By Chris Hughes
The mythical story of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table has manifested itself in many forms over the years. One of its most memorable incarnations was the 1960 stage musical, Camelot. The show gained prestige when it became known that John F. Kennedy, who took office as US President during its first Broadway run, was one of its greatest admirers. Such was his ultimate synonymity with it that his tenure is often referred to as the Camelot era.
When the production was to be adapted for cinema, the leading role of the idealistic monarch was coveted by many famous actors, but probably none more so than Limerick-born Richard Harris. The intense star of This Sporting Life decided to pull out all the stops to land the part he believed he was born to play.
At the time, the late performer had yet to be top-billed in a Hollywood film. He had however appeared in a number of major features supporting the likes of Marlon Brando, Kirk Douglas and Charlton Heston. Camelot, he felt, had the potential to elevate him to the status of a headliner. He was also drawn to the main character and loved the script of the play. He said: “The whole idea of Arthur and a politically changing world fascinated me. I was determined to get it.” He knew though that the producers were considering Richard Burton who had starred in the stage version with Julie Andrews.
Harris initiated his campaign by sending letters and cables to the producers offering his services. Reportedly, he also employed a man to walk along the Strand in London with a sandwich board which read: “Harris better than Burton, only Harris for Camelot.” Discovering that Vanessa Redgrave had been cast as Arthur’s bride, Guinevere, he sent a message to Jack Warner, head of Warner Brother Studios. It read: “Height of Vanessa Redgrave: 5 feet 11 inches. Richard Burton: 5 feet 10 inches. Richard Harris: 6 feet 2 inches.” When those tactics failed to invoke a response he realised he had to find a way to personally approach Joshua Logan who was to direct the movie. He was at that point comforted by the knowledge that Burton had been eliminated from the project owing to salary demands which Warner Brothers were not prepared to meet.
Jared Harris, his son, said that when his father found out that Logan was to attend a party in Palm Springs he paid a waiter to swap clothes with him. Upon hearing discussion about casting of the lead role in Camelot at the occasion, the would-be King Arthur said: “There’s only one person for the role and that’s Richard Harris.” Logan immediately recognised the true identity of the faux waiter standing before him who was so keen that he offered to fund his own screen test.
When Logan agreed, such was Harris’s enthusiasm that he enlisted the eminent director, Nicolas Roeg to film it. Harris said of Logan: “Rather than being besieged by any more telegrams he decided to test me.” That test so impressed Logan that it earned Harris the role that garnered him critical acclaim and a Golden Globe award.
Logan had not sought to cast Julie Andrews as Guinevere, always wanting Vanessa Redgrave to portray her. Harris was pleased that this was the case as he and Andrews hadn’t got along when the two worked together on the movie, Hawaii. Fortunately, he soon forged a strong affinity with his leading lady. Speaking of Redgrave at the premiere of Camelot, he said: “To make a picture as hard as this one, as long as this one, one has to have a rapport with your leading lady and I certainly had that with her.” Redgrave said of her co-star and his performance: “Only somebody who had a deep spirit like Richard could have given what he gave. Richard was hugely special with a generosity of spirit that’s rare at all times.”
The fact that Harris was to star in a musical and was not known as a singer did not discourage him. He said: “I guess I knew I could always sing. It wasn’t very difficult for me. The point was having to convince other people who were putting up fifteen million dollars based on your voice – so I sang. I wasn’t afraid of it. I think you have to believe you can do anything.” His vocal renditions were so well received that he was later asked by songwriter, Jimmy Webb to record an epic-length number inspired by the collapse of a relationship. The result, MacArthur Park, was a major hit followed by a string of successful albums. Camelot can therefore be said to have led to an alternate career for the actor as a vocalist.
Harris’s love for Camelot went beyond the film which opened in 1967. In later years he bought the rights to it, appearing in it on stage in England and America. Playing Arthur again allowed him to further explore the character. His stage performances took a different approach from the movie to the affair in the musical between Guinevere and the knight, Lancelot. He said: “I think in the picture there’s a tendency in me to be too introspective, too brooding in terms of losing Guinevere to Lancelot.” Of his later interpretation of Arthur, he explained: “He understands they didn’t desire it. He understands it was just an act of God.” He seemed constantly able to find new facets in a work that had always absorbed him.
There are two monuments to Richard Harris in his homeland which celebrate differing aspects of his life. A statue in Kilkee, County Clare depicts him as a young man playing racquetball. An accomplished player, he held the record as winner of the Tivoli Cup there four times in a row. Another in Limerick pays tribute to his craft. It appropriately displays him in the guise of King Arthur – the role that he won through dogged determination and triumphantly made his own.