Rex Harrison

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Rex Harrison
Rex Harrison Allan Warren.jpg
Harrison at his home in London in 1976, by Allan Warren
Reginald Carey Harrison

(1908-03-05)5 March 1908
Huyton, Liverpool, Lancashire, England
Died2 June 1990(1990-06-02) (aged 82)
Resting placeAshes scattered in Portofino and Forest Lawn Memorial Park
Education Liverpool College
Years active1930–1990
  • Noel Margery Colette-Thomas
    (m. 1934;div. 1942)
  • (m. 1943;div. 1957)
  • (m. 1957;died 1959)
  • (m. 1962;div. 1971)
  • Elizabeth Rees-Williams
    (m. 1971;div. 1975)
  • Mercia Tinker
    (m. 1979)
Relatives Cathryn Harrison (granddaughter)

Sir Reginald Carey "Rex" Harrison (5 March 1908 – 2 June 1990) was an English actor. Harrison began his career on the stage in 1924. He made his West End debut in 1936 appearing in the Terence Rattigan play French Without Tears , in what was his breakthrough role. He won his first Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play for his performance as Henry VIII in the Broadway play Anne of the Thousand Days in 1949. He returned to Broadway portraying Professor Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady (1956) where he won the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical.


In addition to his stage career, Harrison also appeared in numerous films. His first starring role was opposite Vivien Leigh in the romantic comedy Storm in a Teacup (1937). Receiving critical acclaim for his performance in Major Barbara (1941), which was shot in London during the Blitz, his roles since then included Blithe Spirit (1945), Anna and the King of Siam (1946), The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), Cleopatra (1963), My Fair Lady (1964), reprising his stage role as Henry Higgins which earned him the Academy Award for Best Actor, and the titular character in Doctor Dolittle (1967).

In 1975, Harrison released his first autobiography. In June 1989, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II. He was married six times and had two sons: Noel and Carey Harrison. He continued working in stage productions until shortly before his death from pancreatic cancer in June 1990 at the age of 82. His second autobiography, A Damned Serious Business: My Life in Comedy, was published posthumously in 1991.

Early life

Reginald Carey Harrison was born on 5 March 1908 at Derry House in Huyton,Liverpool, Lancashire, [1] the son of Edith Mary (née Carey) and William Reginald Harrison, a cotton broker. [2] From the age of 10 he went by the name “Rex”, which he adopted for himself. [3] He was the youngest of three children and had two older sisters, Edith Marjorie Harrison (1900-1976) and Sylvia Sackville, Countess De La Warr, DBE (1903-1992). [4] [5] He was educated at Birkdale preparatory school and Liverpool College. [3] After a bout of childhood measles, Harrison lost most of the sight in his left eye. [3] He showed an early desire to become an actor, with regular appearances in school plays, and visits to the Liverpool Playhouse. [3]

Stage career

Harrison first appeared on stage in 1924 in Thirty Minutes in a Street at the Liverpool Playhouse, when he was 16 years old. He remained there, playing small parts, until 1927 when he joined a touring production of Charley's Aunt. Six years of touring and repertory followed. He achieved critical acclaim for Heroes Don't Care in 1936. His West End debut in the same year was in Terence Rattigan's French Without Tears which proved to be his breakthrough stage role as a leading light comedian. [3]

His acting career was interrupted by World War II, during which he served in the Royal Air Force (1942–1944), reaching the rank of Flight Lieutenant. [6]

Harrison as Professor Henry Higgins alongside Julie Andrews as Eliza Doolittle in the musical My Fair Lady Julie Andrews Rex Harrison My Fair Lady.JPG
Harrison as Professor Henry Higgins alongside Julie Andrews as Eliza Doolittle in the musical My Fair Lady

He alternated appearances in London and New York in such plays as Bell, Book and Candle (1950), Venus Observed , The Cocktail Party , The Kingfisher and The Love of Four Colonels , which he also directed. [7] He won his first Tony Award for his appearance at the Shubert Theatre as Henry VIII in Maxwell Anderson's play Anne of the Thousand Days and international superstardom (and a second Tony) for his portrayal of Henry Higgins in the 1956 stage musical My Fair Lady , where he appeared opposite Julie Andrews.

Later appearances included a 1984 appearance at the Haymarket Theatre with Claudette Colbert in Frederick Lonsdale's Aren't We All? , and one on Broadway at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre presented by Douglas Urbanski, at the Haymarket in J. M. Barrie's The Admirable Crichton with Edward Fox. He returned as Henry Higgins in the revival of My Fair Lady directed by Patrick Garland in 1981.

Having retired from films after A Time to Die in 1983, Harrison continued to act on Broadway and the West End until the end of his life, despite suffering from glaucoma, painful teeth, and a failing memory. [8] Later roles included Julius Caesar in Caesar and Cleopatra , and General Burgoyne in a Los Angeles production of The Devil's Disciple . He was nominated for a third Tony Award in 1984 for his performance as Captain Shotover in the revival of George Bernard Shaw's Heartbreak House . He followed with two successful pairings with Claudette Colbert, The Kingfisher in 1985 and Aren't We All? in 1986. In 1989, he appeared with Edward Fox in The Admirable Crichton in London. In 1989/90, he appeared on Broadway in The Circle by W. Somerset Maugham, opposite Glynis Johns, Stewart Granger, and Roma Downey. [9] The production opened at Duke University for a three-week run followed by performances in Baltimore and Boston before opening 14 November 1989 on Broadway. [10] [11]

Film career

Harrison's film debut was in The Great Game (1930) and he had a bit part in The School for Scandal (1930).

He had support roles in Get Your Man (1934), Leave It to Blanche (1934), and All at Sea (1935), and a better part in Men Are Not Gods (1936) as a reporter in love with Miriam Hopkins; this was the first time Harrison worked for Alexander Korda.

Leading man

Harrison's first starring role was in the romantic comedy Storm in a Teacup (1937), opposite Vivien Leigh, for Korda. [12] He starred in School for Husbands (1937) then reteamed with Leigh in St. Martin's Lane (1938).

Harrison had a key support role in The Citadel (1938) for MGM and starred in a comedy for Korda, Over the Moon (1939) alongside Merle Oberon. He starred in some thrillers: The Silent Battle (1939), Ten Days in Paris (1940) and Night Train to Munich (1940), the latter directed by Carol Reed and co starring Margaret Lockwood.

Harrison played Adolphus in Major Barbara (1941)—filmed in London during The Blitz of 1940, a role for which he received critical acclaim, and a success at the British box office. He was then absent from screens due to war service (1942–1944). [6]

Harrison returned to movies with the lead in Blithe Spirit (1945), from the play by Noël Coward and directed by David Lean. Coward described him as "The best light comedy actor in the world—except for me." [13]

Harrison appeared opposite Anna Neagle in I Live in Grosvenor Square (1945) which was another big hit. Also popular was The Rake's Progress (1946), directed by Sidney Gilliat.

20th Century Fox

Harrison received an offer from 20th Century Fox to star in Anna and the King of Siam (1946) in Hollywood. Harrison signed a long term contract with Fox.

Anna was popular, as was The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947) with Gene Tierney and The Foxes of Harrow (1947) with Maureen O'Hara. Escape (1949) reunited Harrison with Joseph L. Mankiewicz who had made Ghost and Mrs Muir.

Return to England

Back in England he appeared in The Long Dark Hall (1951) opposite his then wife Lila Palmer. They co-starred in an adaptation of The Four Poster (1952).

In Hollywood he made his first action film, the medieval epic King Richard and the Crusaders (1954) playing Saladin.

In England Harrison was in The Constant Husband (1955) for Sidney Gilliat and British Lion. It was a hit at the box office.


Harrison was offered top billing in MGM's The Reluctant Debutante (1958) alongside his wife Kay Kendall.

He co-starred opposite Doris Day in Midnight Lace (1960) and Rita Hayworth in The Happy Thieves (1961).

Harrison as Julius Caesar in Cleopatra (1963) for which he was nominated for an Academy Award 1963 Cleopatra trailer screenshot (34).jpg
Harrison as Julius Caesar in Cleopatra (1963) for which he was nominated for an Academy Award

Harrison received an offer from Joseph L. Mankiewicz to play Julius Caesar in the 20th Century Fox epic Cleopatra (1963).

In 1964 Harrison reprised his 1956 stage performance as Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady , for which he won an Oscar for Best Actor.

He was one of several stars in the popular The Yellow Rolls-Royce (1964), and played the Pope opposite Charlton Heston in Fox's The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965), for Carol Reed.

Harrison starred in 1967's Doctor Dolittle . At the height of his box office fame after the success of My Fair Lady, Harrison proved a temperamental force during production, demanding auditions for prospective composers after musical playwright Leslie Bricusse was contracted [14] and demanding to have his singing recorded live during shooting, only to agree to have it re-recorded in post-production. [15] He also disrupted production with incidents with his wife, Rachel Roberts and deliberate misbehavior, such as when he intentionally moved his yacht in front of cameras during shooting in St. Lucia and refused to move it out of sight due to contract disputes. [16] Harrison was at one point temporarily replaced by Christopher Plummer, until he agreed to be more cooperative. [17] Harrison was not by any objective standards a singer (the talking on pitch style he used in My Fair Lady was adopted by many other classically trained actors with limited vocal ranges); the music was written to allow for long periods of recitative, or "speaking to the music". Nevertheless, "Talk to the Animals", which Harrison performed in Doctor Dolittle, won the Academy Award for Best Original Song in 1967.

Harrison reunited with Mankiewicz in The Honey Pot (1967), a modern adaptation of Ben Jonson's play Volpone . Two of his co-stars, Maggie Smith and Cliff Robertson, were to become lifelong friends. Both spoke at his New York City memorial at the Little Church Around the Corner when Harrison died in 1990.

Harrison made two more films for 20th Century Fox, both expensive play adaptations that failed at the box office: A Flea in Her Ear (1968), and Staircase (1969). [18]

Later film career

After a break from screen acting, Harrison appeared in The Prince and The Pauper (1977) and a Hindi film Shalimar alongside Indian Bollywood stars Dharmendra and Zeenat Aman. He had small roles in Ashanti (1979), The Fifth Musketeer (1979) and A Time to Die (shot 1979), his last film.

Personal life

Alexander Walker wrote: "in looks and temperament, Rex went back to the Elizabethans. They would have called him 'a man of passionate parts'. His physique and looks were far more striking once middle age had literally stretched too smooth and callow a youthful face into a long, saturnine physiognomy, whose hooded eyes and wide mouth had satyr-like associations for some people." [19]

Harrison was married six times. In 1942, he divorced his first wife, Noel Margery Colette Thomas, and married actress Lilli Palmer the next year; they later appeared together in numerous plays and films, including The Four Poster . [20] Whilst married to Palmer, he built a villa at Portofino, San Genesio, where over the years he hosted showbiz royalty including Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud and real ex-royalty in the Duke of Windsor and his wife.

In 1947, while married to Palmer, Harrison began an affair with actress Carole Landis. Landis took her own life in 1948 after spending the evening with Harrison. [21] Harrison's involvement in the scandal by waiting several hours before calling a doctor and police [22] briefly damaged his career and his contract with Fox was ended by mutual consent. [23]

In 1955, Harrison starred opposite Kay Kendall in The Constant Husband , and they had an affair. [24] When he learned that Kendall had been diagnosed with myeloid leukaemia, he and Palmer agreed to divorce so that he could marry Kendall and provide for her care. [25] Harrison and Palmer divorced in 1957 and he married Kendall the same year. Kendall died of myeloid leukaemia in 1959. [26] Terence Rattigan's 1973 play In Praise of Love was written about the end of this marriage, and Harrison appeared in the New York production playing the character based on himself. Rattigan was said to be "intensely disappointed and frustrated" by Harrison's performance, as "Harrison refused to play the outwardly boorish parts of the character and instead played him as charming throughout, signalling to the audience from the start that he knew the truth about [the] illness." [27] Critics however were quite pleased with the performance and although it did not have a long run, it was yet another of Harrison's well-plotted naturalistic performances.

He was subsequently married to Welsh actress Rachel Roberts from 1962 to 1971. In 1980, despite his having married twice since their divorce, Roberts made a final attempt to win Harrison back, which proved to be futile; she took her own life that same year. [28] Harrison then married Elizabeth Rees-Williams, divorcing in 1975; finally, in 1978, he married Mercia Tinker, his sixth and final wife. [29]

Harrison's eldest son Noel Harrison became an Olympic skier, singer and occasional actor; he toured in several productions including My Fair Lady in his father's award-winning role; Noel died suddenly of a heart attack on 19 October 2013 at age 79. Rex's younger son Carey Harrison is a playwright and social activist.

Harrison's sister Sylvia was married to the 1st Earl of Kilmuir (better known to history as Sir David Maxwell Fyfe), a lawyer, Conservative politician and judge who was successively the lead British prosecutor at Nuremberg, Home Secretary and Lord Chancellor (head of the English judiciary); after his death she married another Cabinet minister, the 9th Earl De La Warr.

Chronology of Harrison's six marriages:


Harrison owned properties in London, New York City and Portofino, Italy. His villa in Portofino was named San Genesio after the patron saint of actors. [30]


Harrison died from the effects of pancreatic cancer at his home in Manhattan, New York City, on 2 June 1990 at the age of 82. He had only been diagnosed with the disease a short time before. The stage production in which he was appearing at the time, The Circle, came to an end upon his death. [31]

His body was cremated, some of his ashes being subsequently scattered in Portofino, and the rest being scattered at his second wife Lilli Palmer's grave at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California, in the Commemoration section, Map 1, Lot 4066, Space 2. [32]

Harrison's second autobiography, A Damned Serious Business: My Life in Comedy, was published posthumously in 1991.



1930 The Great Game George
The School for Scandal Bit PartUncredited
1934 Get Your Man Tom Jakes
Leave It to Blanche Ronnie
1935 All at Sea Aubrey Bellingham
1936 Men Are Not Gods Tommy Stapleton
1937 Storm in a Teacup Frank Burdon
School for Husbands Leonard Drummond
1938 Sidewalks of London ,Harley Prentissaka St. Martin's Lane
The Citadel Dr. Frederick Lawford
1939 Over the Moon Dr. Freddie Jarvis
The Silent Battle Jacques Sauvin
1940 Ten Days in Paris Bob Stevens
Night Train to Munich Gus Bennett / "Dickie Randall"
1941 Major Barbara Adolphus Cusins
1945 Blithe Spirit Charles Condomine
I Live in Grosvenor Square Major David Bruce
Journey Together GuestUncredited
The Rake's Progress Vivian Kenway
1946 Anna and the King of Siam King Mongkut
1947 The Ghost and Mrs. Muir Captain Daniel Gregg
The Foxes of Harrow Stephen Fox
1948 Escape Matt Denant
Unfaithfully Yours Sir Alfred De Carter
1951 The Long Dark Hall Arthur Groome
1952 The Four Poster John Edwards
1953 Main Street to Broadway Himself
1954 King Richard and the Crusaders Emir Hderim Sultan Saladin
1955 The Constant Husband William Egerton
1958 The Reluctant Debutante Jimmy Broadbent
1960 Midnight Lace Anthony "Tony" Preston
1961 The Happy Thieves Jimmy Bourne
1963 Cleopatra Julius Caesar
1964 My Fair Lady Professor Henry Higgins
The Yellow Rolls-Royce Lord Charles Frinton – The Marquess of Frinton
1965 The Agony and the Ecstasy Pope Julius II
1967 The Honey Pot Cecil Sheridan Fox
Doctor Dolittle Dr. John Dolittle
1968 A Flea in Her Ear Victor Chandebisse / Poche
1969 Staircase Charles Dyer
1977 Crossed Swords The Duke of Norfolk
1978 Shalimar Sir John Locksley
1979 Ashanti Brian Walker
The Fifth Musketeer Colbert
1982 A Time to Die Van Osten


1952 Omnibus Henry VIII Episode: The Trial of Anne Boleyn
1953 The United States Steel Hour Raymond DabneyEpisode: The Man in Possession
1957 DuPont Show of the Month Mr. SirEpisode: Crescendo
1960 Dow Hour of Great Mysteries Cyril PaxtonEpisode: The Dachet Diamonds
1971–1973 Play of the Month Mikhail Platonov, schoolmaster
Don Quixote
2 episodes
1974Rex Harrison Presents Stories of LoveHost, himselfPilot-Television film
1983The KingfisherCecilTelevision film
1985Heartbreak HouseCaptain ShotoverTelevision film
1986 Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna Grand Duke Cyril Romanov Television film, (final film role)


Date [33] ProductionRoleVenue
4–25 March 1936Sweet AloesTubbs Barrow
6 November 1936 French Without Tears Alan Howard
8 December 1948 – 8 October 1949 Anne of the Thousand Days Henry
14 November 1950 – 2 June 1951 Bell, Book and Candle Shepherd Henderson
13 February – 26 April 1952 Venus Observed Hereward
15 January – 16 May 1953 The Love of Four Colonels The Man
15 March 1956 – 29 September 1962 My Fair Lady Henry Higgins
8 December 1959 – 20 February 1960The Fighting CockThe General
28 March – 28 April 1973The Living MaskHenry IV
10 December 1974 – 31 May 1975 In Praise of Love Sebastian Cruttwell
1976Monsieur Perichon's TravelsEugène Labiche & Edouard Martin
24 February – 5 March 1977 Caesar and Cleopatra Julius Caesar
6 December 1978 – 13 May 1979The KingfisherCecil
18 August – 29 November 1981 My Fair Lady Henry Higgins
7 December 1983 – 5 February 1984 Heartbreak House Captain Shotover
29 April – 21 July 1985 Aren't We All? Lord Grenham
20 November 1989 – 20 May 1990 The Circle Lord Porteous


1951The Private Files of Rex SaundersMain Role
1952 Philip Morris Playhouse Episode: The Gioconda Smile [34]
1952 Theatre Guild on the Air Episode: An Ideal Husband [35]
1953Star Playhouse No Time for Comedy [36]
1953Star Playhouse Twentieth Century [37]

Honours and legacy

On 17 June 1989, Harrison was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace. [38]

Rex Harrison has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, one at 6906 Hollywood Boulevard for his contribution to films, and the other at 6380 Hollywood Boulevard for his contribution to television. Harrison is also a member of the American Theater Hall of Fame. He was inducted in 1979. [39]

YearAssociationCategoryNominated workResultRef.
1963 Academy Award Best Actor Cleopatra Nominated [40]
1964 My Fair Lady Won [41]
1965 BAFTA Award Best Actor Nominated [42]
1963 Golden Globe Award Best Actor - Motion Picture Drama Cleopatra Nominated [43]
1964 Best Actor - Motion Picture Musical or Comedy My Fair Lady Won [44]
1966 Best Actor - Motion Picture Drama The Agony and the Ecstasy Nominated [45]
World Film Favorite - Male Nominated
1968 Best Actor - Motion Picture Musical or Comedy Doctor Dolittle Nominated [46]
1949 Tony Awards Best Actor in a Play Anne of a Thousand Days Won
1956 Best Actor in a Musical My Fair Lady Won
1984 Best Actor in a Play Heartbreak House Nominated


Seth MacFarlane, creator of the animated series Family Guy , modelled the voice of the character Stewie Griffin after Harrison following seeing him in the film adaptation of My Fair Lady . [47] [48]

Ex-CIA chief of disguise Jonna Mendez stated in 2019 that a mask of Harrison was used by multiple CIA agents for covert work. The moulds of his face were larger and so could fit over a smaller agents face. The molds were made from aluminium and bought from Hollywood film facilities. She mentioned that his likeness was "taking part in a lot of operations". [49] According to Mendez, Rex Harrison's aluminium facial props mold was used as a baseline for over-the-head masks that the agency would create and use operationally. The masks came in small, medium and large sizes, with Rex's mold becoming the agency's standard "large" size. Subsequently, many undercover operatives' real identities were disguised by masks bearing Rex's facial features. [49]

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Further reading