Harrison, (Sir) Rex

views updated Jun 11 2018


Nationality: British. Born: Reginald Carey Harrison in Huyton, Lancashire, 5 March 1908. Education: Attended Birkdale Preparatory School; Liverpool College. Military Service: Royal Air Force, 1942–45: flight lieutenant. Family: Married 1) Marjorie Noel Collette Thomas, 1934 (divorced 1942), son: the actor Noel; 2) the actress Lilli Palmer, 1942 (divorced 1957), son: Carey; 3) the actress Kay Kendall, 1957 (died 1959); 4) the actress Rachel Roberts, 1962 (divorced 1971); 5) Elizabeth Harris, 1971 (divorced); 6) Mercia Mildred Tinker, 1978. Career: 1924–27—member of Liverpool Playhouse; 1927—toured in Charley's Aunt; 1931—West End debut in Getting George Married; 1931–35—alternated touring with London stage appearances; 1936—Broadway debut in Sweet Aloes; contract with Alexander Korda, began making films for Denham Studios; 1945—seven-year contract with 20th Century-Fox; 1950s—worked principally in theater; 1956–58—in My Fair Lady on Broadway; continued stage work through 1980s. Awards: Best Actor Academy Award and Best Actor, New York Film Critics, for My Fair Lady, 1964; Order of Merit (Italy), for The Agony and the Ecstasy, 1965; knighted, June 1989. Died: Of pancreatic cancer, in New York City, 2 June 1990.

Films as Actor:


The School for Scandal (Elvey) (bit role); The Great Game (Raymond) (as George)


Get Your Man (George King) (as Tom Jakes); Leave It to Blanche (Harold Young) (as Ronnie)


All at Sea (Kimmins) (as Aubrey Bellingham)


Men Are Not Gods (Reisch) (as Tommy Stapleton)


Storm in a Teacup (Saville and Dalrymple) (as Frank Burdon); School for Husbands (Marton) (as Leonard Drummond); Over the Moon (Freeland and William K. Howard) (as Dr. Freddie Jarvis)


St. Martin's Lane (Sidewalks of London) (Whelan) (as Harley Prentiss); The Citadel (King Vidor) (as Dr. Lawford)


The Silent Battle (Continental Express) (Herbert Mason) (as Jacques Sauvin); Ten Days in Paris (Missing Ten Days; Spy in the Pantry) (Whelan) (as Bob Stevens)


Night Train to Munich (Night Train) (Reed) (as Gus Bennett)


Major Barbara (Pascal) (as Adolphus Cusins)


Journey Together (John Boulting) (bit role); I Live in Grosvenor Square (A Yank in London) (Wilcox) (as Major David Bruce); Blithe Spirit (Lean) (as Charles Condomine); The Rake's Progress (Notorious Gentleman) (Gilliat) (as Vivian Kenway)


Anna and the King of Siam (Cromwell) (as King Mongkut)


The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (Joseph L. Mankiewicz) (as the Ghost of Capt. Daniel Gregg); The Foxes of Harrow (Stahl) (as Steven Fox)


Escape (Joseph L. Mankiewicz) (as Matt Denant); Unfaithfully Yours (Preston Sturges) (as Sir Alfred de Carter)


The Long Dark Hall (Bushell and Beck) (as Arthur Groome)


The Four Poster (Reis) (as John)


The Charm of Life (Grémillon and Kast—short, English-language version of Les Charmes de l'existence) (as narrator); Main Street to Broadway (Garnett) (as guest)


King Richard and the Crusaders (David Butler) (as Emir Ilderim/Saladin); The Constant Husband (Gilliat) (as Charles Hathaway)


This Is London (Jago—short) (as narrator)


The Reluctant Debutante (Minnelli) (as Jimmy Broadbent)


Midnight Lace (David Miller) (as Tony Preston)


The Happy Thieves (Once a Thief) (George Marshall) (as Jimmy Bourne)


Cleopatra (Joseph L. Mankiewicz) (as Julius Caesar)


My Fair Lady (Cukor) (as Professor Henry Higgins); "England" ep. of The Yellow Rolls-Royce (Asquith) (as Marquess of Frinton)


The Agony and the Ecstasy (Reed) (as Pope Julius II); Flashes Festivals (Gérard—short)


The Honey Pot (It Comes Up Murder) (Joseph L. Mankiewicz) (as Cecil Fox); Dr. Doolittle (Fleischer) (title role)


A Flea in Her Ear (Charon) (as Victor Chandebisse/Poche)


Staircase (Donen) (as Charlie Dyer)


The Adventures of Don Quixote (Rakoff—for TV) (title role)


The Gentleman Tramp (Patterson)


Behind the Iron Mask (The Fifth Musketeer) (Annakin) (as Colbert)


Shalimar (Deadly Thief) (Shah); Crossed Swords (The Prince and the Pauper) (Fleischer) (as Duke of Norfolk)


Ashanti (Fleischer) (as Brian Walker)


The Kingfisher (James Cellan Jones—for TV); A Time to Die (Seven Graves for Rogan) (Cimber) (as Von Osten)


Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna (Chomsky—for TV) (as Grand Duke Cyril Romanov); Heartbreak House (Page—for TV)


By HARRISON: books—

Rex: An Autobiography, New York, 1975.

If Love Be Love (poetry anthology), editor, London, 1979.

A Damned Serious Business, London, 1990.

By HARRISON: article—

Interview in Plays and Players, March 1974.

On HARRISON: books—

Harrison, Elizabeth, Love, Honour, and Dismay, London, 1976.

Eyles, Allen, Rex Harrison, London, 1985.

Moseley, Roy, with Philip and Martin Masheter, Rex Harrison: The First Biography, London, 1987; as Rex Harrison: A Biography, New York, 1987.

Wapshott, Nicholas, Rex Harrison: A Biography, New York, 1992.

Walker, Alexander, Fatal Charm: The Life of Rex Harrison, New York, 1993.

On HARRISON: articles—

Behlmer, Rudy, "Rex Harrison," in Films in Review (New York), December 1965.

Bradshaw, J., "Oozing Charm from Every Pore," in Esquire (New York), July 1972.

Ecran (Paris), November 1979.

Current Biography 1986, New York, 1986.

Obituary in Variety (New York), 6 June 1990.

Ferguson, K., obituary in Film Monthly (Berkhamsted, England), August 1990.

* * *

Although Rex Harrison was such a commanding presence on screen, and seemed to have been a star for an incalculable number of years, in reality he did not make his mark until the 1940s. Given co-starring or featured roles in British films of the 1930s, Harrison always appeared to be overshadowed or out-acted by his colleagues, particularly Vivien Leigh in Storm in a Teacup and St. Martin's Lane, two films that should have helped the actor's career. As the King in Anna and the King of Siam, and as the jealous symphony conductor in Unfaithfully Yours, Harrison at last gained a substantial audience, but gossip concerning the suicide of Carole Landis, with whom he had had an affair, effectively ended his first Hollywood career.

This tragedy, rather than hurting Harrison, helped in the long run, for it allowed him to refine his acting on stage, and to recreate the image of the suave, urbane Englishman suggested by some of the actor's early films, such as Blithe Spirit and The Rake's Progress, but never fully developed. Harrison's portrayal of Professor Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, of course, epitomized the new characterization, and it was further developed in The Yellow Rolls-Royce. Nevertheless, one should not categorize Harrison. Cleopatra gave him, out of everyone in the cast, an opportunity to dominate the scene as Caesar, and to rise above the banal script and production (and his first Oscar nomination). Yet again, in The Agony and the Ecstasy, as Pope Julius II, he was able to overcome the poor production, while Staircase presented him with a rare opportunity for "camp" comedy.

Following Staircase until his death in 1990, Harrison appearing only infrequently in films and only in supporting roles, including two swashbuckling failures, Behind the Iron Mask and Crossed Swords. He found more success on the stage in this period, however, including another go at Caesar in George Bernard Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra, touring revivals of My Fair Lady, and up to a month before his death a lead role on Broadway in W. Somerset Maugham's The Circle. Over a 65-year career, Harrison had established himself as a top-notch performer of sophisticated roles on stage and on screen, and had secured a permanent place in the film pantheon as Professor Henry Higgins.

—Anthony Slide, updated by David E. Salamie