Jared Harris on his father, Richard: ‘The conflict he experienced as an Irishman in London gave him a sense of purpose’

Richard Harris was known as a hell-raiser, but a new film about the actor looks beyond his image

It was in the late 1990s that Adrian Sibley first conceived of making a Richard Harris documentary. Back then, the brilliant Irish actor was in his early 70s, and best known for his defiant, broad-shouldered roles in such films as the 1963 kitchen-sink drama This Sporting Life and the violent 1970 western A Man Called Horse. But he also found himself beloved by a new generation of fans, thanks to his gentle, timeworn performance as Professor Albus Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Wary of hagiography, yet a keen storyteller, Harris agreed to do Sibley’s film under one condition.

“He said, ‘I’ll do it but only if I can lie half the time’,” explains Sibley, zooming from a family holiday in Italy. “He said, ‘I don’t want to have to tell the truth.’ He was a storyteller and he controlled how he was perceived. I think he felt the documentary might be an opportunity to explore his own life in a different, unpredictable way.”

Being back in the hotel suite he kept for 28 years was tough – they had a painting of him that looked like Rod Stewart

Harris died from Hodgkin’s disease in 2002 and the first version of Sibley’s film was never made. But the idea of a different, unpredictable film about this different, unpredictable actor never left him. In co-operation with Harris’s three sons – the director Damian and the actors Jamie and Jared – a documentary was conceived that would go beyond the hell-raising image that Richard had created for himself, presenting him as a far more mercurial and complex figure.

“The ‘hell-raiser’ question,” says Jared Harris from his home in LA, with a slight sigh. “Whenever I do interviews and they ask about my dad, they never get past that. He did it to himself because he promoted that image in newspapers to get column inches for the projects he was on. But I wanted to explode that particular myth, and get to who he really was. To be honest, he didn’t want you to figure him out. I remember one time we were having an argument and he said, ‘Don’t f**king psychoanalyse me! You’re not smart enough!’ He didn’t want the mystery discovered. What Adrian has done is examine the mystery, but also honour it. He hasn’t completely ripped that veil away.”


So while the finished film, The Ghost of Richard Harris, doesn’t shirk the wider aspects of Harris’s life – the drink, the drugs, the women, the barroom brawls – it also seeks to go deeper. Sibley has utilised previously unheard tapes of Harris (recorded by biographer Joe Jackson) in which he talks openly and honestly about his flaws and failings.

“I wanted it to feel like he was relevant and talking to you today,” says Sibley. “This voice from beyond the grave.” Coupled with family footage and deep archive material, Sibley has created an often contradictory portrait of this towering, powerful Limerick-born rugby player who was struck down by tuberculosis as a teenager and remade himself into one of the world’s finest film and stage actors, but also had parallel careers as a touring poet and raconteur. He was something of a singing star as well, thanks to his chart-topping performance of Jimmy Webb’s MacArthur Park in 1968.

“He’s definitely been underestimated,” says Sibley, who has previously directed acclaimed profiles of Bruce Robinson, Barry Humphries, Anthony Hopkins and Don McCullin. “Out of all the great actors on the British stage in the early 60s – Finney, Burton – I felt he was the one who had been forgotten. But no one wanted to make the film. Not the BBC or the BFI. They said, ‘Why Richard Harris now?’ They didn’t see that he’s our Brando. He’s as profound as that.”

One of the ways Sibley proves this in the film is by not including any celebrity interviewees, as he puts it, “blowing smoke up Richard’s derrière and calling him a Celtic king. Richard was a man but a flawed man.”

Instead, the interviewees – including Vanessa Redgrave, Russell Crowe, Stephen Rea, and director Jim Sheridan – reveal a man who could charm, frustrate or terrify. “There was a level of anger in him that never completely went away,” says Jared, while in the film Rea recalls working opposite Harris in a scene in the 1996 Irish gangster movie Trojan Eddie: “He’s telling a story about fighting someone and, as he’s playing the scene, he really took on the power of it. I realised that he was talking about me, that he was going to kill me.”

The film sets out to locate the source of the actor’s anger. “It was a mixture of several things,” says Sibley. “One was that Richard was an Irishman and running through his veins was the anger of many years of subjugation by the English.”

“The conflict he experienced as an Irishman,” says Jared, “in London at the beginning of his career, also gave him an energy and a sense of purpose. When he got to Hollywood, he needed to feel he was still in opposition to something. I think the same thing happened with Peter O’Toole and Richard Burton. They were tilting at windmills.”

Yet, as well as that anger, we see how Richard became a kind of surrogate father to many, including Sheridan and songwriter Jimmy Webb, both of whom are close to tears in the film as they recall their often emotionally intense relationship with the actor. “It’s a film about fathers and sons,” says Sibley. “Webb had a bad relationship with his dad so Richard became his dad. Yes, I had him crying – but I had so many people crying about Richard. He was a father figure to so many people – but his own sons, who were away at public school, missed out on that interaction.”

As a result, the film also proved emotionally difficult for those three sons to participate in, which Jared freely admits. Perhaps the hardest aspect, he says, was the opening scene of the documentary in which he returns to the suite at London’s Savoy Hotel that his father kept for 28 years. “Being back in that room was tough,” he says. “Not just because of the memories but also because they’d changed it around completely. They had this terrible painting of him on the wall that looked like Rod Stewart. It reminded me of the statues of him in Limerick and Kilkee. I suppose that was a motivating factor for being in the documentary: to give an accurate portrait of the man. Because the ones that exist out there are all terrible.”

Jared hasn’t seen the finished film yet; he’s waiting until its premiere at the Venice film festival this weekend. But the moment that had the most impact was hearing his dad talking about his outlook on life, and saying: “I absolutely believe the world is bad… it’s almost something that should never have happened. This miracle of life is kind of rubbish. Nothing works and we don’t like each other… It’s horrible.”

Jared wasn’t keen on me mentioning his relationship with Princess Margaret, but he had stormed the monarchy’s barricades

Jared says: “His worldview was that everybody is just out for themselves. But his closing sentiment is: ‘We know it’s a disaster but make the most of it. Don’t get distracted by these things. Live your life. Don’t pass the time. Live the time. Don’t waste it.’”

Not everything in the film met the three brothers’ approval. “We made the agreement that I would have final cut,” says Sibley. “Jared wasn’t too keen on me mentioning that Richard had a relationship with Princess Margaret, whereas I felt that was crucial. Because here was this Irishman, 10 years after being struck down with TB, who wasn’t even going to be an actor, and here he is storming the barricades of the monarchy, so to speak.”

Perhaps the most moving and revealing scene comes towards the end, when the brothers are sorting through their late father’s belongings in a storage facility in Stratford-upon-Avon and are confronted with a short piece of biographical writing that seems to offer an answer to questions the film has been asking. Another director might have placed this sequence at the beginning of the film, a puzzle to be solved. Sibley disagrees. “I didn’t want to do a predictable biography,” he says. “I had some people pushing for me to start with that sequence, do everything in chronological order, like it was Who Do You Think You Are? But there are some answers you want to leave until the end.”

Jared adds: “Even when you arrive at that point in the documentary, you realise it isn’t a definitive answer. I totally respect Adrian’s decision to do that. It’s why I was adamant about him having final cut. We knew Adrian was going to be truthful and respectful towards the man, but that he wasn’t going to sugarcoat anything. My main concern was that someone would take all of Adrian’s great work and then recut it as the story of Richard Harris hell-raising, drinking and screwing around.”

Sibley says: “I hope people come away from the film and realise that, like all of us, Richard Harris was never just one person. There isn’t a fixed answer about who he was. I always think of something Joe Strummer said towards the end of his life. Somebody asked him, ‘Joe, why are you worried about what people think of you now? You were the lead singer of the Clash.’ And Joe said, ‘Was I?’” – Guardian

The Ghost of Richard Harris premieres at Venice Film Festival on Sunday, September 4th