WHEN KNIGHTHOOD WAS IN FLOWER
The extraordinary life
of Sir Rex Harrison
by Nick Zegarac
“In many ways he did live for the moments when he could show himself through a part… and he always seems to me to be more alive in those moments than I knew him to be off stage.”
– Carey Harrison
Indeed, this statement by Rex Harrison’s younger son is most telling to the outsider admiring the actor’s formidable body of work. For in Harrison there is much more than the lion’s share of being deviously deceptive; an almost chameleon-like ability to blend, blur and even obliterate the line between man and myth. When he is on the screen in My Fair Lady he is Professor Henry Higgins; in Cleopatra – Julius Caesar. We believe him implicitly when he sells us a bill of goods that he can talk to the animals in Doctor Doolittle and proves as much by warbling inaudible grunts and moans to a cavalcade of real and imagined beasts.
Rex Harrison lived a life of extremes. In his youth, his outward persona tottered between that of a wellborn cultured jetsetter who, in reality, had little clout or money to his name. As his stature as an actor grew, his personal life became unsteady and insecure. Married six times, yet desperately claiming the constant love of one woman, Harrison was an electrifying mass of contradictions. Though he created a myriad of indelibly complex characters on both the stage and big screen, arguably the most compelling part he ever played was his own life.
NO ORDINARY MAN – the journey begins…
Reginald Carey Harrison was born to privilege in Heighton, England on March 5, 1908. In truth, there was very little about his youth that foreshadowed greatness. Reginald’s father William was a flirtatious and handsome sport who preferred the social graces to a steadfast work ethic. If William was a lax blueprint for Reginald’s upbringing, his mother, Edith more than amply balanced her husband’s wayward nature with a rigid set of finite values that she instilled in her son and Reginald’s two older sisters, Sylvia and Marjorie.
Still, with young Reginald’s health often teetering between virulent bouts of influenza and phenomena, Edith was a doting and loving matriarch whose pampering led to Reginald becoming a confirmed mama’s boy. After a particularly nasty plague of measles, the recovering Reginald was taken to the local live theater to get his mind off his woes. Basking in the afterglow of footlights and thundering applause, the young Reginald returned home to begin practicing his own bows in his living room. The die had been cast. Reginald Harrison was going to become an actor.
EARLY BREAKS AND HEARTACHES
“Tomorrow is a thief of pleasure.” – Rex Harrison
At the age of ten, Reginald traded his conventional upper English Christian first name for ‘Rex’ – with its ancient connotations of kingly inheritance and infinitely more manageable placement on the bill of a theater marquee and program. On November 11, 1918, Rex made things more official with a move to Sefton Park and enrollment in their dramatic society. As expected, though paved with good intensions, this road was hardly smooth or glamorous.
At 14, Rex made his debut in the society’s production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and very quickly came to the realization that there was quite a bit more to acting than taking bows. To be truly great he would have to succumb to expert tutelage. For Rex, the very idea seemed distasteful. “(He was) very rebellious,” son Noel has said of his father, “He would never conform to what people expected of him to do.” Still, it was a means to an end – and so the pupil began his exercises.
By 1925, Rex was accepted under theater director William Armstrong into the Liverpool Repertory Company as their ‘actor in residence.’ But the 17 year old was confined mostly to odd jobs backstage. A bright spot for Rex materialized in a cameo for the company in Thirty Minutes in A Street. Despite the briefness of his appearance, Rex managed to catch the eye of a few critics who thought him a worth addition to the cast.
Unfortunately, ‘Liverpool’ did not pay the bills. Even so, Rex had already managed to adapt his stage persona to life; developing into a randy rake about town, the sort of good time Charlie who caroused a lot with other people’s money and squired the ladies with effortless charm and sophistication. For Rex, these were the happiest of times. His exploits, however, did come with minor fallout; they earned the actor the moniker ‘Sexy Rexy.’
By 1927, Rex Harrison had managed a minor coup; he had become a prolific commodity – a man of envy to most others his own age and a real charmer with the fairer sex. Yet, nothing short of perfecting his craft would satisfy the egotistical actor. And so, in September of that year, Rex moved to London where he began a 12 week tour in Charlie’s Aunt. His part garnered rave reviews in the press.
Unfortunately for Rex, he followed up this performance for the Cardiff Repertory Company with an inconsequential bit in The Ninth Moon – a terrific flop. For the next six years, Rex toured with Cardiff all over the English countryside – appearing in a different play nearly every month and a different town every week. He created dozens of indelible characters and became a fine actor besides.
But in 1933, Rex fell for a glamorous model; Noel Marjorie Colette Thomas. This immediate attraction came with obvious perks. First, Colette (as she was known to friends) came from a well connected and affluent family. As a social climber, Rex aspired to this sort of classis snobbery that Collette had been born into. She also had the spirit and temperament that were well matched to Rex’s ego. But most important of all, Colette knew the sort of people that could help advance Rex’s career.
Colette’s father was no fool. He adamantly disapproved of his daughter’s match to Rex. Despite these strenuousness objections, Colette became Mrs. Rex Harrison in January 1934. It was the beginning of a great love affair that would gradually dissolve into a troubled marriage.
BED OF ROSES/BED OF THORNS
During their formative married years, Rex continued to find steady work as an actor on the stage. He had small roles in The Great Game (1930), School for Scandal (1930) and Leave It To Blanche (1934). If, at least artistically, the parts were increasing in stature, Rex’s pay for the work remained meager at best – a bone of contention that often strained his home life with Colette who had been accustom to more than the actor’s current salary could provide.
Despite these tensions, Rex and Colette had a son, Noel on January 29, 1935. The following year, Rex’s professional prospects began to improve when at the age of 28 he was cast to great effect in Terrance Ratigan’s French Without Tears (1936). The play would go on to become the most widely acclaimed production in the history of London’s prestigious West End.
At roughly this same juncture the movies decided to capitalize on Rex’s popularity. In Britain he made his filmic debut with Storm in A Teacup (1937), opposite a young Vivien Leigh. Rex’s reviews were solid. Based on his performance as Frank Burdon – a small time reporter who is put in charge of a Scottish newspaper – director King Vidor offered Rex a major role in MGM’s The Citadel (1938) – costarring Robert Donat. At long last, Hollywood would hear of the young actor that Britain had already hailed as their ‘most popular.’ Sadly, The Citadel was not the smash hit that either Vidor or Rex had hoped for.
With the advent of World War II looming on the horizon, Rex returned to England to enlist in the Armed Forces. He was rejected from active service due to poor eyesight. Years before, a bout of measles had nearly blinded him in his left eye. Disillusioned and disappointed, Rex opted to return to the London stage rather than accept a contract from MGM. But on September 3, 1939, the fear of regular bombings from Hitler’s army officially closed most of London’s film and theatrical establishments. Rex was out of a job.
During the early part of the war years, Rex toured the countryside in plays as he had done in his youth for the Cardiff Company. If on the surface, this move appeared to be a retread or two steps back in the wrong direction there was one great difference this time around. Rex was a seasoned professional, embraced by the public and critics alike.
His wife, Colette now worked for the Red Cross. Her separation from Rex afforded him the lifestyle of a bachelor – enough time for Rex to become smitten with 25 year old Lily Palmer; a multifaceted novelist, painter and stage performer. The two began a torrid affair that continued as Rex separated from Colette in the spring of 1940. Imagining his new romance at the crux of historically great theatrical husband and wife couplings like Lunt and Fontanne, Rex and Lily set up house in Chelsea.
Rex appeared as Adolphus Cusins in the filmic version of George Bernard Shaw’s stage success, Major Barbara (1941) opposite gifted actress, Wendy Hiller, and for the first time in his career took astute direction from the 84 year old playwright. Though Shaw considered Rex’s interpretation the definitive of his masterwork, the film was not a commercial success and so it was back to repertory work and meager salaries.
By now, these stalemates in his professional career were becoming too much to bear. Thorny and determined as ever to distinguish himself during the war years, Rex appealed his rejection into the Armed Services and was rewarded for his obstinate perseverance with an appointment to the RAF where his duties included guiding British planes safely back to their launching pads after aerial combat missions. During his tenure, Rex also decided to make an honest woman of Lily. The two were wed on January 25, 1943 and for two years thereafter, Rex and Lily enjoyed what appeared to be an ideal union. Their son, Carey Alfred was born on February 19, 1944, the same year Rex was honorably discharged from active service.
At war’s end, Rex and Lily appeared together in The Rake’s Progress (1945), a film that caught the eye of producer Darryl F. Zanuck. Zanuck offered Rex a seven year Fox studio contract at $4,500 per week. The couple moved to Hollywood, renting a suite at the fashionable Beverly Hills Hotel.
For his debut project, Rex was cast opposite Irene Dunne in Anna and the King of Siam (1946). Rex excelled as the aggressive and curmudgeonly potentate, though initially he had had misgivings about the part – even going so far as to hire an acting coach to ease him into the character. Never one to take direction well, Rex and his director, John Cromwell did not get on. In fact, on several occasions noted in the Fox memo archive, Cromwell urged Zanuck to reconsider and/or recast the part. To his credit, Zanuck quietly ignored these complaints, affording Rex his first major Hollywood success.
Rex’s follow up was even more suited to his temperament; as the wily, gruff, yet sustainable romantic, Daniel Gregg in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947). In the film, Rex is a deceased sea captain who carries on a forty year platonic affair with a flesh and blood woman played by the sultry Gene Tierney. Unfortunately for Rex, old habits died hard. He constantly clashed with Mankiewicz over his performance, quietly cementing his reputation around the backlot and the rest of Hollywood as being a ‘difficult actor.’ Despite these backstage clashes, the film was a colossal smash hit, elevating his stature and importance in the film making community.
Living high and mighty, Rex indulged his every whim off camera, beginning a rather sordid extramarital affair with Fox contract player, Carole Landis. But the Hollywood of his generation was not that illustrious Babylon of decadence that it has become today. Under the rigid conservatism of a studio system, actors were expected to maintain a relatively untarnished surface sheen and to behave properly at all times while working long hours six out of seven days a week. To many, Rex’s devil-may-care attitude in general and very public affair with Landis in particular seemed a glaring and spiteful tweak to these artistic sensibilities. Landis, however, was no stranger to bad press.
By the age of 28, Carole Landis had been a divorcee four times removed with several botched suicide attempts feathered in for the tabloid fodder. For studio chief, Darryl F. Zanuck, she was increasingly becoming a bad risk at the box office and her star had slowly begun to decline. To Rex however, Landis embodied the sort of free-wheeling excitement he sorely lacked at home. Hoping that their affair would eventually lead to marriage, Landis pursued the relationship long after Rex’s lust had begun to cool.
Meanwhile, 40 year old Rex began work at Fox on Preston Sturges’ Unfaithfully Yours (1948) – a film about a philharmonic conductor who plots diabolical and blood-thirsty revenges for his wife that he suspects is having an affair on him. Throughout the shoot, Rex was distracted by his turbulent relationship with Landis. Eventually, he openly admitted that he had no intension of marrying her and Landis – in a state of complete rage and shock – made her final suicide attempt. She died of an overdose on July 4th, 1948 – at approximately the same time as Unfaithfully Yours hit theater screens. The net result for Rex was both a professional flop and a very public scandal.
In support of the negative press, Fox canceled Rex’s contract. He retreated, though not in shame, with Lily to New York City for more than a decade’s worth of solid performing on the stage; beginning with a turn as Henry VIII in Maxwell Anderson’s Anne of the Thousand Days (1949). The play ran for 288 performances and earned Rex his first Tony Award. He followed this success with Bell Book and Candle in 1950, costarring with Lily to great acclaim. The couple next appeared as a pair of newlyweds in the classy film comedy, The Four Poster (1951).
But the strain of constantly being together had worn thin the last remnants of their eroding relationship. Lily retired from performing and Rex went on to make The Constant Husband (1954); an ironic tale about a man with six wives.
HITTING THE HIGH NOTES
“Exhilaration is that feeling you get just after a great idea hits you, and just before you realize what’s wrong with it.” – Rex Harrison
To say that My Fair Lady came to Rex Harrison at a time when any other actor of his generation might not have hoped for as much is an understatement. Based on George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, Frederick Lowe and Alan Jay Lerner’s musical about an English elocutionist’s growing affections for his cockney protégée was both a financially reward and an artistic blessing – the much needed shot in the arm that Rex required at precisely that point in his career.
The stage version’s debut at the Mark Ellinger Theater on March 15, 1956 was an unabashedly sentimental and personal triumph, and an overwhelming critical success. To many sitting in the audience, the part of Professor Henry Higgins seemed more Rex Harrison than Rex Harrison himself. Indeed, as an actor’s actor, Rex was in his element. He seemed to take dastardly delight in the sharp tongue lashings Higgins gave Eliza (Julie Andrews on the stage). There was a meter, a distinct tempo and cadence all his own, a seamless blending of the man and mythology of his character. The role earned the 48 year old actor his second Tony Award.
While starring to sell out crowds, Rex moved in with Kay Kendall at a home they rented on Long Island. It was the beginning of the end of their mutual fascination for all things effortless and playful with one another. Unbeknownst to Kendall, she had been diagnosed with inoperable leukemia; a fate confided to Rex by her private physician. Distraught, and still married to Lily, Rex relayed the tragic news to his wife who – with characteristic nonchalance instructed her husband to divorce her and marry Kay for as long as she had left to live; further vowing to return to Rex once the inevitable had occurred.
On June 23, 1957 Rex married Kay and MGM fashioned a star vehicle for the couple to star in – The Reluctant Debutante (1958) the one bright filmic spot on Rex’s otherwise inconsequential Hollywood career. But on September 6, 1959, Kendall died at the age of 32 from her ailment, leaving Rex devastated and alone for the first time in his life.
Unable to draw any sort of clarity or meaning from the loss, Rex retreated to London; accepting a standard actor’s salary to star in Chekov’s Platonov at the Royal Court Theater. The play was a hit, winning the prestigious Evening Standard Award. It also marked the beginning of Rex’s most complicated and troubled relationship; to 33 yr old Rachel Roberts.
In the meantime, 20th Century-Fox approached Rex with the prospect of co-starring in their mega-budgeted spectacle, Cleopatra (1963). Though Rex agreed to appear in the film as Caesar – turning in yet another powerful performance – his presence in the film was all but eclipsed and overshadowed by the scandalous affair between costars, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. The most expensive movie ever made to date, not even Cleopatra’s $24 million dollar box office gross could offset the film’s epic budget. For years afterward, it would remain on the Fox’s ledgers as the film that nearly sank the studio. If the release of Cleopatra did nothing to further Rex’s career, it equally did nothing to hamper it either.
In fact, Rex was at the cusp of screen immortality when Warner Brother executive chief, Jack L. Warner hired him to reprise his role in the filmic version of My Fair Lady (1964). Reportedly, upon getting the offer, Rex was to have thrown the telephone high into the air and loudly declare “By George, I’ve got it!” Indeed, he had. My Fair Lady was an unstoppable movie experience; winning nine Oscars, including one justly deserved for Rex’s fine performance.
Unfortunately for Rex, his relationship with Rachel Roberts had already begun to crumble. A manic depressive with dependencies on pills and alcohol, Roberts quickly became the unmanageable portion of Rex’s life. Throwing himself into work on his latest project, The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965), Rex excelled as the unrelentingly severe Pope Julius II who commissions Michelangelo (Charlton Heston) to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. “Rex was in fact a kind of a thorny guy,” Heston relayed years later in reflection on their costarring, “There you are. But he was so good, it was worth the trouble it took.”
A compelling character study, the film was not a huge success for Fox, and it was followed by two more ill received projects. The first, The Honey Pot (1967) cast Rex as a man faking his own death to quietly observe who among his closest friends would turn on him for their share of his inheritance; the second - Doctor Doolittle (1967) proved an elephantine musical with only mediocre songs.
In a last ditch effort to save his relationship with Rachel, Rex appeared to minor effect opposite Roberts in A Flea in Her Ear (1968). A year later, Rex would leave Rachel and costar in his most bizarre film to date; Staircase (1969) playing half of a homosexual couple opposite his old Cleopatra costar, Richard Burton.
“Whatever it is that makes a person charming, it needs to remain a mystery. Once the charmer is aware of the mannerism or characteristic that others find charming, it ceases to be a mannerism and becomes an affectation.”
The last acts of Rex Harrison’s life were hardly what one might have expected. In 1971, he married again for the fifth time – to Elizabeth Harris; a 35 year old divorcee with three young children. But Rex was not a family man. Amidst a flurry of personal tensions, Rex managed to pen a well received memoir. For two years thereafter, he toured the country in six plays, including a one man show based on Shaw’s theater critiques.
Then, in 1977 while at a New Year’s celebration, Rex met Marcia Tinker who would become the sixth and final Mrs. Harrison. Despite severe blindness and the onset of age, Rex also embarked upon an ambitious roster of stage productions including Shaw’s Heartbreak House, The Kingfisher (costarring Claudette Colbert) and the 25th anniversary of My Fair Lady. “I’m at the age,” Harrison mused, “where I’ve got to prove I’m just as good as I never was.”
Yet, perhaps the greatest accolade of his final years came when at the age of 82 Rex received a knighthood from the Queen of England. The precedence of this remarkable appointment cannot be overstated. Until Rex’s time, no British subject who had been married more than once or had lived abroad would have been considered for such an honor. Still, when asked by a reporter if any special consideration had been afforded, Rex was his usual glib self.
That last curtain call came when Rex accepted an invitation to star on Broadway in The Circle (1989) with Glynis John and Stewart Granger. By now, he was nearly blind and gave his performance by pacing out the stage ahead of time. Six months into the run, Rex conceded that ill health precluded his continuation. On June 2, 1990, Rex Harrison died at the age of 82. At his own request his remains were scattered across the Mediterranean.
“There is always a struggle,” Rex once suggested in an interview, “…a striving for something bigger than yourself in all forms of art…and even if you don’t achieve greatness – even if you fail, which we all must – everything…is somehow connected with your attitude toward life; your deepest secret feelings.”
@2007 (all rights reserved).