In addition to his stage career, Harrison also appeared in numerous films, including Anna and the King of Siam (1946), The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), Cleopatra (1963), and played the title role of the English doctor who talks to animals, Doctor Dolittle (1967). In July 1989, Harrison was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II. In 1975, Harrison released his first autobiography. His second, A Damned Serious Business: My Life in Comedy, was published posthumously in 1991. Harrison 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.
Harrison was born at Derry House in Huyton, Lancashire, the son of Edith Mary (née Carey) and William Reginald Harrison, 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 in Liverpool. Harrison's acting career was interrupted during World War II while serving in the Royal Air Force, reaching the rank of Flight Lieutenant. He acted in various stage productions until 11 May 1990. He acted in the West End of London when he was young, appearing in the Terence Rattigan play French Without Tears, which proved to be his breakthrough role.
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. 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 musical My Fair Lady, where he appeared opposite Julie Andrews.
Later appearances included Pirandello's Henry IV, 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, cementing his association with the plays of George Bernard Shaw, which included a Tony nominated performance as Shotover in Heartbreak House, Julius Caesar in Caesar and Cleopatra, and General Burgoyne in a Los Angeles production of The Devil's Disciple.
Harrison's film debut was in The Great Game (1930), other notable early films include The Citadel (1938), Night Train to Munich (1940), Major Barbara (1941), Blithe Spirit (1945), Anna and the King of Siam (1946), The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), and The Foxes of Harrow (1947). He was best known for his portrayal of Professor Henry Higgins in the 1964 film version of My Fair Lady, based on the eponymous Broadway production (which in turn was based on George Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion), for which Harrison won a Best Actor Oscar.
He also starred in 1967's Doctor Dolittle. At the height of his box office clout after the success of My Fair Lady, Harrison proved a domineering and demanding force during production, demanding auditions for prospective composers after musical playwright Leslie Bricusse was contracted and demanding to have his singing recorded live during shooting, only to agree to have it rerecorded in post-production. He also disrupted production with incidents with his wife, Rachel Roberts and deliberate misbehaviour, such as when he deliberately moved his yacht in front of cameras during shooting in St. Lucia and refused to move it out of sight due to contract disputes. Harrison was at one point temporarily replaced by Christopher Plummer, until he agreed to be more cooperative.
He starred in the 1968 comedy The Honey Pot, 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 was not by any objective standards a singer (his talking on pitch style he used in My Fair Lady would be adopted by many other classically trained actors with limited vocal ranges); the music was usually written to allow for long periods of recitative, or "speaking to the music". Nevertheless, "Talk to the Animals", which Harrison performed in that film, won the Academy Award for Best Original Song in 1967.
Despite excelling in comedy (Noël Coward described him as "The best light comedy actor in the world—except for me."), he attracted favourable notices in dramatic roles such as his portrayal of Julius Caesar in Cleopatra (1963) and as Pope Julius II in The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965), opposite Charlton Heston as Michelangelo. He also acted in a Hindi film Shalimar alongside Indian Bollywood star Dharmendra as well as appearing as an aging homosexual man opposite Richard Burton as his lover in Staircase (1969).
Harrison was married six times. In 1942, he divorced his first wife, Colette Thomas, and married actress Lilli Palmer the next year; they later appeared together in numerous plays and films, including The Four Poster.
In 1947, while married to Palmer, Harrison began an affair with actress Carole Landis. Landis committed suicide in 1948 after spending the evening with Harrison. Harrison's involvement in the scandal by waiting several hours before calling a doctor and police briefly damaged his career and his contract with Fox was ended by mutual consent. Harrison and Palmer divorced in 1957.
In 1957, Harrison married the actress Kay Kendall. Kendall died of myeloid leukaemia in 1959. 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." 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-born 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 committed suicide that same year.
Harrison then married Elizabeth Rees-Williams, divorcing in 1975, and finally in 1978, Mercia Tinker, who would become his sixth and final wife. 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 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, Lord de la Warr.
Chronology of Harrison's six marriages:Colette Thomas, 1934–1942 (divorced); one son, the actor/singer Noel Harrison, (29 January 1934 – 19 October 2013)
Lilli Palmer, 1943–1957 (divorced); one son, the novelist/playwright Carey Harrison
Kay Kendall, 1957–1959 (her death)
Rachel Roberts, 1962–1971 (divorced)
Elizabeth Harris, 1971–1975 (divorced); three stepsons, Damian Harris, Jared Harris, and Jamie Harris
Mercia Tinker, 1978–1990 (his death)
Grandchildren:Granddaughters: Cathryn, Harriott, Chloe, Chiara, Rosie, Faith
Grandsons: Will, Simon, Sam
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.
Having retired from films after A Time to Die, 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. 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. 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.
Harrison died of pancreatic cancer at his home in Manhattan on 2 June 1990 at the age of 82. He had only been diagnosed with the disease for a short time. The stage production in which he was appearing at the time, The Circle, came to an end upon his death.
He was cremated and some of his ashes were scattered in Portofino and the rest were 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.
Harrison's second autobiography, A Damned Serious Business: My Life in Comedy (ISBN 0553073419), was published posthumously in 1991.
On 25 July 1989, Harrison was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace as an orchestra played the music of songs from My Fair Lady.
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.
Due to his association with the checked wool hat, which he wore both in the Broadway and film versions of My Fair Lady, that the style of headware was often named "The Rex Harrison."
Seth MacFarlane, creator of the animated series Family Guy, modeled the voice of the character Stewie Griffin after Harrison, after seeing him in the film adaptation of My Fair Lady.