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The Celebrity Archaeology Podcast


May 19, 2018

Sir Reginald Carey Harrison, known as Rex Harrison, was an English actor of stage and screen. Harrison began his career on the stage in 1924. He served in the Royal Air Force during World War II, reaching the rank of flight lieutenant. He won his first Tony Award for his performance as Henry VIII in the play 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 both a Golden Globe Award and Academy Award for Best Actor. 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 played the title role of the English doctor who talks to animals, 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 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. Early years Harrison was born at Derry House in Huyton, Lancashire, the son of Edith Mary and William Reginald Harrison, a cotton broker. He was educated at Liverpool College. 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. 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. 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. He won his first Tony Award for his appearance at the Shubert Theatre as Henry VIII in Maxwell Anderson's play Anne of a Thousand Days and international superstardom (and a second Tony) for his portrayal of Henry Higgins in the musical My Fair Lady, where he appeared opposite Julie Andrews. 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". Nevertheless, "Talk to the Animals", which Harrison performed in Doctor Dolittle, won the Academy Award for Best Original Song in 1967. 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. Personal life Harrison was married six times. In 1942, he divorced his first wife, Colette Thomas, and married actress Lilli Palmer the next year; they later appeared together in numerous plays and films, including The Four Poster. 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. Harrison's involvement in the scandal by waiting several hours before calling a doctor and police briefly damaged his career and his contract with Fox was ended by mutual consent. Harrison and Palmer divorced in 1957. In 1957, Harrison married the actress Kay Kendall. Kendall died of myeloid leukaemia in 1959. Terence Rattigan's 1973 play In Praise of Love was written about the end of this marriage, and Harrison appeared 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."  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. In 1980, despite his having married twice since their divorce, Roberts made a final attempt to win Harrison back, which proved to be futile; she committed suicide that same year. Harrison then married Elizabeth Rees-Williams, divorcing in 1975, and finally in 1978, Mercia Tinker, who would become his sixth and final wife. 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. Rex's younger son Carey Harrison is a playwright and social activist. Having retired from films after 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. 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 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 1989/90, he appeared on Broadway in The Circle by W. Somerset Maugham, opposite Glynis Johns, Stewart Granger, and Roma Downey.[ The production opened at Duke University for a three-week run followed by performances in Baltimore and Boston before opening 14 November 1989 on Broadway. 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 a short time before. The stage production in which he was appearing at the time, The Circle, came to an end upon his death.[ He was cremated and some of his ashes were scattered in Portofino and the rest were scattered at his second wife Lilli Palmer's grave at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California, in the Commemoration section, Map 1, Lot 4066, Space 2. Links: The Book: https://amzn.to/2HrXUUS The Podcast on iTunes: https://apple.co/2HGtPQZ The Podcast on Anchor: https://anchor.fm/celebrity-archaeology-podcast The podcast on Google Play: http://celebrityarchaeologypodcast.com/gpm The site: http://CelebrityArchaeology.com