Harris was born in Limerick: his siblings included Patrick Ivan (1929–2008), Noel William Michael (1932–1996), Diarmid (Dermot, 1939–1985), and William George Harris (1942–2007). His niece is actress Annabelle Wallis.
He was schooled by the Jesuits at Crescent College: a talented rugby player, he appeared on several Munster Junior and Senior Cup teams for Crescent, and played for Garryowen. Harris' athletic career was cut short when he caught tuberculosis in his teens. He remained an ardent fan of the Munster Rugby and Young Munster teams until his death, attending many of their matches, and there are numerous stories of japes at rugby matches with actors and fellow rugby fans Peter O'Toole and Richard Burton.
After recovering from tuberculosis, Harris moved to Britain, wanting to become a director. He could not find any suitable training courses, and enrolled in the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA) to learn acting. He had failed an audition at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) and had been rejected by the Central School of Speech and Drama, because they felt he was too old at 24. While still a student, he rented the tiny "off-West End" Irving Theatre, and there directed his own production of Clifford Odets' play Winter Journey (The Country Girl). This show was a critical success, but was a financial failure, and he lost all his savings in this venture.
As a result, Harris ended up temporarily homeless, sleeping in a coal cellar for six weeks. Accounts of his contemporaries from his hometown of Limerick, however, indicate that he may have exaggerated these stories somewhat and that he actually stayed with a few aunts, sleeping on their living room sofas. After completing his studies at the Academy, he joined Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop. He began getting roles in West End theatre productions, starting with The Quare Fellow in 1956, a transfer from the Theatre Workshop.He spent nearly a decade in obscurity, learning his profession on stages throughout the UK.
Harris made his film debut in 1959 in the film Alive and Kicking, and played the lead role in The Ginger Man in the West End in 1959. His second film was shot in Ireland, a small role as a freedom fighter in Shake Hands with the Devil (1959), supporting James Cagney. It was directed by Michael Anderson who offered Harris a role in his next movie, The Wreck of the Mary Deare (1959), shot in Hollywood. Harris hated it so much that he refused to return there for several years, turning down the role of Commodus in The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964).
Harris played another IRA freedom fighter in A Terrible Beauty (1960), alongside Robert Mitchum. He had a memorable bit part in the film The Guns of Navarone (1961) as a Royal Australian Air Force pilot who reports that blowing up the "bloody guns" of the island of Navarone is impossible by an air raid. He had a larger part in The Long and the Short and the Tall (1961), playing a British soldier; Harris clashed with Laurence Harvey during filming.
For his role in the film Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), despite being virtually unknown to film audiences, Harris reportedly insisted on third billing, behind Trevor Howard and Marlon Brando. He did not get along at all with Brando during filming.
Harris' first starring role was in the film This Sporting Life (1963), as a bitter young coal miner, Frank Machin, who becomes an acclaimed rugby league football player. It was based on the novel by David Storey and directed by Lindsay Anderson. For his role, Harris won Best Actor in 1963 at the Cannes Film Festival and an Academy Award nomination.
Harris followed this with a leading role in the Italian film, Michelangelo Antonioni's Il Deserto Rosso (Red Desert, 1964). This won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.
Harris received an offer to support Kirk Douglas in a British war film, The Heroes of Telemark (1965), directed by Anthony Mann, playing a Norwegian resistance leader. He then went to Hollywood to support Charlton Heston in Sam Peckinpah's Major Dundee (1965), as an Irish immigrant who became a Confederate cavalryman during the American Civil War.
He played Cain in John Huston's film The Bible: In the Beginning... (1966). More successful at the box office was Hawaii (1966), which Harris starred alongside Julie Andrews and Max Von Sydow. As a change of pace, he was the romantic lead in a Doris Day spy spoof comedy, Caprice (1967), directed by Frank Tashlin.
Harris next performed the role of King Arthur in the film adaptation of the musical play Camelot (1967). He continued to appear on stage in this role for many years, including a successful Broadway run in 1981–82.
In The Molly Maguires (1970), he played James McParland, the detective who infiltrates the title organisation, headed by Sean Connery. It was a box office flop. However A Man Called Horse (1970), with Harris in the title role, an 1825 English aristocrat who is captured by Indians, was a major success.
He played the title role in the film Cromwell in 1970 opposite Alec Guinness as King Charles I of England. That year British exhibitors voted him the 9th most popular star at the UK box office.
Harris recorded several albums of music, one of which, A Tramp Shining, included the seven-minute hit song "MacArthur Park" (Harris insisted on singing the lyric as "MacArthur's Park"). This song was written by Jimmy Webb, and it reached number 2 on the American Billboard Hot 100 chart. It also topped several music sales charts in Europe during the summer of 1968. "MacArthur Park" sold over one million copies, and was awarded a gold disc. A second album, also consisting entirely of music composed by Webb, The Yard Went on Forever, was released in 1969.
In 1971 Harris starred in a BBC TV film adaptation "The Snow Goose", from a screenplay by Paul Gallico. It won a Golden Globe for Best Movie made for TV and was nominated for both a BAFTA and an Emmy. and was shown in the U.S. as part of the Hallmark Hall of Fame.
He made his directorial debut with Bloomfield (1971) and starred in Man in the Wilderness (1971) a revisionist Western based on the Hugh Glass story.
Harris starred in a Western for Samuel Fuller, Riata, which stopped production several weeks into filming. The project was re-assembled with a new director and cast, except for Harris, who returned: The Deadly Trackers (1973).
In 1973, Harris published a book of poetry, I, In the Membership of My Days, which was later reissued in part in an audio LP format, augmented by self-penned songs such as "I Don't Know."
Harris starred in two thrillers: 99 and 44/100% Dead (1974), with John Frankenheimer, and Juggernaut (1974), for Richard Lester. In Echoes of a Summer (1976) he played the father of a young girl with a terminal illness. He had a cameo as Richard the Lionheart in Robin and Marian (1976), for Lester, then was in The Return of a Man Called Horse (1976).
Harris led the all-star cast in the train disaster film, The Cassandra Crossing (1976). He played Gulliver in the part-animated Gulliver's Travels (1977) and was reunited with Michael Anderson in Orca (1977), battling a killer whale.
He appeared in another action film, Golden Rendezvous (1977), based on a novel by Alistair Maclean, shot in South Africa. Harris was sued by the film's producer for his drinking; Harris counter-sued for defamation and the matter settled out of court.
Golden Rendezvous was a flop but The Wild Geese (1978), where Harris played one of several mercenaries, was a big success outside America. Ravagers (1979) was more action, set in a post-apocalyptic world. Game for Vultures (1979) was set in Rhodesia and shot in South Africa.
In Hollywood he appeared in a comedy, The Last Word (1979), then supported Bo Derek in Tarzan, the Ape Man (1981).
He made a film in Canada, Your Ticket Is No Longer Valid (1981), a drama about impotence. He followed it with another Canadian movie, Highpoint, a movie so bad it was not released for several years.
Harris' career was revived by his success on stage in Camelot.
His film work remained unimpressive: Triumphs of a Man Called Horse (1983), Martin's Day (1985), Strike Commando 2 (1988), King of the Wind (1990) and Mack the Knife (1990) plus the TV film version of Maigret, opposite Barbara Shelley. This indicated declining popularity which Harris told his biographer, Michael Feeney Callan, he was "utterly reconciled to".
In June 1989, director Jim Sheridan cast Harris in the lead role in The Field, written by the esteemed Irish playwright John B. Keane. The lead role of "Bull" McCabe was to be played by former Abbey Theatre actor Ray McAnally. When McAnally died suddenly on 15 June 1989, Harris was offered the McCabe role. The Field was released in 1990 and earned Harris his second Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. He lost to Jeremy Irons for Reversal of Fortune.
In 1992, Harris had a supporting role in the film Patriot Games, as a fundraiser for the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA). He had good roles in Unforgiven (1992), Wrestling Ernest Hemingway (1993), and Silent Tongue (1994). He played the title role in Abraham (1994) and had the lead in Cry, the Beloved Country (1995).
A lifelong supporter of Jesuit education principles, Harris established a friendship with University of Scranton President Rev. J. A. Panuska and raised funds for a scholarship for Irish students established in honour of his brother and manager, Dermot, who had died the previous year of a heart attack. He chaired acting workshops and cast the university's production of Julius Caesar in November 1987.
Over several years in the late 1980s, Harris worked with Irish author Michael Feeney Callan on his biography, which was published by Sidgwick & Jackson in 1990.
Harris appeared in two films which won the Academy Award for Best Picture. First, as the gunfighter "English Bob" in the Western Unforgiven (1992); second, as the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius in Ridley Scott's Gladiator (2000). He also played a lead role alongside James Earl Jones in the Darrell Roodt film adaptation of Cry, the Beloved Country (1995). In 1999, Harris starred in the film To Walk with Lions. After Gladiator, Harris played the supporting role of Albus Dumbledore in the first two of the Harry Potter films, and as Abbé Faria in Kevin Reynolds' film adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo (2002). The film Kaena: The Prophecy (2003) was dedicated to him posthumously as he had voiced the character Opaz before his death.
Concerning his role as Dumbledore, Harris had stated that he did not intend to take the part at first, since he knew that his health was in decline, but he relented and accepted it because his 11-year-old granddaughter threatened never to speak to him again if he did not take it. In an interview with the Toronto Star in 2001, Harris expressed his concern that his association with the Harry Potter films would outshine the rest of his career. He explained, "Because, you see, I don't just want to be remembered for being in those bloody films, and I'm afraid that's what's going to happen to me."
Harris also made part of the Bible TV movie project filmed as a cinema production for the TV, a project produced by Lux Vide Italy with the collaboration of Radio Televisione Italiana RAI and Channel 5 of France, and premiered in the United States in the channel TNT in the 1990s. He portrayed the main and title character in the production Abraham (1993) as well as Saint John of Patmos in the 2000 TV movie production Apocalypse.
In 1957, Harris married Elizabeth Rees-Williams, daughter of David Rees-Williams, 1st Baron Ogmore. They had three children: actor Jared Harris, who was once married to Emilia Fox; actor Jamie Harris; and director Damian Harris, who was once married to Annabel Brooks and was once the partner of Peta Wilson. Harris and Rees-Williams divorced in 1969, after which Elizabeth married Rex Harrison. Harris' second marriage was to the American actress Ann Turkel. In 1982, they divorced.
Harris was a member of the Roman Catholic Knights of Malta, and was also dubbed a knight by the Queen of Denmark in 1985.
Harris paid £75,000 for William Burges' Tower House in Holland Park in 1968, after discovering that the American entertainer Liberace had arranged to buy the house but not yet put down a deposit. Harris employed the original decorators, Campbell Smith & Company Ltd. to carry out extensive restoration work on the interior.
Harris was a vocal supporter of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) from 1973 until 1984. In January 1984 remarks he made on the previous month's Harrods bombing caused great controversy after which he disavowed his support for the PIRA.
At the height of his stardom in the 1960s and early 1970s Harris was almost as well known for his hellraiser lifestyle and heavy drinking as he was for his acting career. He was a longtime alcoholic until he became a teetotaler in 1981, although he did resume drinking Guinness a decade later. He gave up drugs after almost dying from a cocaine overdose in 1978.
Harris was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease in August 2002, reportedly after being hospitalised with pneumonia. He died at University College Hospital in Fitzrovia, London on 25 October 2002, aged 72. He had fallen into a coma in his final three days.
Harris was a lifelong friend of actor Peter O'Toole, and his family reportedly hoped that O'Toole would replace Harris as Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. There were, however, worries of insuring O'Toole for the six remaining films in the series. Harris was ultimately replaced as Dumbledore by the Irish-born actor Michael Gambon.
Harris' body was cremated, and his ashes were scattered in the Bahamas, where he had owned a home.
On 30 September 2006, Manuel Di Lucia, of Kilkee, County Clare, a longtime friend, organised the placement in Kilkee of a bronze life-size statue of Richard Harris. It shows Harris at the age of eighteen playing racquetball. The sculptor was Seamus Connolly and the work was unveiled by Russell Crowe. Harris was an accomplished racquetball player, winning the Tivoli Cup in Kilkee four years in a row from 1948 to 1951, a record unsurpassed to this day.
Another life-size statue of Richard Harris, as King Arthur from his film, Camelot, has been erected in Bedford Row, in the centre of his home town of Limerick. The sculptor of this statue was the Irish sculptor Jim Connolly, a graduate of the Limerick School of Art and Design.
At the 2009 BAFTAs, Mickey Rourke dedicated his Best Actor award to Harris, calling him a "good friend and great actor".
In 2013, actor Zeb Moore founded the annual Richard Harris International Film Festival.1963 – Nominated – Best Actor in a Leading Role – This Sporting Life
1990 – Nominated – Best Actor in a Leading Role – The Field
1968 – Won – Best Motion Picture Actor – Musical/Comedy – Camelot
1991 – Nominated – Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture – Drama – The Field
1963 – Won – Best Actor Award – "This Sporting Life"
1982 – Nominated – Worst Actor – Tarzan, the Ape Man
– Won – Best Spoken Word Recording for Jonathan Livingston Seagull – 1973
– Nominated – Album of the Year for A Tramp Shining – 1968
– Nominated – Contemporary Pop Male Vocalist for MacArthur Park – 1968
– Nominated – Best Spoken Word, Documentary or Drama Recording for The Prophet – 1975
1971 Won – Best Actor for Cromwell
Camelot (Motion Picture Soundtrack) (1967)
A Tramp Shining (1968)
The Yard Went On Forever (1968)
The Richard Harris Love Album (1970)
My Boy (1971)
His Greatest Performances (1973)
Jonathan Livingston Seagull (1973)
The Prophet (1974) (music by Arif Mardin, based on The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran)
I, in the Membership of My Days (1974)
Gulliver Travels (1977)
Camelot (Original 1982 London Cast recording) (1982)
Mack The Knife (Original Soundtrack) (1989)
Little Tramp (1992) Musical
The Apocalypse (2004) the story of John the Apostle on Island named Patmos
"Here in My Heart (Theme from This Sporting Life)" (1963)
"How to Handle a Woman (from Camelot)" (1968)
"MacArthur Park" (1968)
"Didn't We?" (1968)
"The Yard Went On Forever" (1968)
"The Hive" (1969)
"One of the Nicer Things" (1969)
"Fill the World With Love" (1969)
"Ballad of A Man Called Horse" (1970)
"Morning of the Mourning for Another Kennedy" (1970)
"Go to the Mirror" (1971)
"My Boy" (1971)
"Turning Back the Pages" (1972)
"Half of Every Dream" (1972)
"Trilogy (Love, Marriage, Children)" (1974)
"The Last Castle (Theme from Echoes of a Summer)" (1976)
"Lilliput (Theme from Gulliver's Travels)" (1977)
Camelot (Original 1982 London Cast Recording) (1988)
Mack the Knife (Motion Picture Soundtrack) (1989)
Tommy (studio recording) (1990)
Camelot (Motion Picture Soundtrack) (1993)
A Tramp Shining (1993)
The Prophet (1995)
The Webb Sessions 1968–1969 (1996)
MacArthur Park (1997)
Slides/My Boy (2 CD Set) (2005)
My Boy (2006)
Man of Words Man of Music The Anthology 1968–1974 (2008)