eulogy was this letter. My dad and John sent these angry letters to each other. And that last letter that John had written to my father said, “We can’t keep doing this. You know, we’re getting too old and one of us is going to die during one of those walkie-talkie-less times. And what a great shame that would be. And he recounted all those wonderful times that he and dad had had, and he didn’t bury the hatchet, but dad died before that letter was sent, so he read it at the funeral.

A myth the documentary puts to rest is why Harris played the role of Dumbledore in “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” At the film’s premiere in 2001, Harris said his granddaughter Ella threatened not to speak to her if he turned down the adaptation of the Harry Potter books, which she adored. But in the documentary, she reveals that she never said that. He had told Ella, whom he adored, that the other option was to go to New Zealand for three years to do ‘The Lord of the Rings’, and she said to him: “That sounds terrible, don’t do that.” The obedient grandfather did as he was told.

Harris was quick to criticize the approach to their craft of other actors, such as Ian McKellen, who took on the role of Gandalf which Harris turned down. “That’s one of the things Dad consistently did throughout his career: he deliberately went after people and targets who represented the status quo, and had to oppose that status quo. And there’s an element of him that was a disruptor. He was a rule breaker,” Jared says.

“And he wasn’t happy if he couldn’t challenge that authority, or that status, because he didn’t want to be seen as part of that. But it’s also kind of a paradox, because at the same time, he lived at the Savoy for 20 years.

Kimberly B. Nguyen