Childhood & Early Life
Harrison was born on 5th March 1908 at Derry House in Huyton, Lancashire, to Mrs. Edith Mary and Mr. William Reginald Harrison who was a cotton broker.
He was educated at Liverpool College.
After a bout of childhood measles, Harrison lost most of the sight in his left eye, which on one occasion caused some on-stage difficulty.
He first appeared on the stage in 1924 at the age of 18 in Liverpool.
He served as Flight Lieutenant in Royal Air Force during the WWII. During this period his acting career was stalled. However, thereafter he acted in various stage productions until his death in 1990.
First breakthrough in his career came with a role in ‘French Without Tears’ at the West End of London.
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Harrison debuted through the film ‘The Great Game’ in 1930. After this film, he continued to give successful films like ‘The Citadel’ (released in 1938), ‘Night Train to Munich’ (released in 1940) and ‘Major Barbara’ (released in 1941).
His role in the 1945 released film ‘Blithe Spirit’ was very much appreciated. He attained international fame when he portrayed the King in ‘Anna and the King of Siam’ released in 1946. It was his first American film.
The year 1947 was fruitful for Harrison as he acted in two successful films ‘The Ghost and Mrs. Muir’ and ‘The Foxes of Harrow’.
Along with the films he continued to act in plays in London and New York. He acted in plays such as ‘Bell, Book and Candle’, ‘Venus Observed’, ‘The Cocktail Party’ and ‘The Kingfisher’. He acted as well as directed a play named ‘The Love of Four Colonels’.
He won his first Tony Award for his role of Henry VIII in a play ‘Anne of the Thousand Days’ in 1949.
He bagged second Tony award for his portrayal of Henry Higgins in the film ‘My Fair Lady’ in 1963.
He starred in the 1968 comedy film ‘The Honey Pot’, a modern adaptation of play ‘Volpone’. This film was a commercial success. However, instead of continuing in the comedy arena he was interested in dramatic roles such as his portrayal of Julius Caesar in ‘Cleopatra’ (released in 1963), for which he was nominated for an Academy Award and as Pope Julius II in ‘The Agony and the Ecstasy’ (released in 1965). He also starred in ‘Doctor Do little’.
He portrayed an aging homosexual man in 1969 film ‘Staircase’. This film was a commercial failure.
In 1973, he appeared in ‘Henry IV’ which was English version of an Italian Play by Pirandello.
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In 1985 he acted in revived play ‘Aren’t we all?’ which was opened for limited shows. The same year, he won third Tony award nomination for his role of Shotover in George Bernard Shaw’s play ‘Heartbreak House’.
He also appeared in a supporting role in a Hindi film ‘Shalimar’ alongside Indian star Dharmendra in 1978. The film was released in both Hindi and English version. Both the versions were not very well received.
At the height of his career, Harrison used to interrupt during production process.
In 1982, after the movie ‘A Time to Die’ he retired from films. However, his heart was in plays and dramas and hence continued to act on stage until the end of his life, despite having old age related problems.
In 1989-90, he appeared on Broadway Theater in the play ‘The Circle’. This was his last stage appearance.
He released his first biography, ‘Rex: An Autobiography’ in 1975. His second autobiography, ‘A Damned Serious Business: My Life in Comedy’ was published posthumously in 1991.
Harrison tasted commercial and critical screen success for the first time in 1963 through his role of Julies Cesar in ‘Cleopatra’. It was an American epic historical drama film chronicling the struggles of Cleopatra VII, the young Queen of Egypt, to resist the royal ambitions of Rome. ‘Cleopatra’ won four Academy Awards, and was nominated for five more, including ‘Best Picture’.
He attained international superstardom in true sense through his portrayal of Professor Henry Higgins in the 1964 film version of ‘My Fair Lady’. This film was based on George Bernard Shaw's play ‘Pygmalion’. This film was critically acclaimed as well as a commercial success. This film won eight Oscars in various categories including one for Harrison in ‘Best Actor’ category. This film also won ‘Golden Globe Award’ in ‘Best Motion Picture’, ‘Best Director’ and ‘Best Actor’ categories. He also won Tony award for this role. Harrison had declined to pre-record his songs for the film and thus could not lip-sync to a playback during filming. Production team decided to use a wireless microphone, the first such use during filming of a motion picture. The sound department earned an Academy Award for these efforts. The film was restored in 1994 by James C. Katz.
Awards & Achievements
On 25 July 1989, Harrison was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II.
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Rex Harrison has two stars on the ‘Hollywood Walk of Fame’ for his contribution to films, and television. Harrison was inducted in the American Theater Hall of Fame in 1979.
‘My Fair Lady’ brought most of the awards for Harrison including Academy Award, Golden Globe Award and Tony Award.
Personal Life & Legacy
Harrison got married six times in his life.
In 1942, he divorced his first wife, Colette Thomas, and married actress Lilli Palmer.
Harrison had a son, Noel, from his first marriage. Noel became an Olympic skier, singer and an actor. He acted in many plays including ‘My Fair Lady’ in his father's award-winning role. He died suddenly of a heart attack on 19th October 2013 at age 79.
Harrison had a son from his marriage with Lilli Palmer. His name is Carey Harrison, who is a playwright and social activist.
In 1947, while married to Palmer, Harrison began an affair with actress Carole Landis. Landis committed suicide in 1948 after spending the evening with him. It is believed that Landis was still alive when he visited her. However he did not call for medical help or police. His involvement in this scandal had a negative impact on his career.
In 1957, Harrison married actress Kay Kendall. Kendall died of leukemia in 1959.
He subsequently married to Welsh-born actress Rachel Roberts in 1962 and divorced her in 1971. After a final failed attempt to patch up with Harrison, Roberts committed suicide in 1980.
Harrison married Elizabeth Rees-Williams in 1971 and divorced in 1975. In 1978, finally he married Mercia Tinker, who was his sixth wife.
Harrison owned properties in London, New York City and Portofino, Italy.
Harrison died of pancreatic cancer at his home in Manhattan on 2nd June 1990 at the age of 82.