KING RICHARD II
Richard Harris lost his Irish temper and came very close to seeing me lose my French/German temper.
Richard Burton had extended his tour of CAMELOT when his health broke down. Rather than cancelling, the promoter sent Burton a get-well card and replaced him. Burton had made the Broadway role of King Arthur his; but Richard Harris starred in the movie, probably because Burton’s drinking was getting out of hand. Harris was the logical choice to succeed Burton on the Camelot tour, especially since Harris was winning the fight to control his drinking problem and taming down his wild life.
This hiring became Harris’s security blanket. He took the show on tour many times. He even bought the touring set and costumes, works of beauty by the great designer, Desmond Healy. If things slowed down for Harris, there was always CAMELOT. Yul Brynner had been doing this for years with his KING AND I, as had Joel Grey with CABARET. Producer, promoter, director, hire the cast and the crew, and rent out the set and costumes. An actor’s dream. The last word on the production and the first count on the profits.
Minneapolis was one of the first stops after Harris replaced Burton. On the Orpheum playbills, it is Burton’s picture, not Harris. Ticket purchasers had a chance to get their money back before the tour hit town, but no one took up the offer.
Over the years, Harris brought the show back several times to the Orpheum, and I was lucky to have worked every one. At no time did Harris ever ‘phone in’ his performance. At every show Harris gave his all.
He was fun to work with. He liked kidding around with the crew. He kept many of the same road crew from tour to tour. He took pride in his working man’s roots.
During this times he was off the booze, something that had caused him trouble in the past. He also managed during this time to keep his famed temper in control. Except for once. And that time he came close to witnessing my temper.
It was during Arthur’s soliloquy to his sword, Excalibur, at the end of Act I, in which he hopes the attraction between his wife and his best friend goes away. Several of us hands were waiting by the fly rail waiting to go on stage and change over for Act II. I was in direct line of the second wing so I could watch Harris perform the soliloquy.
A spear carrier, stage lingo for an extra, a body in the crowd, a voice in the chorus, no lines of his own, no song of his own, entered the wing and went as far on stage as he could without being seen by the audience.
Harris started and then looked to the dark wing. What he usually spoke almost as a prayer, now was spoken with anger. He kept looking into the wing. The extra was actually speaking aloud the words as Harris spoke them. The audience could not hear him, and we standing off stage couldn’t hear him; but Harris could.
As the lights dimmed and the curtain closed, Harris turned, roared, and threw the sword at the actor, who saw it coming and ran out of the wing off the stage. The sword landed a couple of feet from hitting me.
The stage manager, a real pro, stopped Harris before he could get in his dressing room. Regardless of the fact she was talking to the star who was also her employer, she confronted him.
‘A sword, Richard! You threw a sword, Richard! You could have injured someone, Richard!’
‘Damn right,’ Harris argued, ‘I threw the bloody thing and I’m sorry I missed the bloody fool! He was mimicking my speech. I am sorry I couldn’t catch the bloody bastard and shove the bloody sword up his bloody arse.’ He stomped into his dressing room and the stage manager followed him, continuing to bawl him out.
At the Five Minute page, Richard came out of his dressing room and the extra was standing there. The young extra try to offer an apology. He was not only pleading for forgiveness, he was pleading to save his job, his career in theater. At first Harris started to walk away from him, but he looked at the stage manager and stood still and listened.
He said that he always marveled at the way Harris handled the soliloquy. He got so involved in listening and trying to learn how to act like Richard that he never realized he was actually speaking out loud. He begged forgiveness and promised it would never happen again.
Harris took a deep breath and looked upward. The extra looked at his feet. Finally Harris spoke. ‘Well, boyo,’ he said after taking his dramatic pause, ‘It takes a big man to apologize and admit his mistake. I’ll let it pass – this time. But if you ever…’
And as Richard walked past the fly rail where several of us were standing, he stopped and like a ‘big man’ offered his apology. ‘Gents,’ he said, ‘I am sorry for being so unprofessional and I am just glad none of you got hurt because of me losing my bloody Irish temper.’
We smiled and nodded. And if that sword had hit me, I thought to myself, Harris would have seen my French/German temper.
Luckily, even though a commandment of the stage, Thou shalt not screw around with another’s line, was broken, there was no damage done except to Excaliber. The sword required a gaff tape procedure to see it through the second act. The next morning it was sent up the hill to the Guthrie prop shop where the Guthrie prop artists performed their magic, and even found an acceptable understudy sword – just in case.
Fade Out, Act I
A few months ago, JCALBERTA, in his blog MY FAVORITE WESTERNS, (https://myfavoritewesterns.com/), a great blog filled with interesting facts and some fine art of Western movie posters, had a series of posts on Richard Harris westerns. I told him I worked Richard quite a few times and JC said that while he was a location set painter on UNFORGIVEN, he never got to meet any of the actors. I said I would post a few stories of working with Harris. Here’s the first.